A Review:

High Seas

Board game by Douglas Setser and Nathan Wagner, published by DSRG, Inc., 1992

This board game for one to four players seeks to recreate the dynamics of trade and piracy in the 17th century Caribbean. It comes in a sturdy plastic bag containing the following components: Graphics and component quality are sufficient and functional if unexciting. This is apparently the only game ever produced by these designers, whose company is, or was, located in Wisconsin, USA. I am not certain but strongly suspect that at this time (January 2000) it is out of print.

As game reviewer extraordinaire Mike Siggins discusses in his review of the game Ostindiska Kompaniet, "the ultimate trading game is yet to be invented". By this I think he meant that to date there is no completely satisfying game on the historical problems of the traveling merchant. It is a good topic for one, however. The exotic ports of call and the dual prospect of immense profits and exciting adventure should all combine someday in a game which will challenge the player's ability to spot and execute on a good deal.

It's not clear why someone hasn't invented it already. As Siggins mentions, there is Merchant of Venus, apparently originally about spice trade in the south seas, but translated to a vague science fiction setting. That game also suffers (in my opinion) from a high luck factor, long setup time and runaway leaders. The Empire Builder series of railway delivery games is also in this genre, but in some sense not purely so because of the drawn private (and free) contracts and owned track. There are also Sindbad by Flying Turtle and Auf Achse by FX Schmid, but there too the luck factors appear to be a bit too strong. Anyway, noting the in-depth treatment of trade in this game, and the fact that combat rules provide a means to catch a leader, it was with high if unlikely hopes that I tried out High Seas.

Game Play

Each player begins with two ships, a merchantman and a brig(antine), some provisions and gold and begins anywhere on the map. The basic activity in a turn is for each player to choose a type of move, either City, Sea or Land. Land Moves are almost never needed as nothing is more inland than a couple hexes. A Sea Move is accomplished in an interesting way. There is a prevailing wind direction dependent on the month of the year. The player makes two dice rolls to adjust this direction and speed to represent local conditions. He then is able to move depending on how his direction of movement compares with the direction of the wind. It is almost always possible to move at least one hex. After moving, players check for encounters with non-player fleets. The player is allowed to increase or decrease the chance of this by specifying whether he his "looking" or "not looking". Fleets found can vary quite dramatically in size from a single ship to a huge war fleet, but often it is not that difficult to flee, even if faced against overwhelming odds. It is also permitted to try to encounter other players if in the same hex. Players move in a random sequence which changes each turn so it is possible to try to run away if being stalked by an opponent.

Combat is handled by first clumping up subsections of your fleet with the opponent. If neutral, the enemy is handled by another player. The side with the wind gauge tends to gang up on the enemy on a 2-to-1 basis, at least for the first round, after which more ships can join the clumps. In each clump, the player secretly chooses a tactical counter which is one of Broadside, Grapple (with intent to board) or Flee. Depending on how these compare, it will be resolved by dice with one or more cannonades, capture attempts or flee attempts. Combat is not initially extremely dangerous, although sinkings can occur, but definitely becomes so if allowed to continue. Players receive Infamy points for captures and sinkings which are the best way to accrue Victory points, along with acquisition of Gold.

City turns are what encapsulate the trading subsystem. It's certainly possible to do a lot of things in a City including sacking it, purchasing a letter of marque, creating or using a depot, buying or selling ships, repairing ships and recruiting or dismissing crew, but the primary activity seems to be buying and selling cargo. Both activities work in the same way, so let's look at buying as an example. First the player figures out how much of the desired commodity he is able to buy. This is not based on luck, but only on the combination of the following factors: the city's size, economic level, whether it is a source or market for the item, and whether anyone previously bought up most of the supply of this item. This is all done via table lookup with modifiers. Then the player uses another such table to figure out the price of the item, which is also entirely deterministic. Included modifiers are economic level, whether it is a source or market for the item and whether the supply is depleted. There are a few additional details that sometimes come into play such as whether a player wants to try haggling over the price, whether a nation that doesn't like you will sell to you and adjustments for prices of cannon, ammunition and provisions for nations at war.

