Last summer, we were contacted by a budding game designer named Kevin Bertram and he shared with us his upcoming game The Shores of Tripoli. The Shores of Tripoli is a card-driven war game that plays in forty-five to sixty minutes. One side takes the Americans, who try to stop the Barbary pirates and perhaps even send the Marines in to take Tripoli. The other side takes the role of the Barbary pirates and tries to capture as many merchant ships as possible or even take on the frigates of the American navy.
We reached out to Kevin and he was willing to answer our many questions this most interesting looking game.
Grant: Kevin, first off please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Kevin: I run a small mobile content distribution company called Big Parameter, which is an anagram of my daughter’s name. It was spun out from my larger company that was sold in 2010. We distribute content to cellphone companies in English speaking countries around the world, so right now someone in Zambia is reading a horoscope I wrote and someone in Nepal is reading some celebrity gossip that my sister-in-law wrote.
For almost all my life my hobbies have been sports, academic debate and board games. While my preferred sports have changed from college football and basketball to baseball, soccer and cricket and my interest in academic debate has been replaced by an interest in cooking, my love of board games has remained solid.
Grant: How did you get into game design? What do you love most about it?
Kevin: I fell into it actually. I never really thought about designing games because I don’t think of myself as particularly creative. But a friend gave me the book Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. I breezed through that and then went looking for a game on the subject and was shocked there was not one. So I did some more research and made a list of the major events and personalities and got lucky with a design I am pretty happy with. As I do research for my next game (The Halls of Montezuma, of course), I realize it is that research that I love the most.
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
Kevin: I want the games to be simple to play but still convey a historical narrative. So any design decisions have to meet both of those goals.
Grant: What is The Shores of Tripoli about? Where did your inspiration come from for the game?
Kevin: The Shores of Tripoli covers the First Barbary War from 1801-1805. The inspiration came from being shocked there was no game on this really exciting part of American history.
Grant: Why did you feel the Card Driven Game mechanic would best represent this historical time period?
Kevin: There was really no other way to include the historical (and educational) narrative of the war. There were limited forces available to both sides, so the use of cards was a way to constrain movement and battles to something approximating history. Plus, the art work from and on the period is simply fantastic and the best way to introduce that into the game was through cards.
Grant: The game is asymmetric as both sides have different Victory conditions. How difficult is it to design good asymmetry?
Kevin: I am lucky in that the history tells the story. The Americans wanted to stop paying tribute to Tripoli and the way to do that was either force them to sign a treaty or to install the pasha’s pro-American brother on the throne. The Tripolitans wanted America to keep paying tribute and the way to do that was to make it more expensive for the United States to continue the war – either because of the loss of ships and/or men or because the blockade was unsuccessful in protecting American merchant ships. So the history really wrote the victory conditions. Fine-tuning the exact conditions was just a process of testing. Currently, the Americans have a 34-33 lead in supervised play tests with two draws.
What are the differing Victory conditions? Which side has the tougher go of meeting their goals?
Kevin: The Americans win by either forcing Tripoli to sign a treaty or by capturing Tripoli and replacing the pasha. The conditions for the treaty – Tripoli has no allies, no frigates and the Americans have captured Derne – are perhaps slightly easier than just capturing Tripoli. But most Americans want to capture Benghazi and then Tripoli after capturing Derne. Maybe it is our bloodthirsty nature as Americans.
The Tripolitans can achieve an economic victory, which is defined as having twelve “gold” (a generic representation of wealth) that is acquired from pirating and collecting tribute, or they can win a military victory by sinking/capturing four American ships or by wiping out the Arab/American army. The balance seems good so far, but perhaps some play tester will discover the “Benghazi Hammer” – hence the need for extensive play testing.
Grant: What were the challenges you experienced in finding a balance to make the game winnable by either side?
Kevin: Each player has at most twenty-four turns and most games end a bit earlier than that. So each side needed to be able to fulfill one of its victory conditions in about eighteen to twenty turns. Designing the conditions to be balanced around that clock was the challenge.
Grant: There are three types of units in the game. What are they and what role does each play?
Kevin: Frigates are the workhorses of the game. They can take two hits (like battleships in Axis & Allies) and roll two dice in combat. The Americans start with three and max out at eight frigates as they build up their forces in the region. The Swedes, America’s allies, also bring two frigates to help blockade Tripoli. The Americans also have two gunboats loaned to them from Sicily. These gunboats are the functional equivalent of corsairs in combat, but only fight in the harbor of Tripoli.
