Game Review: Protect the Merchant Fleet in “The Shores of Tripoli”

the shores of tripoli game boxWhen America declared its independence from Britain in the late 1700s, there were a lot of subtle consequences around the world, most undoubtedly unanticipated by the new nation. One area particularly hard hit was the Mediterranean Sea, where merchants endlessly picked up exotic goods to sell throughout Europe and the new citizens of the United States of America. Prior to the Revolution, pirates were cowed by the presence and might of the British Navy, but once those American merchant ships lost protection, they became fair game for the Ottoman pirates and cutthroats. Mayhem ensued, and by 1801 America stopped paying protection money to ensure safe passage for American merchant vessels and Tripoli had declared war.

Problem was, America still needed its merchants, and those merchants needed to be able to sail the Mediterranean without fear of brigands. As a result, the US Navy and Marines were sent to the region to resolve the Tripolitan problem. This squadron was woefully outfitted, though, with three frigates and a single schooner to patrol over 950,000 square miles. It wasn’t until 1805 that America resolved the situation and established peace with the Ottoman Empire that stopped the pirate vessels harassing American merchant ships in the region. Five long, tough years. Five years that are the setting of the seagoing warfare simulation The Shores of Tripoli.

Produced by Fort Circle Games, The Shores of Tripoli is designed for competitive two-player battles with one player controlling the American fleet and the other managing Tripoli and the Ottoman Empire. There’s also a solitaire mode where you play as the American fleet versus a Tripolitan automaton referred to as T-bot. It’s the latter setup that I’ve played through a half-dozen times, and I can tell you, it’s not so easy to achieve the winning conditions because, as was historically accurate, America is at a significant disadvantage for the first few years with its tiny fleet!

The game is very well produced and has a very appealing design featuring a big, beautiful abstract board of Northern Africa and the southern Mediterranean:

the shores of tripoli game - components

The American playing cards have a portrait of then-President Thomas Jefferson, while the Ottoman Empire cards feature their commander Yusuf Qaramanli. The larger ship tokens are frigates, the smaller ships are corsairs (if Tripolitan) or gunboats (if American). Cubes represent ground troops and the gold coins represent riches stolen from merchant vessels as the game proceeds. If Tripoli acquires all 12 gold coins, they win, having asserted dominance. The game takes place across six years, four seasons per year, from 1801 – 1806. Surviving or preventing the Ottomans from acquiring all the merchant gold is not a winning endgame, however. America has specific strategic goals it must attain, notably taking possession of Derne and clearing out all the enemy vessels in Tripoli harbor.

Fortunately, this is a streamlined wargame, so it’s way less complex than a classic Avalon Hill title with hundreds of tiny chits, each of which emblazoned with a half-dozen numbers to represent offense, defense, movement, and similar. Ships can move anywhere in a single turn and as a rule, frigates have two-dice attacks while corsairs have a one-die attack. Infantry are one-die-per-cube, with the fundamental difference that once engaged infantry will fight until one side is eliminated, whereas ships attack, defend, and scatter. Quite decent of them, really.

Okay, enough chit-chat, let’s get into the game!

HOW TO PLAY THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI SOLO MODE

To start out, each player (yes, T-bot is a player!) has specific cards they spread out in preparation for the upcoming battles. There are also specific starting positions for frigates, corsairs, and infantry:

shores of tripoli game - solo setup

Gibraltar, on the top left, is a neutral port and both sides can have ships therein without engaging. Why? Because that was a British controlled harbor. Otherwise, if American ships encounter Tripolitan ships, it’s going to inevitably be a skirmish! The American side (e.g., our side in solo mode) is represented by blue vessels and the cards on the lower left. The six staggered are our hand and the three above are one-time action cards to use when the time is ripe. On the right is the T-bot with its row of event cards (four, its red dice, then two more, and below a row of six attack cards that are triggered by specific events occurring. Notice that Tripolitan ships and infantry control the northern shore of Tripolitania, while the American Navy and Marines are starting out far, far away in Gibraltar with three frigates.

The board shows what year it is and what season it is during that year, tracking the current turn. America does get reinforcements, a new frigate appearing for each of 1802, 1803, and 1804, but you have to survive that long and those Tripolitan corsairs are pesky and persistent!

I’ve tried various strategies in different games so this time I thought I would be maximally aggressive and see how it played out. Spoiler: I did not win because I didn’t keep an eye on the long-term goals. More on that later in my review.