This then is the game in a nutshell. The area of Antigua, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Nevis, St. Eustatius and St. Kitt's is better than any other for trade because of the very close proximity of sources and markets, permitting exploitation of lucrative trade triangles. In most games the players will probably begin there and try to improve their starting cash stake. Over time, this area will probably because less lucrative as sources become depleted and markets receive goods in excess so players may begin to move off to other board areas. Although it is possible to buy ships honestly, it is very difficult to find good ones in any quantity and at reasonable prices. Therefore, at some point, it is very important for players to be willing to seek out non-player encounters with ships that they can capture and thus ever so gradually lever up the size and strength of their fleets as well as the morale of their crews. This will improve their cargo holding ability as well as their combat worthiness. In this sense High Seas reveals itself to actually be an "empire-building game" in which one is constantly seeking to expand holdings and strength.


In perfecting a game like this, genius may be less in what's put in, but in knowing what to leave out. Even the designers seem to realize this, noting "Toward the end we had to reject some new ideas to keep the game down to a manageable level". It does seem that some entire rules sections, such as Land Moves, might profitably have been omitted. With Sea Moves, a card-based system probably would have been easier to use than dice lookups, and yet just as realistic. Other sections feel too complicated for what they are. There are four pages of tables in the game so there is a lot of looking up to do. Trading, for example, really needs a computer brain rather than the typical human one. For example, suppose you find yourself in a port and wish to know what is most profitable to purchase. There are 7 types of items for which you need to go through 2 relatively lengthy tables (4 affecting factors) to figure out how many are available and at what prices. Then if you really want to be efficient about it, you need to go through similar calculations for nearby islands to figure out what kind of sale price you can get there. This is so much information that there is no way you are going to remember all of the numbers so you will either be making some snap decisions or writing everything down, both of which are rather objectionable if you think about it. Not to mention that what you buy will be greatly affected by your cargo capacity. In addition, you will be needing to make calculations of the nature, "OK, I have 1047 to spend and Tobacco is available at 37, so how many can I buy and with how much money left over?" I suspect nearly all of us will be resorting to the calculator.

What may be lost in all of this is that ineffable feeling of fun which is hard to define, but we all know when we feel it. Perhaps there is just too much table consultation and calculation. In a game one wants to be the executive and say "What's the bottom line?", but this game seems to force us to be the flunkies in the accounting department as well.

Otherwise, although I initially had misgivings about there being only one trade triangle, I think in retrospect that it is probably correct. This is especially so if it is historical, but even if not, it forces players to break out of only the mechanistic trading part of the game and undergo the encounter and combat rules as well.

The game designers also went to a lot of trouble in this tame to get a lot of the details right. My guess is that it indicates a lot of playtesting. Nearly all of the tables are gathered together in a single card and located intelligently within it. The important movement tables are printed right on the board. The player cards are well laid out and tracking of gold, provisions, ammunition etc. is extremely clear and easy to do. All of the counters are reproduced in the rules in case you should lose one, etc. Many more examples of this rare and high degree of thoroughness could be cited. Although the authors provide no bibliography, the feeling of realism is extremely high, although in comparison with other games on the topic, the obvious one being Blackbeard, (which curiously also appeared in 1992), there is a strange absence of the flavorful chrome items like named pirates, Duels, Drunkenness and Revelry, torture, hostages, etc. Apparently the designers' take, which seems a fair one, is that the popular history of the era is more fanciful than real.

It's difficult to say exactly what type of player will be taken with this game. Those who like "crack the system" trading games, but also like combat in games are the obvious candidates. However, even for these it is not clear that the game is rewarding enough to endure all of the table lookups and calculations that the game requires. This is particularly true when one player is taking a long turn and others have had a simple move with no encounters turn. It may be then that the best audience is the solitaire player who enjoys competing with the system via the solitaire scenarios presented here. Unfortunately, those of us seeking the ultimate multi-player trading game, are left still searching.

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Last updated: Sat May 22 09:35:07 PDT 2004
Reviewing the Reviewer
Rick Heli