Seas of Havoc is a pirate-themed naval battle game that combines popular mechanics like deck-building, worker placement, and programmed movement to make for a surprisingly quick playing and unique war game.
That’s a lot of different systems mashed together in one game! Did Rock Manor manage to make it all work smoothly? Read on to find out!
Disclosure: Thanks to Rock Manor Games for sending us a review copy of Seas of Havoc to check out. Links in this post may be affiliate links. Using these costs you nothing but may earn us a small commission on eligible items. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
What is Seas of Havoc all about?
There are three versions of this game, the retail version, the Sea Monster Edition and the Captain’s Deluxe Edition. It’s the Sea Monster Edition that we were sent and that’s what I will be discussing in this review.
While there were a few copies of Seas of Havoc that showed up at local game stores and a few online shops it has become hard to find. You can still get it directly from Rock Manor, but even they are out of the retail version. However, as of when I’m writing this, you can get the Sea Monster Edition on sale for $70 USD.
Seas of Havoc is a worker placement, deck-building, programmed movement, pirate-themed, naval battle game that plays anywhere from one to five players, either individually or in teams, with rules for up to three AI opponents. The overall game length is player, and player-count dependent, but it doesn’t tend to go over an hour and a half once everyone has played at least once.
The suggested age here is 13+ which seems to be more component-based than anything else. I could totally see younger players enjoying Seas of Havoc, though the game does have some weight to it, and there is quite a bit going on so it wouldn’t be great for little kids.
In Seas of Havoc, players pick a captain and a ship and head out into a mystical sea with unusual properties, on a quest for infamy. You start each round by sending skiffs to various islands to collect resources, upgrade your ship, and/or improve your card deck. Then you move onto the Sea Phase and battle other captains through programmed movement-style card play. You can gain infamy for damaging other pirates, for upgrading your ship, and for adding to your card deck. You can also add in Sea Monsters for additional peril, randomness, and new ways to gain infamy. In the end the most infamous pirate wins.
For a look at the components in this pirate-themed naval battle game, check out our Seas of Havoc unboxing video on YouTube. My copy of the game is the Sea Monster Edition, which includes everything in the retail version but also has two new captains and a set of three monsters that can be added to the game. Except for those bonus items, the component quality you see in the video will match any version of Seas of Havoc you choose to pick up.
The component quality is really good. I love the small plastic cannon balls and the fact that they aren’t quite round, so they don’t roll away (though they do bounce). The card quality is good and is holding up to lots of shuffling.
The rulebook is very clear and the iconography is excellent. Actually, it’s one of the best rulebooks I’ve ever read. It’s easy to reference and I’ve yet to find a situation where I couldn’t find a rule. That said, I do recommend checking out Board Game Geek’s rule forums for some clarifications.
The only complaint I have with the physical side of Seas of Havoc is the box insert. Whoever designed the box insert didn’t account for the fact that there are plastic grommets that hold the player boards together. So when you stack them in the box, the boards don’t quite fit. In addition, the card holders are marked to show what goes where, but there aren’t enough different spots for the various card types.
Seas of Havoc Overview of Play
This isn’t in any way meant to be full how-to-play or game teach. What follows is an overview of how to play Seas of Havoc with enough information to let you know if the game will be a good fit for your group.
A game of Seas of Havoc starts with each player choosing a captain and a ship. There are six of each of these to choose from in the core game (with two additional captains included in the Sea Monster module). Even though there are six ships and more than enough captains, the player count does stop at five. Each captain gives you an asymmetric in-game bonus and two cards for your starting deck. Each ship comes with its own set of additional starting cards as well as two unique upgrade cards.
The rulebook provides a list of recommended ship and captain combinations in order of complexity. I do recommend using these suggestions for your first few games as some captains do pair off better with some ships and some combinations feature easier to understand strategies.
Once you have a ship and captain chosen you will take a player board and the game pieces in the appropriate colour (based on the chosen ship). The two ship upgrade cards should be placed face-down next to your board. You slot your captain into the board and make a starting deck by adding the two captain-specific cards to the starting deck for your ship and shuffling. You start with a hand of four cards from this deck.
