I’ve had an interesting relationship with trick taking games over my first four years in the hobby. Though unlike most of my relationships, which decay and wither away into shriveled husks of bitterness and resentment over enough time, this one actually improved!
You see, when I first discovered the idea of a trick taking game, my mind was filled with boring looking card games played with a standard 52 card deck. Games that you’d play as a kid with your grandparents to pass the time because they had no clue what a Sega Genesis was. As I played so many new hobby games, experiencing cool mechanics like worker placement and deck building for the first time, the last thing I wanted to do was play a game that was just playing cards, like I was some kind of peasant.
Turns out, I was a moron. Actually, I am a moron, but that’s besides the point. The key here is that I’ve grown to love trick taking games and it’s because I actually went ahead and played some of them. Who’d have thought that experiencing something instead of making uninformed judgments is actually fairly beneficial??
To be fair, I am still wary of playing straight, no frills trick taking games. What I like in my trick taking games are unique twists or cool themes, something that makes them pop when put up against their normal run of the mill card game grandparents, like Pinochle or Hearts. While Pinochle and Hearts are wasting away in their retirement homes, I’m playing hip, young games like The Fox in the Forest and Tournament at Camelot. The Fox in the Forest is a sublime 2 player only trick taking game that is driven by a unique scoring mechanism that makes every card played a nail biting affair. Meanwhile, Tournament at Camelot takes trick taking and turns it into an Arthurian slugfest, like Super Smash Bros meets Medieval Times. It’s a raucous game that revels in chaos thanks to game breaking special powers.
But while those games are amazing, let’s discuss another trick taking game. I’m talking about the star of this very review: Tricky Tides. Designed by Steve Aramini (he of Sprawlopolis and Circle the Wagons fame) and published by Gold Seal Games, Tricky Tides is a game of seafaring merchants in the Age of Sail, trying to make the most gold by delivering goods to certain islands to fulfill rewarding contracts. Players sail around a grid of island cards which all have a certain number of good cubes splayed out on it them. It takes the long standing mechanic of trick taking and combines it with…(checks notes)….pick up and deliver?? Yep, pick up and deliver. And guess what? Not only does it work, but the end result is my favorite trick taking game I’ve ever played.
Before I go into why I love Tricky Tides so much, I should probably describe trick taking to all the normal people out there who don’t have BoardGameGeek set as their internet browser’s home page. Trick taking is a mechanic/type of game whereby cards are played in rounds called ‘tricks’. Generally, the cards are suited and a major hook of trick taking is that when the lead player plays a certain suit, you MUST play a card of the same suit, assuming you have it present in your hand.
The trick taking aspect of Tricky Tides is mostly as described: rounds are played through a series of tricks in which one person plays a card and the other players must follow suit if able. To fall in line with the game’s maritime theme, the suits are various sea monsters. There’s the octopus, whale, shark and…sea dragon? I missed that day in marine biology class, I guess. Anyway, the suits offer the first wrinkle in Tricky Tides devilishly clever design. You see, in Tricky Tides the player who plays the highest on suit card wins the trick, as in pretty much every trick taking game ever, but the person who plays the lowest on suit card gets to trigger a special ability. What’s cooler? These special abilities are the sea monsters themselves.
That’s right, if you ever had the fantasy of being a shark, hoisting yourself on land to eat some tobacco or spice (and let’s face it, who hasn’t), then Tricky Tides is about to fulfill your saltwater drenched dreams. The sea monsters which represent the suits aren’t just there for some old timey nautical window dressing, like some pathetic pirate statue standing outside a novelty restaurant on a New Jersey boardwalk. No, the monsters are actually on the board, represented by little cardboard figures as they roam around, manipulating goods to the whims of the players, like they’re mischievous little elves reorganizing your cupboards or whatever the hell elves do. The player who plays the lowest on suit card gets to activate the sea monster of the suit played, moving them to an adjacent island and firing off their power.
The powers all involve the goods on the islands, which are represented by different colored cubes and play a big part in the pick up and delivery aspect of the game (which I’ll get to in a bit). The shark gobbles up a cube of the island it’s on, transporting it to your own ship through some sort of nautical blood magic that I have no interest in delving into any further. The sea dragon uses its magic breath to transform one type of cube on an island into an entirely different type of cube. Really wishing I had been in marine biology class that day, that thing sounds badass. Meanwhile, the octopus uses its tentacles to either grab a cube from an adjacent island or throw a cube to an adjacent island. Finally, the whale sneezes and blows three cubes out of its blowhole, adding them in a straight line to the islands of the player’s choice. As a bonus, the whale looks incredibly stoned while doing this.
