Blue Riband: Review

Turn back the clocks. Grab your life preserver and a fancy drink. Fairway tries to build the most luxurious, capable ship and sail it from England to New York before his opponent in today’s preview of Blue Riband.

Blue Riband is a two-player game set in an alternate past in which the players build and then race their luxury liner, either the Titanic or the Lusitania, across the Atlantic. I really wanted to call this ship building game a deck builder, but alas. It is a card-drafting and then racing game.

Initial Impressions

  1. We really liked building our ships. Like a lot. It was probably our favorite part and there’s probably a game in just that.
  2. There’s a fair amount of boards involved in this game: each player gets half of a giant board (representing one of the ships) to play cards. There’s also a board for the map across the Atlantic.  Components all seemed nice and well done.
  3. While the rulebook seemed long at first, and things like the placement rules seemed daunting, it was actually pretty straight-forward once the players got going.

How to play

In Blue Riband, players are first the architects and then the captains of a luxury ocean-liner in the golden-era of trans-Atlantic ocean travel. The object of the game is to garner the most points when the game ends by either building the most luxurious ship, the fastest ship, or some combination of both.  At the start of the game, players are given one of two ships: the Titanic or the Lusitania.  These are represented by large boards. The boards all have a series of card-sized spaces divided into a series of decks.  The background of the board is a depiction of the ship itself.

To start, a deck of design cards is shuffled and placed in a draw pile.  A starting tableau of five design cards is turned face up. Each player then draws a starting hand of six design cards. During the build/design phase, players will take turns doing the following: drawing one card from the design deck into their hand, optionally exchanging a card from their hand with one in the tableau, and then placing, facedown, one of the cards onto their ship.

There are five primary types of design cards: first class, second class, third class, safety improvements and engine cards.  When placing the design cards on a ship, there are a few rules which make sense including levels they can be placed on and how they might be arranged. For example, a ship can only have one first-class section and all the first-class cards must be adjacent — you can span levels only using a grand staircase card. Likewise, engine and coal design cards that provide fuel and speed must be placed on the lower levels.  There are also “validity” requirements for a ship that are reviewed at the end of the design phase. For example, a valid first-class section must have at least one stateroom and one amenity.

The design cards all serve a purpose.  Many of design cards improve the “luxury” rating of the ship. Others will generate revenue. Some will improve the safety of your ship (important in the race portion of the game). Others provide fuel to survive the ocean voyage.

Players essentially build their ships in secret over 20 or so rounds.  At the end of which, all of the cards are revealed.  If any sections break any of the placement or validity rules, they’re removed from the ship — for example, if you don’t have the requisite number of staterooms for your first-class section.

Once the ships are reviewed, the race portion of the game begins. Players collect coal according to how much coal storage they have. Players will take turns over a series of rounds captaining their ship from South Hampton, England to New York City.  Each round will have its own weather and cause obstacles (icebergs and u-boats) to move on the map.  Players will then take turns burning coal to move their ship.  Depending on the weather, the faster the ship moves the more treacherous and the more inefficient it gets.

During the voyage, icebergs, U-boats and fog can damage your ship.  When a player encounters one of these hazards, they’ll use a chart to compute damage based on the type of hazard, the ship’s speed, a roll of the dice, and the ship’s safety improvements. This is then compared to a damage chart and the damage is applied to the ship.  Ships can take up to four points of damage before sinking.  But with each level of damage, the ship becomes more inefficient and cards on the ship are lost (e.g., flooded).

The game ends in one of two ways:  both players reach New York City or one player doesn’t. In the case a player can’t or doesn’t reach New York City, the other player wins. For example, if a player sinks or runs out of coal. If both players reach New York City, the players count up their points. In this case, the player who gets to New York first gets 100 points, the player with the most luxurious ship (most stars) gets 100 points, each player earns 1 point per net revenue (your gross revenue less your operating expenses).

On the green

Blue Riband is an interesting mix of simulation and game. It had some things that played out well, but lacked the polish one might hope.

“Deck” Building.  Okay, it’s not a “deck builder” in the traditional sense. But the first phase of the game has players competing, in relative secrecy, the construction of their ships by drafting cards and placing them on boat decks. Building the ships, placing cards, and enjoying the fruits of that game play are definitely the highlight of Blue Riband. Not sure how to express this to the designer, but this should be much, much, much more then central part of the game.

Intuitive.  I don’t say this often, but considering the apparent complexity of all the things that happen in the game–some times with intricate rules and decision charts–it’s a pretty intuitive game. People just “got it” without a lot of rules checking. Similarly, with very limited exceptions, when we did confront the rules, it often matched our intuition.  The use of the “Grand Staircase” was the only one that wasn’t like that.

Damage & Flooding. Okay, so we enjoyed how the ship flooded. We liked how the game forced you to plan for the worst: if you took some damage, are you okay with losing your third class staterooms?  Or do you put a coal bunker down there?

Where it comes up short

Player-defeating mechanisms.  The top concern on everyone’s issues list was the number of ways in which this game helps the players fail. There are a few places where the guardrails are so low that players might not even get to “finish” the game. The most obvious one is that there’s no good way to know how much coal you’re going to need and, even if you knew, there’s no guarantee you’d get it.  Players can make it through the whole build phase and not have enough fuel to make it from England to New York.  There’s a whole bunch of ways this can happen: poor planning, poor estimation, poor card draws, poor card order, etc.  It seems somewhat irresponsible to create a situation in which a player can’t even really “finish” the second part.

Another example of this happens when building things like the first-class cabin.  It’s possible to start a first-class cabin and not actually be able to finish it merely because of things outside the control of the player.  It’s sort of like the Sashimi card in Sushi Go! but for lots of points.

Maybe these features are by design, but it’s hard to escape that many of these feel-bad moments in the game could have been designed around.

Art & Photography.  I’m a huge fan of deploying public domain works in games. The game made use of many on-point public domain photographs from ships of the era, including the Titanic, Lusitania, and Olympic. The collection itself seemed great.

But, ultimately, it’s rare to be able to just take photographs and paintings and deploy them without manipulation of some sort. This was no different.  Moreover, the presentation of those works detracted from the overall feel.  Many of the graphic design elements obscured and detracted from the photographs. The uninspired iconography, fonts, and graphic design were just too much of a distraction.

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