|Cost: $55 From: Eurogames Players: 2-4 Playing Time: 90-120 minutes Type of game: Gamer strategy Complexity: 5 Skill level: 7 Reviewed by: Brian Bankler, Issue 4.3, Spring/Summer 1997|
One of the best arguments I've heard against the German games is that most of the games are abstract with a theme that appears tacked on. That argument certainly can't be levelled against Serenessima. However, the game is quite different from most of the games coming out of Germany in the last few years, in that it has direct combat and some basic elements of wargames. However, Serenessima is a game about building up a shipping and trading empire across the Mediterranean, and the combat is usually in the form of piracy as you attempt to steal a rival's goods.
Serenessima can be played by 2-4 players, each taking control of a trade group based on a major city. The goal is not merely to have the most money (although money does factor into it). Each player is striving to control the largest trading empire, where having control of ports and warehouses full of goods is more important than cash on hand.
The board represents the Mediterranean (and some surrounding seaways). Some coastal areas have a city, which has either a small, medium or large warehouse (only starting cities have large warehouses). A warehouse has 2, 4 or 6 spaces, depending on size, numbered 2-7, with smaller warehouses stopping at 3 or 5. Each city/warehouse also has a type of good that it produces: lumber, ore, gold, jewels, spices, cloth, or wine. There are varying numbers of ports producing each item. For example, there is only one jewel port, but there are numerous lumber and ore ports.
Each player also has some number of boats and sailors. Boats have 5 spaces, each of which can hold a sailor, which is a small blue cylinder, or a trade good, which is a small colored cube. Sailors can also be kept on land as a garrison for a warehouse.
The ownership of ports and vessels is shown nicely by small flags (which must be assembled by attaching stickers to the plastic flags— allow some extra time before your first session). All in all, the visual effect of the game is quite good; however, during the game it can get a bit annoying if you have to move sailors onto ships, remove goods, sometimes change the ships flag (as ships are captured). Inevitably, the ships get knocked over, spilling their contents. It's a minor annoyance, and not related to the mechanics of the game, but it does detract a bit. Apart from that one annoyance, the game is visually appealling with very nice components.
The game plays for a fixed number of turns, each turn broken up into six distinct phases. In the first phase, players bid for the right to choose their position in the turn. The player that bids the most gets to choose when he'll go (usually first or last) and then players that bid less choose in order of their bids (ties are determined by die roll). Once the order of the turn is chosen, each of the next five phases take place in player order.
The second phase is when players can purchase goods, build ships, recruit sailors, fortify ports and re-arrange merchandise. Purchasing goods is simple. If you own a harbor you simply buy the good it produces for 100 ducats (the smallest unit of currency) and place it on a ship docked at that port. If another player owns the harbor, there is a small haggling session. The seller asks a price of 100-300 per unit, which the buyer can either accept or make a counter offer. If the seller refuses the counter-price, no transaction takes place; otherwise, the buyer can purchase units at the agreed-upon price. However, if the seller should happen to control all ports in the game which produce that commodity, the asking price may shoot up to a maximum of 1,000 ducats per unit. This makes the only jewel port in the game quite attractive to own, as owning it guarantees a monopoly. In addition to purchasing goods, you may also purchase ships, forts and sailors at ports you own. However, the purchases are limited by the economics of those ports. You can only purchase ships, for example, at a port that has lumber and ore stored in the warehouse (or the port must have one stored and produced the other). Forts require lumber and gold. Sailors can be purchased at any port, however, the most sailors you can get on any given turn is based on the number of goods in the warehouse, representing the fact that there are more sailors available at cities with better economies.
After all players have finished purchasing, then each player moves in turn. A ship can move a number of spaces equal to the number of sailors on the ship. Also, a ship that enters a space with another players ship must get permission from all other players to continue, otherwise, it must stop. A ship that starts in a space with another ship can always leave, however.
The next phase is combat. Ships may attack ships or harbors in their area (harbors can't attack ships). Combat is simple, each player rolls a die and adds the number of sailors involved. For every 3 points, the opposing side losses a sailor. If you run out of sailors, you ship or harbor is captured (assuming there are sailors left to capture it). If a harbor with a fort is attacked, it suffers losses for every four points instead.
After combat comes claiming of empty harbors, and finally, the all-important selling phase. During the selling phase, players can drop off goods at harbors. A harbor won't take the good it produces or any good that it already has in it's warehouse. Also, players can't refuse having goods sold to them. If a good is a legal sale and the player wishes to sell, he merely places the good on the lowest available number and collects that amount of money (in hundreds of ducats). There are two catches, though. First, you don't get any money from goods you sell to your own warehouses [This appears to be false, the result of a faulty translation-- in fact, you earn the money regardless of who owns the warehouse-- Ed.]. Secondly, if you introduce a good to another player (meaning he doesn't produce that good or have it in a warehouse) you get a bonus of 500 ducats, doubled to 1,000 if you introduced it at his home port. In addition to all money from sales, each player gets 300 ducats a turn income from their home port (if they still control it).