This extra little twist to the trick taking formula feels like a fresh ocean breeze sprinkling a mist into my face. A good trick taking game offers tough hand management choices, forcing you to decide when to use your best cards or when to throw away your low cards and surrender the trick. In Tricky Tides, that hand management is made all the tougher by the tantalizing prospect of controlling sea monsters like Poseidon running a puppet show. Suddenly, these low cards in your hand aren’t just useless flotsam to toss overboard. They have actual use and you’re going to want to make the most of them. Quite often I saw players throw down low cards, expecting to get control of the sea monster only to have it robbed of them by someone playing something even lower, causing the winner of the trick to win with little effort as everyone else basically used their lowest cards for no good reason. In this game, you’re tying to constantly balance winning tricks and activating the sea monsters so that you have the most control over the board state.
What’s so important about winning tricks, you ask? Well to answer that, I need to get to the other big mechanic in Tricky Tides: pick up and deliver.
To those unaware of pick up and deliver, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You pick up things and deliver them. If that sounds a lot like Errands: The Board Game, well, I can’t argue that it’s not the most thrilling sounding thing in the world. People see board gamers and think we’re taking on the roles of knights or warriors or space marines and turns out we’re often just glorified Fed Ex drivers. BUT when done right, pick up and deliver can be just as much fun and satisfying as any other mechanic in board games.
In Tricky Tides, the pick up and deliver comes from going around to islands, picking up cubes and then spending them at other islands to fulfill contracts. The brilliant thing about the game is that how you move is dictated by the card you played in the trick. The cards don’t just have suits on them; they also have a compass. The compass emblazoned in the center of the card has certain directions highlighted which shows you in what direction you can move that turn. Turn order, however, is dictated by who won the trick. Winner of the trick goes first, then the person who played the next highest card then next highest and so on. This means the person who wins the trick gets first dibs on the goods and contracts within their movement range and that can be a HUGE advantage. The amount of times I had a contract or batch of goods sniped out from under me had me cursing like a sailor, which is just another wonderful thematic touch that this game was able to provide me and my game group.
The importance of going first and trying to move in certain directions further enhances that hand management I was talking about. Now you’re not just worried about suit and value like in other trick taking games; now you need to think about how the card is going to make you move. There are times where you really need to get to a certain island for a contract, but you only have one card in your hand that’s pointing in that island’s direction and it’s a card on the lower end value wise. Knowing you will probably be lower in turn order means the chance of having that contract removed by the time you’re supposed to set sail makes you think twice about playing the card. But then again, maybe if it’s a low enough card you can get control of the sea monster and use that to your advantage. Or maybe you just forgo that contract and use a better, higher value card to get somewhere else earlier than the others and try and get some points that way. You are constantly checking your hand, the goods you have, and the contracts you can potentially grab while making sure to pay attention to where your opponents are and what they can potentially grab as well. It is in this way that the Frankenstein fusion of trick taking and pick up and deliver shines. It creates multiple layers of tactics, often subtle but incredibly rich and rewarding.
So the gameplay is an engrossing blend of crafty hand management and efficient movement, but I’ll finish off by saying one of the really BIG things I love about this game is the aesthetics and art. As mentioned more than a few times, the game is set in the Age of Sail and as such sports a very 1600s nautical look. The art, done by Naomi Ferrall, perfectly complements the salty sea dog feel of this game. Her style has an old-fashioned sketchbook look to it, thanks to an art technique known as ‘stippling’ (yep, I had to look that up too). The end result means it’s like you’re looking at illustrations ripped straight from a sailor’s journal. It’s not only beautiful but immersive and I really can’t say enough about it. As someone who has a huge soft spot for anything maritime or nautical, especially of that time period, I am obsessed with how this game looks. It’s so authentic looking, I burst into sea shanties the moment it hits the table.
I’ll end this review by repeating what I said in the beginning. Tricky Tides is my new favorite trick taking game. In a market where trick taking games are seeing a bit of a resurgence, that is quite the feat. Its innovative gameplay and gorgeous art combine to make a captivating package that you should definitely check out.