Saturday, October 31, 2020

Cardboard Corner: Review of Mare Balticum

What is it about claymation that touches something within us? The Nightmare Before Christmas, Shaun the Sheep, Wallace & Grommit, Pat & Mat, Primus music videos, Coraline, the California Raisins (the California Raisins!)—there is a fascination watching these productions that resonates somewhere within us regardless whether we like the content or not. Like a puppet show or pantomime, I think it’s because the mind is constantly aware that we are witnessing a production—a presentation whose nuts and bolts are partially leftover on screen. With normal movies and shows, we can so easily get lost in the story because the characters are human, and move and behave in smooth, natural human ways. With cartoons we accept that its unnatural and abstract from the beginning, and quickly push the thought aside to watch. It’s a good thing, therefore, that Mare Balticum has solid gameplay mechanics to draw the eye away from the superb Claymation inspired art.

Mare Balticum is a family game where players control fishing fleets on the Baltic Sea, trying to collect the most valuable haul of fish. Players have three actions on their turn: catch one of the five types of fish, move their ships to richer waters, or storage fish at the ports. All fish harvested from the board are afterwards replenished by drawing new fish from a bag, a bag that likewise contains six clock tokens. When a clock token is drawn, players must assign a multiplier value (3x, 2x, 1x, or 0) to the type of fish they think they will have the most tokens of at the end of the game. When the sixth clock token is drawn, the game stops, players count their fish, use the multipliers per fish type, and add up their score. The player with the most points, wins. (Total play time amounts to approximately 15 minutes per player.)

Mare Balticum is a family game for 2-5 players that both children and adults can enjoy. Too complex for very young children, my five year old grasped the rules enough to fish, but not enough to understand multipliers and how to win. He nevertheless had fun fishing, and after randomly assigning multipliers, his score was at least respectable. Seven- to eight-years old and onward seems the better age range—at least when basic multiplication is doable. Though I have not played with adults only, I can easily imagine the game to be tactical, even competitive, though still straight-forward. Movement efficiency, harvesting fish out from under your opponent’s nose, correctly estimating multipliers—these and other skills play a role in victory. The game does have an advanced mode which adds another layer of depth, but I have not played it.

As hinted in the intro, Mare Balticum’s art is beautifully done in clay. While everything is 2D representations (prints of the original clay art, in fact), the 3D feeling—the texture of claymation—springs off the board and pieces. From the small fish tokens to the forests and sea on the board, the player gets the same feeling while playing as they do watching Shaun the Sheep or Pat & Mat. Even the small clock tokens, rulebook, and art on the player boards are lovingly done in clay, making the game a holistic experience.

The drawbacks to Mare Balticum are highly subjective, and dependent on preference (and potentially the wallet). While the game feels very thematic given the way the art works with mechanics, winning is certainly more based on strategy than story or luck. There is tension, particularly around when new token are drawn from the bag, and the clock it represents. But there is not a rousing climax that has players on the edge of their seat for a dice roll or card draw. Mare Balticum is more a meditative game that depends on skill and estimation, and the quiet satisfaction of seeing those elements play out. The one indisputable dependency is the game’s availability. Out of print, it may be difficult to track down a copy, and when you do, it might be expensive.

There are thousands and thousands of games on the market today, but a minority feel like they are labors of love. Mare Balticum feels like a labor of love. From the simple but well thought-out gameplay to the fantastic art, the games is a complete package, cover to rulebook, that should be of interest to families looking for a fun, short, and tactical game. Wholly appropriate for children (but not too young), it’s a game parents can spend a highly pleasant hour with their children—and then watch some claymation.

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