This weekend at The World Boardgaming Championships I stumbled across Mike Nagel. Mike is best known as the inventor of Flying Colors, an Age of Sail wargame that is very well respected, and he had it set up in open gaming. As you'd expect considering the venue, four guys were heads down over the pieces firing volleys at each other while Mike tuned in only occasionally to coach. Flying Colors looked interesting to me personally, but not gripping. I've played another Age of Sail title extensively and I don't need a second one in the same genre. But . . . oh my, what is this over here?
Mike was also watching over another table with a big blue grid map and homemade chits on each edge that didn't have that hoist-the-mizzenmast kind of look to them. So in spite of him still giving me the details on the Flying Colors game in play I politely turned just my eyes to this other map, taking a moment to examine the pieces in detail. Though faint in the playtest printing, each showed rows of lines on each side. Oars. "Triremes" I interrupted, stabbing a finger at the rows of ships on the unused table. I like me some triremes.
Mr. Nagel replied, "actually Quinqueremes but . . . say, you wouldn't play that, would you? If no one is playing they're going to take the table away from me." That's all the invitation I needed. I slipped behind the two rows of red ships without hesitation and started fingering the quick-ref charts.
Fifteen minutes later I understood the rules well enough to start playing the game. There's a Card-driven aspect to it, and as in other games of the genre each card can be used in one of a number of ways depending on what you see fit. But the cards aren't an overwhelming part of this game. (I'm not the biggest fan of CDGs. They take ownership away from me and I'm more than qualified to make the mistakes necessary to simulate fog of war.) Instead they enhance what is a more traditional play, where positioning and angling for advantage give you the opportunity to really your take control of your destiny. And since these aren't sailing ships, wind direction doesn't put you in shackles either. I'll tell you what -- this was one nice little play.
And little it is. Twelve pages of rules (including the credits) is all that is needed to put the game on the table and that includes the whole shebang -- volleying, raking, ramming (a personal favorite), boarding and claiming prizes. Different navies have different quality ratings, ships step down in condition as do their crews during battle, simple fatigue rules put hard choices into the mix on positioning and the nature of the turn order means that some of your ships are going to move whether you want them to or not. This is a more realistic implementation of Fog of War in my opinion, and it has a solid impact on your decision process. You need to manage your resources well enough to maintain control.
I had a great time with this one and four hours went shooting by while I made it a point to try out every part of the ruleset. When we finally broke up the session the scenario was two thirds finished (not half bad for a learning game) and more importantly, I had taken control. Not of the battle -- that outcome was still very much in doubt. But about forty minutes into the play I had the rules down cold. Phase order and execution of the details of each action are very simple and very intuitive. Figuring out modifiers and penalties during combat attempts was simple and well written out in the cheat sheets. The only point of confusion I had playing the game was the concept of repeated phases within a single turn. (Want to activate ships in battle? Play a card, activate the number of squads shown in the upper right corner, do your damage. But the turn's not over. As long as you have cards the turn continues (whether you like that or not) so each turn consists of multiple activations, using special actions written on cards or playing cards down to determine hand size for the next turn.) Once I got past that basic concept of play the rest came naturally, and I was calling out the steps without Mike's help. I love me some ancient warfare and this one was checking all the boxes.
Návarchoi was originally entitled "XLI", a reference to Charlton Heston's slave number in Ben Hur. But in spite of being a majorly cool TLA that title didn't have a lot of footing in the nature of the game. "Návarchoi" is the Greek word for "Admirals" and it's a fitting if not memorable title. I told Mike I'd work on finding an alternative name that had some bite and get back to him, so if you have any ideas let me know.
In my opinion the bulk of the hard part is completed on this one. That makes sense, as Mr. Nagel is the go-to guy for naval warfare. Simple rules make for deep play, and even as a rookie I was able to work angles and give Mike a solid run for his money, largely based upon my experience in other titles with a similar geometry. He offered to throw me a bone at one point and intentionally put his ships in harm's way to show off how combat worked but I was having none of that. I told him to hold off -- I had a cunning plan. On my next impulse I pressed into his line, reaching missile fire range but not having enough reach for ramming or raking. At so close a range his ships wouldn't be able to build speed for effective ramming, and on the next pass of combat I made it a point to grab initiative so that I could bust through his line and stir up the pot. Angle of attack when ramming matters (assisted by a very nicely designed pair of charts by the way) and I pivoted all my ships one-eighth turn left so that they would strike the vessel beside them in the line instead of in front of them, increasing their chance to punch a hole by striking the sides of their opponents instead of their bow.
My ships are the red and I've pressed through Mike's line of yellows, damaging the one on the left with a solid rake and immobilizing the one next to it with a bone-crushing one. The ship next to that was raked but I missed. Additional ships of mine moving at full speed are in the back, coming around behind to surround the end of his line. The gob of chits on the left is where I rammed and grappled an enemy vessel. Three-chit maximum in each box, so no worries of the massive raft-ups that occur in WS&IM.
I wasn't winning, but I was giving him hell and at one point I was the loudest guy in open gaming. It's a big room -- that's a pretty solid endorsement of how much I enjoyed this critter. My rolls for raking and ramming were through the roof and I was ripping up his ships. But my rolls for missile fire, a necessary step in order to subdue and capture ships, were just plain awful. Another example of how odd twists of luck can paint beautiful narratives in play.
The headings of the ships in these two images show all but one ship aligned with their edges. Upper-left on this one shows a red ship with a one-eighth turn on top of a yellow pointing straight, the result of a ramming run at a powerful 45-degree to nose angle. Ships in Návarchoi uses an eight-point heading system that is more intuitive and allows you to sail on straight lines in all directions.
Návarchoi doesn't have a publisher, so no P500 yet. But it's there. The hard work is done. Art and technical writing remain but according to Mr. Nagle it's been on the tables being tested for a while now and that shows. Printing should be a breeze on this one. A map of blue with a grid on it, a deck of cards and likely two or three chit-sheets is the heart of the matter, plus rules and a single ten-sided die (where the zero actually is a zero by the way. Rolling a zero when you're attacking SUCKS; it feels way worse than rolling a one.) This is a good game. If you enjoy the genre this is one to keep an eye out for. Likely the easiest way to do that is to look for Mike Nagel's name on BGG and see when a new title, Návarchoi or not, pops up on his brag list.