Fleet, is quickly becoming one of my favorite games. It is a game by the design duo of Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback (collectively referred to as the Fleeples) about running a fishing fleet in a modern setting. I missed last year’s Kickstarter for Arctic Bounty, but kept hearing good things about it. So purely on the strength of these recommendations, I went out early this year and bought both Fleet and the Arctic Bounty expansion. Then they sadly had to sit on my shelf for several months until I finally got a chance to play. I am so glad that I did not wait to get the expansion. Now that I have introduced it to my regular group, I expect it to become a fixture in our rotation.
What You Get
- 96 boat cards
- 26 License cards (20 standard, 6 premium)
- 100 blue cubes (crates of fish)
- 4 round order reference cards
- 1 Neon first player marker
- 54 new boat cards
- 24 new license cards (12 standard, 9 premium)
- 20 “Gone Fishin’” Bay cards
- 24 “Tugboat” and “Artisan Fisherman” Dock cards
- 50 extra blue cubes
- 12 Crewmen cards that give one-time-use abilities
- 5-6 player rules
- Variant 2 player and solo rules with a Corporate License and opponent captains
The quality of the cards is top notch. Some of the cubes are not as consistent, but it makes no difference to gameplay. For the most part, the rules are thorough, but the layout sometimes makes it hard to find what you want even in the small booklet. The unique art for each boat is a very nice touch. The boat cards are initially daunting because of the amount of information on them, but that’s one way the game gets a lot of depth, and it’s actually easy to use in practice.
The Arctic Bounty expansion adds new types of licenses, as well as extra cards that can be added to any game, dramatically increasing the strategic opportunities, and adding variability to the setup.
What You Do
The object of the game is to earn points from purchased licenses, launched boats, and caught fish. The game is played in rounds of 5 (but really 6) phases. Each round starts with an auction phase in which each person can buy a license. Then is the Launch Boats and Hire Captains Phase, which acts like two phases for all intents and purposes. Players can pay to launch a boat using cards from their hands. Then they may hire captains for those boats by placing a card from their hand face down on top of a boat. Next is the fishing phase, in which every boat with a captain catches a fish, up to a maximum of 4 fish per boat. After that is the Process and Trade phase, in which players with a processing vessel license may process and trade fish. Finally is the draw phase, in which players each draw two boat cards from the deck and keep one. This continues until there are not enough cards to refill the auction block, or the last fish is taken. Then players add up points shown on all their licenses, points from each launched boat, and one point per fish on a boat.
The boat cards serve three purposes in this game. First, they are the boats that can be launched, at a cost of 1-3 coins shown in the upper left, and worth 1-3 points shown in the upper right. The boat cards are also used for captaining ships. Any boat card can be used. Finally, boat cards show 1-3 coins in the lower left. These coins are used to pay the cost to launch a boat, and to buy licenses in the auction.
Licenses have five important features. All licenses share the first to features, a starting bid/minimum cost, and a point value. Third, most licenses also let you launch boats of the same type. Once you have one license, you can launch any number of boats of that type. Fourth, some licenses have a bonus, for example Cod lets you launch an extra boat, while Lobster lets you captain an additional boat (usually both limited to one per round). This bonus applies once no matter how many of the same license you acquire. You might acquire duplicate licenses because of the fifth feature, an additional bonus that scales with duplicate licenses. For example, one Processing Vessel allows you to trade in one cube for one card. A second allows you to trade one cube for two cards. A limited number of licenses are Premium Licenses, which can earn a large number of points for the player.
The processing vessel is the most confusing aspect of this. You must have a processing vessel license to launch a processing vessel. But the license allows you to take cubes from any boats during the Process/Trade Phase. Most importantly, you do not need a processing vessel boat to use the bonus on the license. This is exactly the same as all of the other licenses, but can be a bit tricky, so I make sure I explain it well.
One of the things that works so well in this game is the struggle of how to best use your boat cards. Buying licenses is the main way you gain more boat cards in the game. But you have to weigh the value of using a boat card to pay, versus launching it for points and catching fish. Deciding whether to pass on an auction and keep your cards to launch or to use in the next round can be very hard, especially early on. You frequently want to do more than you can afford, and occasionally won’t be able to gain the license you want, so having a contingency plan or two is a crucial element of long term strategy.
What I Liked
First, it’s amazing how much game is found in just the cards in the base set. I love how everything has multiple uses, making all the decisions multi dimensional and makes the choices more interesting. Depth from limited components always appeals to me. The auction contributes both social and psychological gameplay elements. The license bonuses also give the game a feeling of engine building and upgrading, even though there is no real “building” aspect of the game.
Arctic Bounty adds a lot of variety to play. Because of the auction, there is no set path to victory with the same setup, and it is highly interactive. All of this occurs in a reasonable game length. So I’d like to try some of the epic options that include all of the licenses.
And I love getting to say “lobstah” in a New England accent.
What I Disliked
Some parts of the game are incredibly thematic (licenses, launching boats and catching fish) but the license bonuses are really independent of the theme. This only becomes apparent with the processing vessel, as I discussed above. Because of this, plus the level of information on the cards and licenses, Fleet is a bit hard to explain the first few times you teach. I’ve found it’s easier to explain all the licenses at the end. But after that first explanation, it is really very smooth to play. Once you start playing with Arctic Bounty, it is a little cumbersome to sort out the boat cards and swap different licenses in. But if you delegate this responsibility, it still doesn’t take very long to set up.
As a designer, I love what Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback did by making boats with more coins worth fewer points, and vice versa. It adds an element of long term balance because the value of the card depends on its context. But during play, this sometimes means that you draw useless cards that you can neither afford to launch, nor use to buy better licenses. There is a small chance of getting stuck early on when it matters most. But on the other hand, you also have a chance that you draw a valuable 3-coin card instead. There seem to be enough options, especially with the expansion that this will only rarely be a problem.
Also, where are the sharks?
There is a good comparison to be made between Fleet and San Juan. Both games use tableau building as a main mechanic, and cards serve multiple purposes. But Fleet gives a much deeper experience, with more interesting decisions, because there are so many more paths to victory. It gives us a lot more strategy to discuss during and after the game. After playing Fleet, San Juan seems a bit simple.
When you play the base game, you immediately see that there is room for expansion. And although there aren’t as many combinations as Dominion, Fleet with Arctic bounty gives you a lot of ways to set it up, with a much deeper and more interactive experience. The auction also makes the game feel a bit like Power Grid, but without requiring as much math, feeling as fiddly, or having a first player bias.
And, of course, because they share some thematic elements, there is an obvious comparison to be made between Fleet and New Bedford. (Indeed, it was suggested by a playtester that New Bedford was too similar.) But besides the superficial similarities, the auction makes the two drastically different. Interaction is limited almost entirely to the auction phase, but is also more direct and psychological.
I really like what the designers have done to add a lot of complexity and depth to the decisions. The license cards are valuable for their abilities and for the boats they allow you to launch. The boats are valuable for the fish they catch, the points they earn, and the coins they provide. You have to consider all of these things to decide when it’s worth bidding, launching, or waiting. This all makes the parts of the game interlock like clockwork.
I already want to go buy the additional promos, including fish-shaped tokens to replace the wooden cubes. I’m hoping there will even be another expansion down the line, but with everything that already comes with the game, I’m gonna need a bigger box.