Silent Ships, from independent designer Jorge Zhang, tries to capture the sneaky mind games of Stratego in a small-box card game. In doing so it, unfortunately, reminded me of how much I disliked my one play of Stratego a decade ago.
To Silent Ships’ credit, it’s a lot quicker than the game that inspired it. Finishing in as little as 10 minutes, it feels more like a skirmish than an all-out war. Each player gets a hand of 11 ship cards, numbered 0-10, which they can deploy and move throughout a 4×5 grid. Each ship has an accompanying power or, in the case of the strongest ships, a curse. The goal is to capture and hold the opponent’s base or to sink seven ships.
But the ships are always placed face down, which means that after a couple of turns to deploy and position, the play area will be filled with hidden ships, ready to strike. Because there is so little space there’s not much room to maneuver after the initial couple of turns. Defensive structures become extremely important as orthogonally-adjacent ships can assist in combat.
It’s here where the game slows down to a crawl, as attacking is a dangerous concept. If you lose on the attack the relevant ships are revealed, but if you win you gain ground, often isolating that ship for a counterattack. Initiating that first attack is scary, and it often feels better to simply bolster your defensive structure and wait for the opponent to blunder.
A horizontal line is a great defensive structure because even at the edge there’s at least one other ship to provide support. If you attack a line and succeed, now you’ve got a ship literally surrounded with no support (because the only source of support would be the place the attacking ship just came from). I suppose you’ve got to build up a large hand of cards to fund multiple attacks and movements in one go to overcome a strong defense.
Perhaps aggression is the right play, then, and I’m simply too frustrated by blind guessing to commit to anything. The problem is that there’s so little context to move beyond blind guessing. The best games with this dynamic provide clues to nudge your decision one way or another. Netrunner blossoms as you start to understand the way different factions play and learn the meta. Sekigahara gives you some insight into starting positions and is built around trying to figure out and track what cards your opponent has in hand. Silent Ships, like Stratego before it, feels like poking around in the dark, hoping to gain an edge you can ride to victory. Once ships start turning face up play becomes rudimentary.
I’ve also found that it’s quite difficult to come back from an early defeat. It’s expensive to move multiple ships as blocks, so the more powerful vessels, even with downsides, become precious. Lose one of those early and you’re vulnerable to an opponent picking off your weaker ships. Every game of Silent Ships I’ve played has effectively ended after the first flurry of attacks. The last one I simply conceded after recognizing my losing position.
I wish the weaker ships had more significant powers. Some of them are handy, certainly, but in a game this limited in scope it should pack a bigger punch. The island cards, which give you an additional card draw for controlling them, feel similarly limp. My playing partners came away with more favorable impressions of Silent Ships, but I left each game frustrated and ready to move onto something else.
Zhang was kind enough to send along a bonus game, called Can’t Touch This, that fares better. It’s two cards, six paperclips, and a bi-fold rules booklet. Designed to be played in-hand, it presents a nice puzzle as players attempt to lasso various icons with their paperclips to score points. After a while you’re going to figure out optimal paths, but given that the game is, once again, literally two cards, I don’t know how you can improve it much. It’s space efficient and a clever way to utilize the unique shape of paperclips for gaming purposes. Pull it out the next time you’re waiting in line. It’s better than doomscrolling through social media.