Corsairs are the main stay of the Tripolitan fleet. Tripoli starts with four corsairs in Tripoli and two in Gibraltar when the war breaks out. Tripoli needs to bring home their two corsairs in Gibraltar or at the end of 1801 the British will seize them. Tripoli maxes out at nine corsairs and their three allies each have three corsairs if they enter the conflict. Corsairs can only take one hit and only roll one die in combat. Tripolitan sailors were really only trained for raiding merchant ships, not matching up with frigates. Tripoli can capture one frigate from the Americans (The Philadelphia Runs Aground card) and the Ottomans will send one as military aid after the Americans capture Derne.
And then there are infantry units. They are generic, although certain cards can improve the Marines in combat (the Presley O’Bannon and Marine Sharpshooters cards).
Grant: Any logic for the colors used for each of the forces?
Kevin: When I first started play testing, I used Catan cities as frigates and Seafarers ships as corsairs. Blue made sense as America and Red made sense for Tripoli, and the colors just stuck. Of course, the Swedes were always going to be Yellow.
Grant: The cards are at the heart of the game. Why are there three decks for only two players?
Kevin: Simple. The third deck is for solitaire play only.
Grant: What is the makeup of the decks?
Kevin: The player decks are made up of 27 cards each. Nine of the cards are one time event cards (three start face-up and six are in the deck), twelve are generic event cards (that are not removed from the game when played as an event) and six are battle cards that are used to modify combat in some way. The distinction of the different card types is a late addition for the purpose of making the cards easier to understand. However, if our playtesters indicate it is just confusing, this naming convention may be discarded.
Grant: What is a Core Event card? Can you show us a few examples and tell us how they are used?
Kevin: The original design simply had one commander-in-chief card that was face up in front of the player, like the candidate cards in 1960. But because each side has a card that really needs to be played in 1801 (Swedish Frigates Arrive for the Americans and Admiral Rais Breaks Out for the Tripolitans), I decided to make it three. The third card for each side is their major reinforcement card (Hamet’s Army Created for the Americans and Constantinople Sends Aid for the Tripolitans) that can only be played if certain conditions exist.
Grant: What is a Unique Event card? Can you show us a few examples and tell us how they are used?
Kevin: These are for events that can really only happen one time and so are removed from the game after play – like most of the cards in Twilight Struggle. So when the Philadelphia Runs Aground, it only can happen once. When General Eaton marches on Derne, it can only happen once.
Grant: What is a Generic Event card? Can you show us a few examples and tell us how they are used?
Kevin: These are card events that are not removed from the game if played as an event – like, say Voice of America or Socialist Governments in Twilight Struggle.
Grant: How are Battle Cards used?
Kevin: So these cards usually modify battles – the number of dice that are rolled and such. Some cards allow reinforcements – the Americans can send in extra Marines to assault Tripoli or the Tripolitans can convert a captured merchant ship into a corsair.
Grant: What is the Sequence of Play?
Kevin: At the start of the year, each side draws six cards and receives any frigates that are either reinforcements or having been repaired from damage the previous year. First, the American plays a card for its event, discards a card to move one/two frigates, or passes. Then the Tripolitan player plays a card for its event, discards a card to either make a pirate raid or build a new corsair, or passes. After this happens four times – four seasons – the year is up and the next year begins.
Grant: Who designed the map and what role does it play in the theme of the game? How do naval units move around the map?
Kevin: The original play test map was just a blown-up photocopy of the map included with the Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates book. The key locations were the three harbors friendly to the Americans (Gibraltar, Malta and Alexandria), the three important Tripolitan cities (Derne, Benghazi and Tripoli) and the capitals of the three other Barbary powers (Tunis, Algiers, Tangier). Only five patrol zones made sense for the play of the game, outside Gibraltar (really important while corsairs are holed up in the harbor of Gibraltar), and the four capitals. Because each turn is a season, there is no real limit to where you move to – the important thing is what happens when you get there!
Grant: Why is the harbor of Tripoli so hostile to the American player and how do they overcome this?
Kevin: Attacking Tripoli was a tricky business for the Americans because there were American sailors and civilians held prisoner in the city. There were also powerful guns protecting the city, so an attack in the harbor was no easy project. Attacking Tripoli was a big deal, so there are only three cards that allow the Americans to do so – Thomas Jefferson, Naval Operations and, of course, Assault on Tripoli.
Grant: How does Naval Bombardment work and why is it a good tactic and in what situations?