Once everyone has their playing area set up, they each take one sail, one coin and one cannonball. Once first player is determined, some players will get additional starting resources based on player order.
Next, the board is set up. This involves rolling the coordinate dice and placing rocks, gusts, and whirlpools onto the board. Two shipwreck tokens are also placed randomly. The market card deck is shuffled and an initial market of five cards is placed next to the board, near the Market Island.
In player order, players roll the dice to determine their initial ship placements. Players are free to face their ships in any direction they wish.
If playing with AI opponents there is some additional set up that needs to be done. However, I’m not going to be covering the rules for AI here.
Each round of Seas of Havoc starts with the Island Phase. Here players use their three skiffs to visit the islands on the outside of the board. Each island provides a different benefit. The amount of skiffs that can be placed on each island is based on the player count. Most of the islands give resources in the form of sails, coins, or cannon balls. Some islands let you take resources of your choice, including the one that also gives you the start player compass rose. There is even one island that lets you trade up to two resources for any other two.
There’s also an island that lets you scrap cards from your deck. One unique thing in Seas of Havoc is that any time you scrap a card from your deck you get the resources shown on the card, including your starting cards. Another island lets you upgrade your ship by discarding the resources shown on one of your upgrade cards and flipping it face up. That card will now have a special effect for the rest of the game and be worth infamy at the end of the game.
When going to the market island, instead of placing your skiff on the island you place it on the card you want to purchase. Cards aren’t purchased until the end of the island phase so you can place your skiff on a card you can’t currently afford. Before placing your skiff you also have the option to wipe the market, replacing any cards that don’t already have skiffs on them with cards from the deck.
During the Island Phase, you can also claim flag tokens. There are four flag tokens and each gives an immediate in-game bonus. If you choose a flag that is already owned by another player you take it from them. In addition to the one time bonus when claiming a flag, once you get to the Sea Phase if you play a card that has a flag symbol on it that matches a flag you hold you get the flag bonus again.
Once everyone has placed their skiffs, players then have the option to buy the cards their skiffs are on in the market. Note this is an option. You could place your skiff on a card and change your mind or just place one there to stop someone else from buying a card. Unlike many deck-building games, cards bought are placed into your hand and can be used in the next phase.
After everyone has finished buying market cards, the game shifts to the Sea Phase. Here players take turns playing cards from their hands to move and fire with their ships or to take any special actions listed on their cards.
The special action cards come from your captain and only represent two cards in your deck. The remaining cards you start with and all cards you can buy during the Island Phase are ship action cards. These come in three varieties, movement, firing, and pivot, with some higher cost cards combining more than one of these.
Each card shows where your ship will move if you play the card and when during that movement your ship will fire. Many movement cards give the player the option to spend sails to move further and each shot with a cannon on a firing card requires the player to spend a cannon ball. When playing a card players also have the option to pass and not complete the actions on the card.
As is fitting for an age of sail game, cannons can normally only be fired out the sides of your ship (some ships and captains have ways to break this rule). When a ship is hit, the player takes a damage card and places it into their discard pile. These cards clog up your deck and are worth negative points at the end of the game. The shooting player also earns infamy with bonus points being awarded for hitting a target in the front or rear.
When moving about the board players can pick up Shipwreck tokens which give them resources. Most ships can only carry one token at a time and they can be spent on a single action at any time. Whenever one of these tokens is claimed a new one is randomly placed on the board.
There are also rules for running into rocks, ramming other ships, being turned around by whirlpools, getting moved by gusts of wind, etc. You also need to consider the fact that the Seas of Havoc have strange properties and the edges of the board wraps around to the other side.
Once everyone has played all of their cards during the Sea Phase, you move on to another Island Phase with players collecting more resources, improving their decks, claiming flags, etc. This is followed by another Sea Phase, and so on.
Play continues until the end of the round in which the last Damage Card is dealt to a player. You finish off that round completely and then players total their infamy. There are spare Damage Cards included in case players continue to take damage after the deck runs out.
