Close your eyes for a moment. No wait! Don’t! If you did that you might be sitting there for a while. Just pretend you are closing your eyes. Ok. Ready? Keep reading. Preferably with eyes open.
You hear the sound of waves against the piers. You smell the lumber and tar of the ships as they creak in the waves, waiting for their sails to be caught by the wind. You hear the crew clambering up gangways, loading goods and gunpowder into holds. You look out at the expanse of the Mediterranean. It calls to you. The trading calls to you.
Trading in the Mediterranean may be cliche, but don’t miss this game!
That’s right. Trading. In the Mediterranean. I don’t believe there is any other genre in Euro board gaming more cliche and (perceived to be) overused. This is a good and bad thing for the theme. Players immediately know what they will be doing which is nice, but many players will walk the other way. Pity. They would miss the greatness that is Serenissima.
In Serenissima (Second Edition), players act as trading company owners trying to expand their fortunes by delivering goods to ports and controlling them. But it isn’t as simple as sailing around. You must watch out for your opportunistic opponents who would quickly turn their trading ships into warships to sink yours and take your ports to further their fortune. The player with the most money at the end of the game wins.
The first thing you will probably notice about Serenissima are the ships. They are lovely plastic ships that each have five slots in which to put either goods or sailors. Everyone I have played this with cannot resist the appeal of these ships.
The board looks like a standard Euro map board (like El Grande). It is intended to look as if you have rolled this map out on the table – and it does. While this is nothing new I still appreciate it. All of the port cities are easy to identify and the goods they produce are a simple circle of the good’s color. Simple and effective. No complaints here but it will look dated to some.
The rest of the components are also standard Euro fare – wooden cubes, cardboard money tokens, and cards. The dice used in combat are fun and simple – black D6 with three sides having a skull and crossbones on them. All components are fine but nothing terribly interesting. And that is ok. It doesn’t have to be flashy to be good.
You might be tempted to upgrade the components but many are designed to fit the others like a glove. The cubes and sailor tokens fit into the slots on the ships perfectly so finding something to replace those would be difficult. The cubes also match the color of the goods perfectly. Money, on the other hand, could be upgraded – something I’m looking into.
SHIPS, SAILORS, AND GOODS
A mechanism that is very simple and easy to understand yet evokes the theme perfectly and provides interesting decisions is rare. The way Serenissima handles its ships, sailors, and goods is an example of one of these rarities. It is brilliant!
The mechanism that controls the games ships, sailors, and goods is brilliantly simple.
Each ship has five slots in it for the player to put either goods or sailors. The number of sailors in the ship determine how fast it can move and how strong it is in battle. The ship can move one space and roll one combat die for each sailor in the ship and sailors act as hit points. This means you can load up a ship with sailors and it is very fast and very strong in combat. But this ship cannot carry any goods. On the other side you can load up a ship with one sailor and up to four goods and you have a slow but very profitable ship on your hands.
So the player must decide how to outfit their ships. Sometimes the situation calls for a warship while others call for a trade ship. And sometimes it is good just to split it down the middle. In any case outfitting your ships is wonderfully fun.
At the beginning of the game players each start with two ships but can purchase more as the game goes on. Each ship has a number on it that corresponds with a number on the rondel. This rondel determines turn order. Each round the player with the first ship in number order will go first then the next number and onward. There are fifteen ships available for purchase which means that some spaces on the rondel will be skipped until that ship is purchased.
You get to decide the turn order as the game progresses.
All of this means you must decide if you want to spread your turns out over a round or group them all together by buying ships with numbers next to each other. This also means that you must pay attention to which ship you are loading up with what goods/sailors since they will play out in order.
Combat occurs after a ship has moved into an board space with a ship from another player. It is important to note that combat is not compulsory – you don’t have to fight each other. This can provide some tense moments as you wait to see if you opponent will sell their goods to a port or start shooting at you (they cannot do both – they must choose between the two).
The players in combat simultaneously roll combat dice equal to the sailors in the ships that are engaging. A skull rolled kills a sailor and a blank does nothing and the dice are split 50/50 between hits and misses. Once a ship loses all of its sailors it is sunk. This combat system is easy and fast.
Ports are the other main focus for players. Each port has a good that it produces (like gold, marble, wine, etc – there are 6 goods in the game) and a warehouse of varying but limited size. Only one good of each type can be traded to a port – think of this like setting up trade routes. You are less selling some marble to a port and more setting up a trade route that supplies this port with marble. This also means that you can’t just pick up a bunch of marble and unload it all in one port. You have to spread it out. And the more ports’ warehouses fill up with goods the fewer ports may accept the good you want to trade.