Kevin: At one point Naval Bombardment was its own card but about midway through it the card was replaced with Early Deployment. Naval Bombardment is useful for softening up Derne or Benghazi for your army but I would say only occurs about every other game – because the American player has so much else to do!
Grant: How does combat work, including both naval and ground? How are the number of dice determined?
Kevin: In naval combat, frigates get two dice and corsairs (and gunboats) get one die each. This can be modified by Preble’s Boys Take Aim for the Americans and The Guns of Tripoli for the Tripolitans. Each 6 is a hit, frigates can take two hits and a corsairs can take one hit. A damaged frigate is repaired at the end of the year. Most naval combat is one round, although if the Americans have played Assault on Tripoli then it is a fight to the death.
In ground combat, infantry get one die each. This can be modified by Lieutenant O’Bannon Leads the Charge for the Americans. Each 6 is a hit, unless the Americans play Marine Sharpshooters, and each infantry unit can take one hit. Unlike naval combat, ground combat is always to the death, so a battle may take two or five or twenty rounds of dice rolling. If the Arab/American army is wiped out, the Tripolitan player immediately wins.
Grant: How do Pirate Raids work and why are they advantageous to the Tripolitan player?
Kevin: The primary path to victory for Tripoli is to get to 12 Gold Coins. They start with two and sometimes get more via tribute. But the main way is by capturing merchant ships. When Tripoli (or one of her allies) goes on a raid, the American player first gets to try to intercept the raiding corsairs and rolls similar to combat – two dice per frigate, each 6 is a hit and takes out a corsair. Then the Tripolitan player rolls a die for each remaining corsair and captures a merchant ship (and gets a Gold Coin) for each 5 or 6 rolled.
Grant: What role does recruitment play?
Kevin: The ability to discard a card to recruit a corsair was a fairly late addition to the game and can only be done if the Tripolitan player has three corsairs or less. It is a failsafe for the Tripolitan player if the bulk of their fleet gets wiped out early.
Grant: What triggers the end of the game?
Kevin: If the American player plays the Treaty of Peace and Amity card, the game ends immediately in an American victory. Or if the American player plays Assault on Tripoli and then successfully captures Tripoli, the game ends immediately in an American victory.
If the Tripolitan player gets his twelfth Gold Coin, sinks/captures his fourth American frigate or wipes out the Arab/American army, the game ends immediately in a Tripolitan victory. If there is no winner at the end of 1806, then the game ends in a draw. Both of the American winning cards cannot be played prior to the Fall of 1805, so the Tripolitan player is guaranteed at least eighteen turns to get to victory.
Grant: Will there be a solitaire mode? What challenges were there in designing it?
Kevin: Yes, the third deck is for solitaire mode with the human playing as the Americans. It is a challenge to get the decision-making right for the Tripolitan bot player. The key decision in the game for Tripoli is at some point the Tripolitan player needs to decide can Tripoli get to 12 gold or is it time to hunker down and play defensively. Modeling that decision has been a real challenge.
Grant: What changes have you made to the game due to play testing? What still needs tweaking?
Kevin: The combat was much more complicated – after a few plays it became pretty clear that an easy Axis & Allies type combat would be the way to go. Several cards have been changed or swapped out. The Tripolitan player’s winning conditions have also been modified a bit after extensive playtesting – the big change being from 15 gold to only 12 gold (although two cards that helped them towards that goal were also eliminated). The one card I still would like to add – perhaps as a promo card and ship later on – is a Tripolitan flagship corsair that rolls two dice instead of only one and the piece is black. A true pirate ship!
Grant: What is the timeline for the game to go to Kickstarter?
Kevin: I have reached out to some manufacturers and will chat with them in good faith, but my gut instinct is that they won’t want to expend the time and resources on a designer’s first effort. So, barring a surprise, I would see it on Kickstarter in late March or early April.
Grant: What are you most pleased with in the design? What was the biggest challenge to overcome?
Kevin: I am most pleased with the art for the cards. The Navy History and Heritage Command and the Mariners Museum have both been super helpful in getting me the best art possible. The biggest challenge has been that I am a mediocre writer at best. Hence, why I am looking for a top-notch rulebook editor and designer.
Grant: What other projects are you working on?
Kevin: I have started research on The Halls of Montezuma and am getting a good idea of most of the cards and what the different capabilities and winning conditions are for both the American and Mexican player.
Thanks for your time for answering our interview questions and for showing us so many of the gorgeous near final cards. I am excited for this CDG and definitely want to get it to the table. I wish you the best of luck in bringing this to a conclusion on Kickstarter.