The Shores of Tripoli Review

Well, this was a super pleasant surprise. If you remember my previous article, I talked about ‘asymmetrical’ games becoming the in thing in the cardboard, paper map wargaming world.

Well, the good folks at Fort Circle Games actually sent me a copy of their recently released entry into this burgeoning field, The Shores of Tripoli, covering the US Navy’s little spat with Pasha Yusuf Karamanli of Tripoli in the 19th century.

In this case the game meets my definition of “asymmetrical” because of its card-drive, more abstract, decision making form of play. But it is a legitimate wargame, and the history it conveys is really pretty darn good, not to mention a lot of fun.

Here’s why it works.

Ship’s Stores

The Shores of Tripoli (or TSOT) will run you $66.00 US, expensive, but when compared to all the physical material you get, actually quite reasonable compared to stuff from GMT and the like. The box, for example is pleasantly decorated with modern graphics, but also has both the look and feel, almost a slight texture, of hardback book covers in the old style. Inside you will find a four section, 11 x 34-inch mounted game map, which at first glance will let anyone know that as a wargame, TSOT is anything but traditional.

For play on the map are some 80 painted wooden playing pieces. These include the necessary markers for year and season on the turn chart, and also 12 gold coins representing revenue gained by Tripoli’s Barbary Pirates. The important stuff includes 34 wooden cubes (red, white and blue) representing ground military forces, 12 frigates (red, blue and yellow) and 21 gunboat-corsairs (red, blue and orange).

The colors represent nationality and line up as blue for the United States, red for Tripoli, orange for Tripoli’s sometimes Muslim allies from Morocco, Tunis and Algiers, white for the American Hamet Arab mercenary army and finally yellow for Sweden. If you did a double take there, no worries, so did I. For the first couple of years of the war, Sweden actually had a squadron of two or three frigates in the area under General Admiral Olof Rudolf Cederstrom to protect the King’s interests. In fact, one of the first outings for the US Navy during the conflict found the Yanks working with the Swedish frigate Froja. And as the wooden playing pieces are colored by nation, so are the 24 dice included with TSOT, eight each of red, blue and yellow.

Also, uber important for game play are two decks of cards, one for the United States featuring a portrait of President Thomas Jefferson on the front, the other for Tripoli with a picture of the Pasha. These drive the game and consist of Core Event, Common Event, Unique Event and Battle Cards, plus two Victory Event Cards for the US. Some of the cards in the Pasha’s deck are only used for solitaire play as the game has formal rules for playing by yourself as the US Navy against a Tripoli-Bot. As you might expect the cards address things such as the US moving up to four frigates in a turn, adding a bonus to an American ground assault on Tripoli because Leftenant O’Bannon leading the Marines forward or having the USS Philadelphia run aground as happened historically.

Finally, one finds the last portion of the ship’s mercantile in the form of a rule book and an historical background book, each a mere 12 pages long. In fact, if you remove some of the fluff, the rules themselves are maybe six or seven pages long in large spaced, large type. Yes, the game is that simple and there is even a sponsored YouTube video on how to learn the game in 11 minutes.

And speaking of fluff, part of this last set of pages includes a wonderful copy of the actual letter sent by Jefferson to the Pasha on 21 May 1801, letting him know an American ‘observation squadron’ would be dropping by, praising his wise rule, looking forward to good relations and commerce and wishing God keep him safe in His holy hand. I don’t remember who said diplomacy was the art of persuading someone to jump off a 500-foot cliff thoroughly convinced he would enjoy the abrupt stop at the bottom, but here is an excellent example. Very classy addition to the game and certainly gave me an historical chuckle.


For Tripoli the victory conditions are to make continuing the war as painful as possible for the US. This is done by destroying Hamet’s mercenary army or sinking four US frigates or by collecting all 12 gold revenue coins thru piracy. If any of the three happens, the game ends immediately with the Pasha elevated to Sword of Allah status. For the Americans, winning TSOT is a bit more complicated, though successfully playing the Assault on Tripoli card and capturing the place is an automatic victory from Fall 1805 onward. Otherwise, the Treaty of Peace and Amity card can win the game by forcing a treaty on Tripoli if all the following have happened from Fall 1805 forward – all of Tripoli’s allies must be at peace with the US, the city of Derne has been captured by Hamet’s army and both of Tripoli’s frigates are at the bottom of the bay. If none of this happens the game is a draw.