Players can sell goods to a port they do not control for fast money. However, controlling ports is where the big money can be made. Serenissima has several scoring rounds over the course of the game and if you control a port you will score points for it each scoring round. So you have to decide if you need some quick money or if you want to unload some sailors in a port to control it. Or if one of your opponents controls a high scoring port, do you go and do combat to take it from them? All very interesting decisions and I love how things tighten up toward the end of the game as warehouses fill up. You may have to sail all the way across the Mediterranean to trade that wine you have at the end of the game.
Try this game if you like:
- Xia: Legends of a Drift System
- Merchants and Mauraders
- Merchant of Venus
- Sails of Glory
If you can’t tell from my gushing above, I love this game. It is a very satisfying and thematic experience without being overburdened with fiddly rules and components. The decisions you make around your ships and your ports are wonderfully interesting. And not only are the ship pieces in the game amazing, the mechanisms surrounding them are brilliantly simple.
Serenissima flew under the radar which is a shame since it is so good.
My only problem with the game is that it slightly overstays its welcome. Many current games have the opposite problem where they exit early leaving players feeling like they need a couple more rounds. Serenissima feels like it needs a couple less. Here are a couple ways to shorten the game a bit.
- Limit the number of ships to 10 or 11 instead of 15. This will cut down on the number of turns taken in the game and will also make players race to get the ships they want.
- Change the grape Doge card to also advance the round marker one space. (I didn’t mention these above – at the end of a round players draw a card to see how to move the round tracker. This can be 0, 1, or 2 spaces) Normally, this card does not move the round marker when it is drawn. If this card is drawn multiple times in a game it can extend the playtime considerably.
Serenissima is one of those games that somehow flew under the radar. You don’t hear much about it and I think that is unfortunate. It is such an engaging and interesting game. Well, this is my attempt to get the word out about it and I hope you can still find a copy. You won’t regret it. If you are looking for a pick up and deliver game sprinkled with some combat with brilliantly simple mechanisms Serenissima is it.
THOUGHTS FROM THE PUB
I’ve been looking for the right “age of sail” game for a while and there are a lot of good ones out there. But it’s been a hard for me to lock one down. Now I know there are a lot of good ship games that cover pirate themes, naval battles, economy and trading, and, of course, the viking craze; and I would love to play all these games. But for my collection I really wanted something that wasn’t overly complicated and could be played in around 2 hours, something that thematically made sense (sorry Jamaica… I love you and you’re super fun but I just don’t get pirates in a boat race), and something that leaned more toward the streamlined euro-gameage side so I wouldn’t feel like I’d rather be playing Xia – like I said there are a lot of good ones already out there but sometimes I think I wanted Cody Miller to just slap a pirate theme to Xia and call it good.
I won’t name all the games I have on this particular quest’s list, but Serenissima was one of them and I finally got to play it… before my first play was drawing to a close I had already secured an online purchase and I’m happy to say I may have filled a hole in my collection I’d been worried didn’t exist.
Serenissima is all those things I mentioned: it’s simple, plays a full complement of 4 players in roughly 2 hours, highly thematic, and while it feels like I’m trading in the Mediterranean it doesn’t feel like some dry, lifeless pick-up/deliver game. It also doesn’t feel quite like any of the other games on my “age of sail” list. This last bit is mostly due to being a game that doesn’t try to extend into a simulation. Many of these age of sail games (i.e. Merchants and Marauders on one side and maybe Sails of Glory on the other) do a good job in creating a game that gives the full experience of trading, pirating, navigation, battle, etc. Serenissima’s scope is much smaller and keeps things at an extremely approachable level.
But you like the big sweeping experiences and now you’re turned off Serenissima. Well that’s too bad because one thing this game does well is take its simpler approach and uses each mechanic to its fullest. There is quite a bit of dual purpose to each component whether we’re talking turn order, ship contents, port contents, or physical map presence. Brian has already mentioned the sailor-to-cargo ratios that create some really fun decisions, but what about the kinds of tension that arises when selling to your own port only provides victory points but selling to an opponent’s port – providing them points – gains much needed money and a reason for them to not pull a blockade. You see? Simple rules with tight decisions and the game feels just as full.
In fact, when done it feels a lot more epic than you’d think you’d get out of such a small ruleset. I’m a fan, and I’m glad to have finally satisfied that gap in my collection.