For my first turn, I moved all three of my frigates directly to Tripoli harbor and attacked the five enemy corsairs!

shores of tripoli game - us navy attacks tripoli harbor

Each frigate got two dice while the corsairs defended with a single die each. a 6 is a hit, anything else is a miss. As you can see, I did terribly, causing zero damage but the Tripolitan navy had a better showing; damaging one of my frigates (which caused it to be “in repairs” until the beginning of the following year). I was plagued with awful rolls, actually, and while rolling dice adds a nice element of randomness to a game, this was an endless nightmare that completely nullified my aggressive tactics. Probably a lesson to learn there, but in this instance, post-attack my ships headed directly to Malta. Turn over.

Worth noting is that at the beginning of each year you draw cards from your deck, which you play for the four “seasons” of each year. In total, 24 moves if you don’t achieve your objective prior to the end of the turn track. You move, then T-bot moves, which consists of scanning action cards from left to right on the T-bot’s hand to find one that applies.

Dialing back the aggression a bit, I assigned two frigates to patrol the seas near Tripoli harbor to slow down those darn pirates, but it was completely ineffective:

the shores of tripoli game - patrolling harbor

By this point in the game, T-bot has 7 corsairs and while I have frigates elsewhere on the board, my two ships off Tripoli are all that stand between the pirates and those merchant vessels in the deep Mediterranean Sea. I’ve made an Interception Roll as the pirates passed from the harbor to the deep sea but only 6’s count. Nada. Then the pirates attack and his roll isn’t much better: 7 ships attack, 1 succeeds (a 6 on the red dice), but that means T-bot now has 1 of 12 gold pieces and is closer to winning.

I have to clear the enemy troops out of Derne as part of my winning situation, so my gunboat heads that way for a bombardment:

the shores of tripoli game - assault on derne

This one’s a bust with a roll of 3 but an overall successful strategy as Derne does end up without any Tripolitani troops. My huge strategic blunder, however, is that I need American troops in Derne to win, and I can’t actually do that without gaining the assistance of Hamet Qaramanli’s army, based in Alexandria, Egypt. By not factoring that in, I was close to achieving victory (take over control of Derne, eliminate all Tripolitani ships in Tripoli harbor) but couldn’t actually win without Hamet’s Army involved. A history lesson: Work with the local troops!

Still, I figured why not go for broke as we reached 1806? I played “Assault on Tripoli” and added “Send in the Marines” and “Marine Sharpshooters” cards, as you can see. It looked like it would be a complete route!

the shores of tripoli game - assault on tripoli

In fact, the dice were still against me; I cleared out their corsairs but lost two frigates in the process, and my marines were demolished by the Ottoman infantry. Not such a great outcome after all, particularly given the slogan on the Assault on Tripoli card: “Victory or Death!”

Here’s the final game layout:

the shores of tripoli game - end game

Lots of American vessels and Derne’s empty of troops, but the pirates have acquired all 12 gold tokens from merchant ships and won. Next time, less immediate aggression and effort spent ensuring that we send at least one vessel to Alexandria to engage and work with Hamet’s Army.

THOUGHTS ON THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI

This is a fun solo game for military enthusiasts with a great historical setting and an entire booklet just focused on the history of the era. But the board ends up a bit too streamlined and I endlessly found myself flipping through the rule book to clarify this, that, or the other rule or situation. Shortcut cards or turn tips on the board could have significantly helped. Some dice rolls require a 5 or 6 while others only count for 6s, another thing that kept tripping me up. Worse, the solo scenario references two-player instructions but has exceptions and changes to the rules. At the cost of another page or two in the rules, a completely standalone solo ruleset would really help get players started more quickly and help the game move along more smoothly.

Games based on dice rolls are inevitably therefore also based on luck, but I found that I had statistically unlikely terrible rolls, time and again. Perhaps some way to compensate for that could have been helpful, a few “favorable winds, your miss turns out to be a hit” one-time cards or similar would have helped. Then again, T-bot didn’t do much better; When I assaulted Tripoli near the end it played a defensive card that gave it twelve extra defense rolls. And none of them proved to be a 6. By being this lightweight a wargame, The Shores of Tripoli might end up being too light with its complete reliance on dice rolls.

Nonetheless, I love historical reenactments and this does offer an interesting insight into a war between America and the Ottoman Empire that rarely gets mentioned in history books. I’ll definitely give it another go with a different strategy. We’ll see if I can succeed!

THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI, from Fort Circle Games. $66.00 at FortCircleGames.com

Disclosure: Fort Circle Games sent me a copy of The Shores of Tripoli for the purposes of this review. Thanks!

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