I love complex, heavy games. I love diplomacy, scheming and plot intricacies. But, at times, I love to take a breath from all of that. I purposefully want to relax and think about my own stuff… my own strategy, without too much warmongering, without too much caring to attack and to defend… to muster armies. You know… bribing and negotiations, and war, may stress you. And sometimes you don’t want to stress; you just want to enjoy a nice thematic game with your friends, exploring some cool relaxed mechanics, and with just a bit of conflict, direct or indirect might it be.
I’ve been looking for that game for quite some time; I’ve approached Troyes, Francis Drake, Viceroy, Orleans and more, but they’ve all left me longing for something else.
Endeavor: Age of Sail falls right onto that sweet spot of theme, elegant mechanics, relaxed gameplay yet with a bit of conflict, and interesting player interaction/competition to get the best things from the board for yourself and deny your opponents.
Also, Endeavor is a bit German. But – again – just a bit, so that if you don’t really like pure German board games, you might find that Endeavor is totally fine for you. While if you like German-style games you’ll be comfortable with pushing your 4 main stats upwards (called attributes, and namely: Industry, Culture, Wealth, and Influence) to improve your engine and score you VPs at the end of the game ;). Yet it’s not only a matter of player attributes….
How does it work?
So ready to set sail? Let’s start from the beginning: Endeavor is set during the Age of Sail (1571-1862). The players take the role of 2-to-5 major Empires trying to expand their influence all across the globe by shipping fleets to distant regions looking for trades, occupying those regions after the appointment of a Governor, attacking other player’s fleets and camps, drawing market cards from those same regions, or paying your hard-laboring workers just to profit from their labour time and time again.
The first step to take each turn is to always pick a building from the stack of available buildings and lay it on your docks: the building is free to build, but you can pick stronger buildings only if your Build level matches or exceeds the level of the building you want to pick. Buildings are what allow you to perform actions; if a building has an action spot, you’ll be able to send workers there to perform that action (more on actions later).
After that, you’ll gain new available workers that want to join your cause and work for you, depending on your “Growth Level”. These workers come from outside your player mat and sit silently on your Harbour… ehrm I meant… Harbor 😉
Then everyone’s going to “Pay” the workers they’ve used during the previous turn by clearing as many Action spaces from workers as their level of Salary.
These three steps may be performed by everyone simultaneously, whilst the following Actions are to be taken in turn order.
But before delving into the few, nice, easy to remember actions, let’s take a break from the technicalities and have a look at this lovely map. Just look at it. Isn’t it soothing? Maybe it’s the clever choice of colors – I dunno: the prevailing colors are a combination of desaturated Greens and Oranges and these inspire a sense of peace (greens) and warmth (oranges).
Ok… feel better now? Now take a look at those nice little tokens scattered all around the globe. These represent your commercial and influential opportunities, and – as you gather those tokens – you’ll be able to increase the 4 main attributes of your Empire – some of which we talked earlier. For each symbol you gather (either from a space on the board, or shown on the cards you pick), you increase the corresponding attribute by 1 step.
At the beginning of the game the players have presence only in Europe, as their empire starts from there, while the other 6 regions are closed. A Ship action allows the player to place a disk on any sea or ground space onto any open region; whilst a closed region may only be approached by sending a disk on its shipping track. Once the track is completed, the player with most disks on the track will claim the Governor card (along with its benefits) and from now on the Region will be open for everyone. Each time you Ship a disk to a location, you gain the token from that location.
Once you already have presence in a Region and the Region is open (cause its Governor card has been claimed), you’ll be able to send disks on a Region’s City by means of a Occupy action. Many City spaces not only give you tokens to increase your stats, but also grant VPs at the end of the game, so establishing your colonies around the globe is particularly important.
Furthermore, if you manage to have disks at both ends of a commercial route, you’ll gather the benefit of the space in between – namely a token and a VP.
