The ship is going down. A watery grave beckons for its plucky crew. Or does it? Perhaps with the help of a tarot deck, the crew might be able to read the portents and escape to sail into the sunset. Failure to do so will see them meet their doom at the bottom of the ocean.
What is The Shipwreck Arcana?
The Shipwreck Arcana is a cooperative card game for 2-5 players, designed by Meromorph games. Based around a stylized tarot deck, it’s a deduction game in which players give clues to one another using a series of cards that lay face up for all to see.
Games take around 10-30 mins with games of more players lasting longer. It has been easily accessed by my 11-year-old, and my 8-year-old has enjoyed it too (In fact, as I was editing this review, he walked past and exclaimed “Oh Wow! It’s that game we played. Can we play?” Recommendation indeed!) It’s an excellent family game that fosters logic and reasoning.
The Shipwreck Arcana is looking for funding on Kickstarter now. As with Meromorph’s successful Norsaga Kickstarters, the funding target is modest and the game has a great price. $15 + Shipping (A mere 1$ to US, Canada, and the EU) will bag you The Shipwreck Arcana and all its stretch goals.
What’s in the box?
The base game contains the following:
- 20 Arcana cards.
- 1 Hours card.
- 2 Tracker tokens.
- 1 Token Bag.
- 21 Fate Tokens.
- 35 (7 for each player) marker tokens.
- Rules sheet.
Note: All the images I have included in this review are of the prototype and may differ from the final product.
How do I play The Shipwreck Arcana?
Play is simple, though slightly counter-intuitive at first. When I first read the rules, I couldn’t help but think there was no way you’d ever guess anything correctly. That’s because the game mechanic makes little sense without understanding the text on the Arcana cards.
How do you set up a game?
Set up is easy.
- Place the 21 Fate Tokens into the Token Bag (Fate Tokens are numbered 1 -7 three times).
- Place the Hours Card in the middle of the table between all the players.
- Place the two trackers on the Hours card. Starting at zero. The green tracker marks progress towards salvation. The red tracker marks thy doom. The doom tracker can start further down the tracker should you want to make the game harder.
- Shuffle the Arcana deck and place 4 of the cards face up (the side with the pictures,) in a line next to the Hours card.
- Each player gets seven marker tokens labeled 1-7.
What is the aim of the game?
To win the game, players have to make sure the green tracker reaches 7 before the red doom tracker does. Correctly predicting the values of hidden Fate Tokens will advance the green tracker. Incorrect predictions will advance the red one. The face-up Arcana cards aid you by giving clues to the hidden values, but beware, if they “fade” the doom tracker will march on.
How does the core mechanic work?
The core mechanic of the game is the drawing and placing of the Fate Tokens.
- On your (first) turn, draw two Fate Tokens from the bag. These will each be numbered from 1 – 7.
- Look at them, ensuring the other players don’t see them.
- Place one of your Fate Tokens on any of the face-up Arcana cards.
- Other players may attempt to guess the number of your other (hidden) Fate Token. Players do not have to guess.
- If they guess correctly, the green tracker advances one space. If they guess incorrectly, the red doom tracker moves forward one.
- After a guess is resolved, the token held in hand is placed back in the token bag.
- At the start of your next turn, draw back up to two Fate Tokens. (This will be 1 if nobody tried to guess your token last turn and two if they did.)
- Play passes to the next player, who draws new Fate Tokens and places one of them on the Arcana cards. In this way, the number of Fate Tokens face up on Arcana cards will gradually increase.
How can I increase the odds of a correct guess?
On the face of it, from what I’ve explained so far, this is just a guessing game, with few ways to influence the guess. This is where the Arcana cards come in.
The Arcana cards take their inspiration from traditional Tarot cards but have their very own stylized appearance. The artwork is definitely from the same stable as that in Meromorph’s Norsaga series and it’s one I like. They have an art-decoey, stained glass feel to them that I find very appealing. The artwork certainly gives the game a strong sense of theme.
Each of the Arcana cards is different, and each one has a different attribute that players can use to give clues to the value of their hidden Fate Token. For example “The Deep” card has ” <=5 If the sum of your fates is 5 or less, play one of them here.” The Lord has “5-6-7 If one of your fates is 5, 6, or 7 and the other is not, play the 5, 6, or 7 here.”
As you can see, both instructions supply some information to the other players, but not enough to make it completely obvious which tile you have hidden. The exception to this is that if you play a 4 on the <=5 card, your other token must be a 1. This is a great combo to have. More likely, sadly, is that you play a 2 or a 3, giving several alternative possibilities for your hidden card.
In this case, players might decide it’s worth a guess, or perhaps they could wait a turn to see if you can give extra information next turn that might help them. The problem with this tactic is, when you next get to play, you’ll have drawn another tile and it may be difficult to give extra information about your existing tile.