Making this happen is pretty simple, and 11 minutes might just be overkill. The game is played across 24 turns, as in six years (1801 – 1806) with each year having the standard four seasons of spring, summer, etc. At the beginning of year 1801, each player draws six cards from his deck to play throughout the four seasons thereof. Unused cards can be carried over until next year’s draw, but a player may never have more than eight cards in his hand at any time. Then each seasonal round continues with the following sequence of play – American Play, Tripolitan Play and lastly End of Season.

During the ‘Play’ phase, the American player may do any or all of the following – play an event card (Swedish frigates arrive or Tripoli sacrifices two gold coins in taxes to the Porte), discard any card to move up to two frigates or discard any card to build a gunboat in Malta. Then Tripoli repeats the process with only slight variation – play an event card (Storms in a US Navy patrol zone or Tunis declares war on the US), discard a card to conduct piracy with corsairs from Tripoli or discard a card to build a corsair in Tripoli.

The map is divided with large areas of the map displayed as provinces, but more importantly, circular areas that represent harbor zones and naval patrol zones in the Mediterranean. Should any of the movement or cards played above results in opposing forces ending the seasonal turn in the same area, combat occurs. In general, each player gets one die for each wooden marker involved in the fight, except that frigates receive two die. Event cards known as Battle Cards are played if they reside in the player’s hand, and the dice are rolled. A die roll of “6” is considered a Hit, and for all units except frigates, results in the playing piece being destroyed and removed from the table. For a frigate, a single Hit is considered Damaged, with a second hit needed to sink the vessel. Damaged frigates may return to the player all fixed up and shiny new during the next year.

Now there is a bit more to it than that as there are different types of combat, such as shore bombardment and land combat, each with its own minimal set of requirements. This is nothing too extravagant, however, with land combat, for example, lasting until one side of the other is totally destroyed, rather than just a single round.

And that is pretty much it. It is nice to see simple rules included for tournament play and I did like the inclusion of specific, formal instructions to play solitaire against the T-Bot (Tripoli). Here the US Navy plays as normal, but the T-Bot is required to lay out specific cards for play, with only 18 cards left in the deck. Each turn the T-Bot checks to see if any requirements have been met to play his exposed cards, and in order, must play them. If none exist, only then does another card get drawn for Pasha and the lads. Overall, this would seem to be an almost tougher way to play, as the T-Bot’s actions can be pretty random, and thus unpredictable, more so than playing a friend whose personality you might understand. The fact that there are also special event cards used by Tripoli only when playing solitaire (Second Storms, oh joy) exacerbates the issue. But it works, and that’s probably the reason why.

Final Thoughts

TSOT is playable in 45 – 60 minutes according to designer Kevin Bertram, and although I might go 90 for the first game when both sides are learning, this is a very accurate estimate overall. Obviously, the game is easy, I mean let’s face it, outside keeping track of turns, the thing has no charts to consult, none, zip, nada, nyet. The random unpredictability as provided by card play makes the game not only fun but challenging and places a premium on adjusting to rapidly changing situations. It also makes the game exceptionally replayable because there is never a so-called ‘school solution’. It is also quite educational, as the cards taught me a few things I never knew (Swedish frigates, seriously?) and drove me to find out more.

But given TSOT‘s simplicity and its lack of detail, is it historically accurate and up to ‘real’ wargame standards? Yes, I believe it is, precisely because it is simple and not very granular in its presentation. Many wargames claim to be strategic as does TSOT, but then affords the player the ability to go down into the weeds and make decisions that are truly operational or tactical in nature. Presidents and Pashas decide the type of resources to commit to the fray, when and where, and not specific ships by name because they have a counter or data sheet giving them the combat factors of the HMS Impossible or the leadership factors of its captain.

The Shores of Tripoli, with a few chrome exceptions, forces the player to think strategically by only giving him the decisions to make that would be appropriate for his level of his command. He is denied the ability to do more. This may irk some gamers who simply like to command multiple echelons simultaneously, but in many ways TSOT shows the reality and does so damn well. An excellent first effort and I look forward to more.