This combination of shipping actions, claiming tokens from the map, trying to be the one who gets the Governor card, racing for the best city spaces, always trying to control trade routes to claim a better reward, is what makes the experience enjoyable. It’s a race, but you have time to plan, you have time to change strategy if someone gets in your way and sometimes you’ll feel you’ve outsmarted your opponent cause you managed to do 2 or 3 things in a row exactly as you planned.
Another action you can carry out is to Draw a Asset card from a Region. Once you obtain the card you’ll again increase your stats depending on the icons shown on that card (as if you were gaining a token from the map). You are allowed to pick a card from a Region only if you have as many disks on that region as the number shown on the card. Since there are 5 cards for each Regions – numbered from 1 to 5 and placed in order – the first cards will be picked quickly, while the most prestigious cards will be taken as the turns passes and as players amass disks (presence) on the region.
Europe has an extra deck of cards you can pick from: that’s the Slavery Deck. This deck is rather powerful and (thematically) grants you lotsa labour (bricks) to be able to build better building on future turns. But – as the designer pointed out on the rulebook – slavery is here “to acknowledge this grim segment of history” – and (again thematically) the players have means to end slavery and force any other player who took advantage from it, to lose what they gained previously and also lose a few VPs at the end of the game.
After a while you’ll find that the world is a bit tight, just that bit tight… to start attacking someone here and there. Combat is not central to Endeavor, but it’s just as good as one or two spoons of sugar in your coffee – you are not there for the sugar but you want it in your coffee. Just as you want a bit of combat in Endeavor. Remember those trade routes we talked about earlier? Those routes, that if you hold both ends of, you’ll get juicy VPs at the end of the game… Yes, you’ll probably want to chain some of your disks on the map together so to gather a few extra VPs at the end of the game. And what if a key spot on the map is now helf by an opponent? Use some old Attack action and get rid of that token, replenishing the space with yours afterwards.
War is costy. Not only you need to activate the action space with one of your tokens, you’ll also have to destroy one from your reserve (your casualties) and send one onto the vacant space. This totals 3 tokens to use, rather than 1 or 2 for the other normal actions. This cost keeps war at its place. In the end you are trying to spread your influence over the world, not dominating it with totalitarianism.
And sometimes you may even give up attacking someone, cause doing something else with your precious tokens may score you more points at the end. That’s what makes Endeavor an enjoyable experience.
Once players have finished taking actions, they’ll all simultaneously check that their card limit does not exceed their Empire’s Influence. In case it does, they now discard any exceeding card, thus reducing their stats accordingly.
At the end of the game the players total their VPs, granted by their stats levels as well as from locations from the map and from cards and buildings they gathered and constructed along the way. If slavery has been abolished and someone has taken advantage of it during the game, it’s now time to lose some precious VPs.
Endeavor does a nice job at being thematic and mechanically sound. Spreading an Empire’s influence over the globe is a matter of being quick as well as optimizing your resources and your capabilities. I’m particularly fascinated by the elegance and thematic meaning of the attributes your Empire will try to improve: Industry, Culture, Wealth, Influence. Let’s have a look at them a bit closer.
That’s what makes your Empire grow strong. You need better, more effective buildings, you can’t sit silently without investing into your Industry. Thematically, if you dive into the black hole of Slavery you’ll gain access to better building faster than the others, cause Slavery cards provide a lot of improvement for your Industry stat. Better buildings provide better actions, and sometimes even VPs at the end of the game.
It’s a relief that there’s no currency in the game. You don’t have to bother to amass money to buy buildings, or to perform actions. This would have been a overhead in such a clean design. Rather you have time and means to focus on what’s important, spreading your Empire. Yes, there’s Wealth but you don’t actually need to amass or spend, it’s there as a stat that allows you to “pay” your workers (namely freeing their spaces from buildings) so to use those free spaces again in the near future. Wealth is not there to crush you: some design require you to keep up with money, otherwise you’ll lose population (eg your workers are killed) – even though thematic, this is detrimental to the player. As a different thematic approach, if you don’t keep your Wealth high enough, Endeavor penalizes you by decreasing the effectiveness of your engine, that is: you won’t be able to play as many actions as you’d like, cause you did not “pay” your workers, so your Action space (on a building) is still occupied by that unpaid worker, thus you can’t activate it again until you free that space. This is clever, thematic, and fitting with Endeavor’s spirit.