This is where the player specific (denoted by color) marker tokens come in. Each player has a set of these cards and they can act as an aide memoir as to which Fate Tokens you might have left. In smaller games, these are largely superfluous as it’s fairly easy to keep the permutations in your head.
What else can I do?
The chances of narrowing down the possible Fate Token values to one, using the Arcana cards, are fairly slim. Even a fifty/fifty split between two tokens can be hard to achieve. It would be an unsatisfactory game if you were wildly guessing and advancing your doom each time you guessed wrong.
That’s where the final game mechanic comes in. The idea of “fading.” The Arcana tokens have moon phases on them. Some cards have one, some two, three, or even four. In addition to that, the Fate Tokens have little pips on them, either 1, 2 or 3. These pips are the number of moon phases they take up on a Arcana card. Lower numbered Fate Tokens have 1 pip. 4, 5, and 6 have two pips each, and 7 has three pips.
Once the number of Fate Token pips on a Arcana card is equal to, or exceeds, the number of moon phases for that card, the card “fades.” In game terms, it is removed from the row of Arcana cards and turned over. Any Fate Tokens on it are returned to the bag. The Arcana card is not discarded yet, however. There is one more power on the card back that can be utilized to help players guess one another’s fate. After an Arcana card fades, another is dealt from the deck to replace it, so that there are always four face-up Arcana cards available.
The powers on the back of Arcana cards are one shot only. The Arcana card is discarded after use. These additional powers often make the difference between success and failure. They are a way of getting an extra piece of information that might help with your predictions. So, for example, the back of The Huntress allows you to make an extra prediction. Perfect for unlocking those 50-50 guesses.
So fading cards is a good thing, right? As The Shipwrecked Arcana is a finely balanced cooperative gaming experience, things aren’t quite as simple as that. If a card fades without a correct prediction then your doom progresses on two. Worse, if you attempt a prediction, get it wrong and a card fades, you get both penalties, meaning that your doom tracker will move on 3. Even on easy mode, that’s almost halfway towards losing the game.
How does the game play?
It’s really fun. As I said earlier, when you start to play or even explain it to new players, there’s a sense of “how can this possibly work?” It feels like it will be too random. Yet, it’s not. Yes, there is some randomness in there. Sometimes it feels like there’s nothing you can do to help work out who has what. Then suddenly something clicks and things start to fall into place and you can work meaningfully towards correct predictions.
This tends to coincide with when cards start to fade. Until that point, it can be very difficult to garner enough information to confidently make a prediction. For easier games where the doom tracker starts on 0 or 2, then it’s actually beneficial to take the hit of a fade, even if you can’t make a guess. Being able to collect two pieces of information on a turn is super useful. It seems counter-intuitive to allow the doom tracker to move on, but it’s a legitimate tactic that you will reap benefits from.
Working out which of the four face up Arcana cards to play on is an interesting challenge. Sometimes, you only have one choice, but where there are two or three, everything you do becomes laden with meaning. The game reminded me of Hanabi, where it feels completely obvious why you’ve chosen the card you have, but nobody else understands your clever signals at all. Note: In circumstances where none of the Arcana card rules apply, you can play your token on the Hours card (the score card). This conveys almost no useful information (other than by omission) but carries no risk, as the Hours card cannot fade.
Shipwreck Arcana is one of those games where, in the strict sense of the rules, silence (at least about the tokens) is golden. In reality, especially with children, chatting about the logic behind decisions is all part of the fun. Even more so when you accidentally give away what Fate Token you’re holding.
I’ve mostly played The Shipwreck Arcana with two or three people. Two is fun, but three is better. The odd game I’ve played with four people makes the things quite a bit harder. This is because you are building up Fate Tokens on Arcana cards, but not necessarily gaining much information to have a guess with. (i.e after the first 4 turns of a two player game, both players have had two chances to give clues. In a four player game, each player has only had 1. In both cases, Arcana cards are at risk of fading.)
Why should I back The Shipwreck Arcana?
At $15, with minimal postage costs, it’s hard to imagine why you wouldn’t want to back The Shipwreck Arcana.
It’s great to look at, simple to pick up and quick to play. It’s an excellent family game. It’s almost impossible for one player to become much better than everybody else at the game. There are a finite number of logical positions, so there isn’t too much analysis to be done, but they come up in differing combinations with each play, so it doesn’t get boring. The game is portable too, and perfect for traveling, though you do need a little bit of space to lay out the cards and tokens.
The Shipwreck Arcana is a great way to teach logical thinking to children around 7-8+. I often struggle to find games that will simultaneously engage both my boys, without the younger finding it too hard and being well-beaten or the older one finding it too easy and getting bored. We’ve played a great many hands of The Shipwreck Arcana and it engages us every time.
I’m a big fan of co-op games, though sometimes find they can become a procession until the correct answer is ground out. The Shipwreck Arcana never feels like that at all. This is an excellent game, at an excellent price, and one I can see accompanying us on our travels for many years to come.
Disclaimer: I received a prototype copy of the game for review purposes.