Short review: The Shores of Tripoli


Summary: A good beer and pretzels game with a very interesting theme, but with a game arc that becomes predictable.

The backdrop to the Shores of Tripoli is the First Barbary War of 1801 to 1805, a fascinating conflict that saw the navy of the new US republic, allied with Sweden, try to put a stop to raiding of merchant shipping by pirates from Tripoli and the other Barbary states of North Africa.

A light two-player card-driven naval combat game with pirates and a great theme? Colour me intrigued.

The US and Tripolitan sides have several asymmetric win conditions. For the US it is strategic strangulation or outright invasion of Tripoli. For the Tripolitans successful pirating or an against-the-odds military victory.

Each side has 24 cards that can be played for an event or discarded for pirating, moving about or reinforcing. They also have three more powerful one-use event-only cards. The events themselves are a combination of stand-alone actions, such as allowing for additional movement, and interrupts and combat boosts. Some can only be triggered once another event has occurred or the game has reached a certain year. Some will be removed when played, others discarded to be recycled back into a player’s hand in a later turn.

As you play cards and take your actions you will be rolling lots of dice to see if you have succeeded in pirating, intercepting, bombarding, naval combat and the like. The game will typically come to a crescendo after about an hour in a last pitched battle.

There is a lot to like here. The artwork and thematic setting impress. The game tells a nice historical story as the trigger events get played and the US-backed rebel army is created in Alexandria in 1804, or Istanbul sends reinforcements to Tripoli as the US army nears. It is quick to teach, quick to play, simple enough, and whizz-bangy. A good beer and pretzels game.

The issue is… with the trigger events the game is very much on rails. Most times it follows the same narrative path. This can be problematic for the agency of the Tripolitan player. If you have not won or come close to winning through piracy by the mid-game point, your main hope for victory is to batten down the hatches and hope to hold off against US attacks. Not always so much fun. It is also problematic for replayability.

For me this leaves the game in the good-to-break-out-after-a-few-beers-if-you-haven’t-played-it-for-a-while category. And who does not need games like that?

Words: James Buckley