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I first learned many of the details of the First Barbary War  from Ian Toll's excellent book Six Frigates , which was one of the best hi...

The Shores of Tripoli The Shores of Tripoli

The Shores of Tripoli

The Shores of Tripoli

I first learned many of the details of the First Barbary War from Ian Toll's excellent book Six Frigates, which was one of the best historical works I've ever had the pleasure of reading. It was quite the tale of a scrappy young nation deciding it was better to fight the local bully than to pay him tribute. Now Fort Circle Games has released their first board game, which captures this moment in history with a very elegant and simple design. The Shores of Tripoli is a strategy game for two players that can easily be played in under an hour. 

One player takes the side of the Americans, the other takes on the role of the Pasha of Tripoli. Each gets a hand of cards, but the actions that each player can take after that are almost entirely different. The American player has powerful frigates that they can freely move around the map, but these are very limited in number in the early phase of the game. America seeks to build up forces in the region, blockade the Barbary corsairs in their harbor(s), and potentially build an army on land. The Tripolitan player is racing against time to send their corsairs out on raids and gather all 12 gold coins before being overwhelmed. They can also win by managing to destroy 4 American frigates over the course of the game. Both players will feel stretched thin, and wishing they could take just one more action throughout the entire game. 

Sometimes things come down to a climactic battle!

The game is split up into 6 rounds each representing a year of time, and 4 turns within each year, with each player getting one action per turn. At the end of each year, the players draw more cards to refresh their hands, and potentially receive reinforcements. That means that, at most, there are only 24 actions to be had in a game of Shores. Therefore, every single action you take carries weight, and there is precious little margin for poor moves. At the same time, the game is so brief that if you do screw up, you won't have to wait long to get it over with and try again!

The cards each player has come in three flavors. Cards which let the player take a moderately powerful action, and then can be put in the discard pile to come back around later. Cards which trigger a unique event that can only fire once per game, and finally cards which can add on an extra twist to other specific events or battles. All cards can also be discarded to take a minor action (building a new small ship for both players, moving two frigates around for the US player, or going raiding for the Tripolitan player). On each turn, a player must either play one of their cards for an event, or discard one to take an action. There is also a hard hand limit, and so one must think carefully about cards they may want to hang onto for plans down the road.

While I haven't fully explained the rules, there isn't much more than that to the rulebook. Players move satisfyingly chunky ship pieces around on a relatively simple map, where there are really only a handful of spaces that are used throughout the game. Combat is resolved via very simple rules and rolling big handfuls of dice. The game can even feel very luck based at first. However, after just a few plays, another level to the strategy emerges. There are not that many cards in each deck, and every single one will filter through the game at some point. With many of the most powerful cards being one use only and very specific in their function, strategies begin to build around guessing which cards your opponent has in their hand at any given time, and noting which cards they have already played. It's definitely a game that benefits from familiarity and repeated plays.

The game includes a solo mode in which you play as the Americans against a Tripoli bot who will mostly play sensible moves, but is predictable. That said, you will still need to play very smartly if you want to find a path to victory. I lost twice to the bot before finally winning on the very last turn of my third game. While I would not recommend buying this game to only play solo, it's nice that there is a satisfying opponent in the box. 

It shouldn't be very difficult to find a live opponent for The Shores of Tripoli, as the rules are extremely simple to teach, and the game can be played in a casual manner as one learns, while still having fun. Neither player can roll over the other without extreme luck, and the quick turns keep the game moving at a good pace. My wife, an occasional board gamer at best, and certainly no wargamer, was able to defeat me on her first attempt! 

If you are looking to learn more about the conflict, this game is a great place to start. Each of the unique event cards is based on either events which actually happened or very much could have happened. Besides the rule book, the game comes with a historical supplement which offers a great deal of context for the design of the game and the cards. One nice bit of fluff in the box is a copy of the letter sent by Thomas Jefferson to Yusuf Karamanli just before the war broke out.

The Shores of Tripoli is a charming game that could fit right in on any gamer's shelf. The mechanics are simple, the game plays fast, and each side offers a unique approach. The American player will need to be active, moving ships around, attacking when the time seems right, and trying to find the balance between covering ground and spreading themselves too thinly. The Tripolitan player is racing the clock, weighing risk and benefit with each raid, all while looking for openings to exploit. If you are at all interested in the historical conflict depicted, I heartily recommend The Shores of Tripoli. 

The game can be ordered directly from Fort Circle Games or from other vendors on the web. 

- Joe Beard

1 comment :

  1. Fascinating, Joe. I trust you've seen the feature film Tripoli about this. It's free on YouTube at