Pierluigi Frumusa, Davide Rizzi
2 - 6
14 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

Our review copy of Swordfish was kindly supplied by Ghenos Games. Thanks a lot!

Swordfish was one of the games I had really been looking forward to trying in Essen this year. It’s made from parts that I enjoy: a not-too-heavy economic part (prices are static, not fluctuating), an element of luck that appears manageable, an uncommon theme (ocean fishing) and rather cool components. Okay, my designer friends say that too much drop shadow causes cancer, but I like the look of the game. And I like the boats with the punched-out hole where your captpawn fits in. The captain is, to his great misfortune, not a meeple but just a regular pawn, so we’ll call him captpawn.

Busy coastal fishing grounds
Busy coastal fishing grounds

But you start the game without one of those. It’s early April – start of the swordfish season – and we find ourselves in the north of North America, between Gloucester and St. John. We also find ourselves owning nothing safe 20 Victory Points, which double as a currency. And so we do what every man wants to do at least once in his life, usually during the mid-life crisis: we go shopping for a boat. Actually, we rent a boat, probably also like most men in their mid-life crisis because they can’t afford to buy. But expenses don’t stop there, we obviously need a captpawn and a crew. And some fuel, too. Boats can move without fuel, but only at the speed of a swimming crewman pushing. You’ll want fuel, trust me, without fuel your first fishing trip will take a minimum of four rounds out of 15 that the game lasts. At Gloucester, the cheapest of the five ports to go shopping, a captain plus 5 units of fuel cost 7 victory points, leaving you with just enough to rent a 13-point boat. That is, actually, a pretty sweet deal: out of the eight different classes of boats, the 13s are the cheapest that can carry two swordfish home. They can also make it out to the fishing grounds closest to the coast in one turn and back in another. We did the math, this is the combination to go with. Just for the record, you can also buy bait to stock your ship, but at least at the start of the game it’s not worth the money, you’re better off catching your own.

After all the players hired their crew and rented a ship, they move out. Without burning fuel, inexpensive boats at cruising speed – also known as get-out-and-push speed – move one step only, a step being either to move to an anchor – basically transit fields – or from an anchor to a buoy, the fishing grounds proper. Burning fuel takes your speed up to two or even three, thus getting you to the fishing grounds in only one turn. If you were one of the first three players, because that’s how many buoys are at most attached to one anchor. If you’re player four, that option is usually closed to you – except if one of the earlier players decided to go further out without a compelling reason to do so. So that leaves players four, five and six with two options: spend more turns to fish further out, or start further north. Both options will lead to them either not being able to afford fuel or having to hire a smaller boat. In other words: taking twice as long or carrying half the catch. Both are not desirable options, the earlier players have a huge advantage.

My Fleet
My Fleet

Getting further into the turn, boats that made it to a buoy may fish. Fishing for swordfish requires bait which, as you remember, we didn’t buy, so first we fish for bait, rolling a dice to see how much we got. When fishing, you can either catch bait three times, catch swordfish three times or do each once. Since the bait die has a zero, you might not have a choice what to fish for. Catching swordfish is a matter of luck as well, but of a different kind: depending on the colour of the buoy, you draw a tile from a different colour bag with different distributions of fish. The colours  roughly correspond to how close to the coast the fishing grounds are. Orange buoys are closest to the coast, they contain mostly rats and pups – jargon for smaller fish – and only two and one respectively of the more valuable markers and doubles. Going further out to the green, blue and red buoys increases your chance for a bigger catch, but anything beyond green is just not fun in the small boats, by the time your back the game is half over and your opponents have invested their money in a Ferrari collection. The higher price that the bigger fish get just doesn’t measure up against the long time it takes to get there.

Taken by itself, the fishing mechanic is well made: in a very easy way it simulates how fishing grounds further from the coast have the bigger fish and how the coastal fishing grounds get depleted during the season. At the same time, you always know perfectly well what your chances are for a good catch since the information what fish have been caught already and what fish were in the bags to start with is open. But this, too, is pulled down by the early player advantage: the orange bag has three of the more valuable fish. If you don’t make it to the fishing grounds on the first turn, your opponents potentially have four attempts to catch them before you get the chance. Being the fourth player, your opponents had a total of 12 chances to catch these fish before you get started – I’m not quite up  on my stochastics, but I’m pretty sure that’s not good for you. Of course, your opponents might catch mako sharks, very cheap fish that also drive away the swordfish for that turn. But then, so might you.

In the last phase of the turn ships in the port may sell fish. The two southmost ports offer a better price for everything than their northern neighbours, so if you can, you want to sell here. Actually, the difference doesn’t look so big, but the consequences of that small difference are brutal: selling in northern port instead of a southern one may make all the difference between renting a bigger boat for the next trip or not – and if you can’t afford to upgrade your boat, the whole expedition was pretty much pointless, your next one will look just like the one before – only that your chances for a good catch are worse now. And that’s the difference between being an early player or a late player, unfortunately: playing early you go out quick, catch some fish, sell them for good southern prices and upgrade your boat. Playing late, you either do the same thing two full turns later, or you carry only one swordfish, giving you a very small chance to actually catch the big fish and return to upgrade your boat. Or you go all the way north, where the green buoys are close to the coast, catch a big fish there, sell it – and still don’t afford to upgrade your boat. And so on until the end. You’ll watch players one and two steaming about with four city-sized factory ships at the end while you’re still going out and towing in two fish at a time. Sorry, but that’s just the way it goes. I don’t doubt the realism of it, swordfishering is a tough business where the early worm catches the fish, but in a game about fishing I’d love to have some sort of balancing mechanism that allows players to catch up.

The Boat Yard
The Boat Yard

The changing turn order, by the way, is not that mechanism. In theory making the player with the least points go first may sound good, but when your points are also your money it just doesn’t work out. The player with those four Leviathan-class ships that basically suck up a cubic mile of ocean and then spit out everything that is not swordfish-shaped still goes first, as long as he invested all his points into ships and fuel he’ll sit at zero points. And he doesn’t have any reason not to until the last four rounds or so. At that point in the game, it’s predictable that any ship you send out will not come in again before the game ends,so you’re better of stashing your money. In extreme cases, players may skip the last three rounds because all their ships are back and there’s nothing worthwhile for them to do.

One thing that features prominently on the board and in the rules wasn’t mentioned yet: weather. The weather changes semi-randomly every round, with a tendency to get worse later in the season. When the weather gets too bad, fishing in the most profitable regions becomes impossible and it may even set your ships adrift. That could sometimes be a way to catch up with the leading players: when the weather turns bad all their big ships sit idling just off the coast, not doing anything except burning money. But how do you catch up when you cannot catch the big fish, either?

Let’s face it, Swordfish is mostly made from good parts. I like the fishing part, even with all the luck attached. I like the general concept of the game. But the economy just feels out of whack and things are happening too slowly. You spend too many turns getting there and back again, not doing anything interesting. My feeling is that everything troubling me about Swordfish could be fixed by adjusting values on the price and boat charts. Maybe increasing all boats speeds by one point could do it, or their capacity to load fish. Maybe reversing the fish price gradient would help. Sorry, that sentence sounded like Scotty, didn’t it? “Captpawn, the fish price gradient has reversed” – “Can you fix it?”. What I mean is, fish in the south could be cheaper, then the northern ports would have a higher investment, but also higher profit. We’ve been floating a lot of ideas, but ultimately, none of them is in the game at this point. I hope that the designers can come up with a fix that is easily applied because I still want to enjoy playing Swordfish, but right now the balance problems don’t let me.

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