After the last turn is finished, each player figures out how many prosperity points he has. Basically, you get one point for each port you control that didn't fill it's warehouse, then you get 2, 5 or 10 points for each filled warehouse (bigger warehouses are worth more points). You get some one point for every 500 ducats cash on hand, and 10 points for retaining control of your home port. Ships, forts and sailors count for nothing.
The description is mostly complete, but it only takes two or three turns to get the hang of it. So, now that the game is described, how does it play? Pretty well. There are a couple of tough decisions you have to make; but the basic decision is: when do I take goods to my ports, and when do I sell at someone elses? Obviously, taking goods to your port gets you victory points, which win the game. But you can't win the game unless you defend your ports and move goods around, and that means ships and sailors, and that means money. Your paltry 300 a turn income doesn't buy much, a ship and a sailor every other turn. So you have to sell to neutral ports or ports owned by other players, which means goods that aren't going to your warehouses. There are other choices, too. How many sailors on a ship? More sailors means the ship can go faster but carry less. Also, the less sailors on a ship, the more vulnerable it is to being seized by another player. How much to bid on the player order can be a very difficult task, because player order can be crucial. A player going first can claim a neutral harbor first, can sell goods first which may deny other players a sale by filling a warehouse of a particular good, or just by filling the warehouse. Going first during combat means that you can decide which ship attacks, which may matter if you have an important ship and a not-so important ship when another players pirate ship wanders on. On the other hand, going last lets you avoid attacks by moving away, and lets you attack players by sending a powerful ship with five sailors against a weak ship with only a few sailors, but some valuable goods. Also, if you sell later at a harbor, assuming you weren't blocked, you get more money. Then, of course, there are decisions about what goods to carry, where to carry them, what to buy: boats, forts or ships and how to haggle.
There are plenty of decisions to be made, and overall I like this game. It plays with 4 players in about 2 hours, adding maybe half an hour to explain the rules to new players (I glossed over some details) and to allow them to get the hang of it. However, in the first 2 turns the game builds nicely with more things being added to the board as the game goes on. It should be noted that several people on the net have complained that the game takes 4+ hours, but I have never played a game that went past 2.5 hours, including explaining the rules. Still, if your group is slow and ponders things out, I suppose it could happen.
The game isn't without it's flaws, however. The biggest flaw, in my mind, is the fact that your score at the end doesn't include infrastructure such as ships, sailors and forts. If the game's premise is that we aren't actually moving goods but setting up trade routes, then infrastructure should count. (I like the 'trade routes' analogy, otherwise why wouldn't a warehouse eventually need more of a good it has?) In any case, a game-mechanic reason for wanting ships and sailors to count for something is that it discourages end game attacks. Since sailors and ships don't count, and everyone knows when the game ends (after a fixed number of turns) the last turn or two sees players making high risk (sometimes nearly impossible) attacks in the hopes of getting lucky and seizing a fort. And why not, after all, the fort is worth a victory point, and if you lose the ship, well, it's no great loss. If ships, sailors and forts were converted back into cash at some reduced rate it would stop that. At the very least, attacks would have a cost (if at least a small one). I had earlier expressed opinions that this was a fatal flaw; however, I was playing a rule incorrectly. With the correct rules, I consider this an annoying part of the game, but hardly fatal.
Another possible flaw is that the ports may not be balanced. The turkish port is alone in the Eastern part of the board, which gives the player a broader degree of security and easy access to both spice ports, which are on the far eastern side of the board. However, this also means that other players are less likely to help the turk fill his home port, since it is so far out of their way. All in all, the starting positions may not be balanced, but after 5 games I'm still not sure about this; and I suspect that different play groups will have different feelings about this, much like how different play groups view the various companies in an 18xx game. The final flaw, in my opinion, is that this is a game that is just begging you to let more than four people play. I suspect that you could player with a 5th or 6th player if you simply figured out a good space to start them in, perhaps having an auction to let people choose spaces. (Hm. Perhaps that variant can be used if people think the starting spaces are unbalanced.) But I haven't stared at the board enough to see if I can figure out where they should be.
Overall, Serenessima is a good four player game. It has a good feel to it with a rich atmosphere and nice production values. In spite of being a game with a fixed turn, it doesn't feel repetitive, because the board condition is fluctuating as the players expand their power. The game plays in a reasonable length of time. The only major flaw I have is that the endgame may feel slightly contrived. But even with that, Serenessima is a purchase I'm glad I made.