Culture attracts people to your Empire. Are you a cultured Empire? One that focuses on improving your people’s well-being? Then you’ll attract more people, as well as more workers to your docks. Culture states how many workers you gain each round, and – fittingly – the number of actions you can carry out. If you have a few workers, you may perform less actions.
Influence directly dictates how many cards you may hold onto your tableau. Influence is what allows you to maintain good relationships with the foreign regions. Did you gather a Governor card from a region? Did you pick a few Asset cards from these very same regions? Unless you are not so influential, you won’t be able to keep having a good relationship with those leaders and people, so at the end of the round you may be forced to discard a card or two, thus losing the benefit from those partnerships.
Glory, the VPs, is the result of everything your Empire does, from establishing trade routes, to maintaining relationships with Governors across the Regions, establishing presence onto those regions, to improving buildings, increasing fundamental stats and holding on to Assets. The natural result of all your actions bring Glory to your Empire, and at times you may be able to gain some more Glory by picking the right building, or Asset card. Understanding how to get VPs is easy, but you have many ways of doing it; you can focus on one or more strategies at a time. Thus the game makes a good job at not being opaque (that is makes a good job at making you understand how your moves make you gain VPs and victory at the end), but without being predictable.
The tokens that improve your Attributes are randomly distributed during the setup – to grant replayability. As a final remark I with they were a bit more relevant to the locations on the map. For example the Slavery cards grant you more Building power, but not Influence or Culture; similarly claiming a token from a Fortress may give you Influence of Wealth, but not building power.
The exploits are a nice addition to the overall experience of Endeavor. These represent historical facts that happened during the Age of Sail. It’s a good idea to include the Exploits after you’ve had a few games of basic Endeavor, and you have clear in mind every other aspect. The Exploits don’t actually increase the complexity of the game, but make use of new functions so to spice up the experience. If you are not familiar enough with the base game you’ll find the Exploit will dilute your experience, but just cause there are too many options to include the from the get go.
Eventually you’ll find they add interesting strategies and new options to use the game board and your actions; for example in the base game you’ll seldom occupy sea spaces that don’t reward you any VPs or Tokens – these are there to grant you presence on the region if you want to Occupy the region but couldn’t manage to ship anything on the shipping track, which, may happen, but not often.
The Manila Galleons Exploit will see you making heavy use of the Sea Spaces among the Far East and the North American Region, in fact each time you take a Ship action – and decide to do the Exploit’s Ship action instead – you may move one of your Discs from a Region to the other to gain a couple of good things: namely 2VPs or the possibility to switch you Empire’s attributes with tokens on the map, which may result in nice combos and optimization of the action-to-VP ratio. Each Exploit enhancement has a nice thematic explanation; in the case of the Manila Galleons you are awarded for sailing the “Manila Route” which is a sea route sailed for 250 years by Manila Galleons “brining a variety of trade routes and riches across the ocean”.
I believe Endeavor Age of Sail can be a good addition to many people’s collection, ‘cause it hits exceptionally well the spot of a thoughtful game, with interesting decision points and a good mix of relaxed and competitive attitude. For some reasons it reminds me of 7 Wonders, a game that you can approach randomly cause it’s quite relaxed, but you’ll never win with this mindset – you have to focus, but still the game does not hit you too hard if you fail something. But just as 7 Wonders you want to optimize your turn especially if you are playing against another expert player. So rather than mechanically or thematically I compare it to 7 wonders because of its feeling.
So let’s grab some food for the day and, without further ado, set sail into new seas!