You earn infamy during the game by shooting and ramming your opponents, as well as for some captain abilities. At the end of the game, you get infamy for the cards you have purchased and for completed ship upgrades, and you lose points for any damage cards still in your deck.
The most infamous pirate wins the game!
What I haven’t really talked about yet is the additional material you get with The Sea Monster Edition of Seas of Havoc. This edition comes with two new captains that can be paired with any of the existing ships, greatly increasing the possible combinations. Both of these captains do require that you use at least one of the optional sea monsters for you to be able to use them in the game as each of their special abilities and cards are based on monsters being in play.
The monsters themselves come in three forms. There are Sharks, the Sea Serpent, and the Kraken. Each monster has its own deck of cards and wooden tokens. You can use one, two or three of these monsters in a game in any combination.
Sharks affect the Island Phase. Each round you draw a card to see where the sharks show up. If you want to send a skiff to an island with sharks you either have to scare them away with a cannon shot (which earns you infamy) or take damage.
The Kraken and the Sea Serpent both affect the Sea Phase. Each has wooden tokens that end up out on the map. Shooting these tokens removes them from the map and earns a player infamy but then a card is drawn from the appropriate deck. These cards can have the sea monsters attack or have you place more tokens out on the board.
The Kraken features thrashing tentacles that can damage ships adjacent to them. If enough tentacles come out, the Kraken’s head surfaces giving someone a shot at some easy Infamy. The Sea Serpent starts with its head showing. Most rounds it will move forward exposing more of its body. When a body section is shot that section, and any behind it, disappear back under the water. You can also hit the Sea Serpent’s head for an infamy boost and to get rid of the creature for the rest of the round.
Who should pick up Seas of Havoc?
I first heard about Seas of Havoc when it was live on Kickstarter. I was drawn in by the combination of worker placement, deck building, and programmed movement. I love programmed movement games in particular and I had never seen these three mechanics combined before. I didn’t end up backing it, though I was tempted.
I didn’t hear about the game again until Rock Manor Games reached out to reviewers, looking to generate some buzz once production was done and the game was on the market. I jumped at the chance to check it out.
As you can see in my Seas of Havoc Unboxing Video, I was immediately impressed by what we were sent. The Sea Monster Edition seems like the sweet spot for this game. It features the full retail edition of the game with the small Sea Monster pack, which adds variability and replayability to the game. While I would have preferred an insert that better fit what we got and I’m baffled by the ship tokens being one sided, I’m still impressed by the component quality here overall.
Seas Of Havoc includes one of the best written, most clear, rulebooks for a board game that I’ve ever read. While there is a lot going on in this game, all of it is was presented in a logical order and it just makes sense. In addition, the game comes with some great reference cards for both normal play and when using AI ships.
Another highlight is how good Seas of Havoc plays at all player counts. I love the way you can play with up to three AI ships using a card driven system that works rather well. You can play solo vs one, two, or three ships, and you can play two players battling each other, but you can also play two players against one, two, or three AI. You also have the option to play teams with two human players teaming up against AI ships. Even at four players, you could toss in an AI ship just for some chaos. I love games with sliders like this.
I also appreciate the variability and replayability in Seas of Havoc. I love asymmetry and this game is dripping with it. In this box, you get eight different captains and six different ship choices leading to a ridiculous number of combinations. The game even includes an achievement track where you can record your score after trying each combination.
Then you have the Sea Monsters. They add even more variability since you can use one, two, none, or all three of them, in a single individual game. They can be used at any player count, and work for both cooperative or competitive play. I like to use at least one of the Sea Phase based monsters in every game as it gives players something to shoot other than other players.
As for the actual gameplay in Seas of Havoc, I dig it. It’s simpler than it sounds and there’s something about the flow of the game that feels elegant. Use workers to get stuff, then use that stuff to move around and shoot each other. Turns are quick and AP is rather low. While there’s a programmed movement aspect here it’s not as limited as in some games like say Robo Rally.
Most cards in Seas of Havoc give you multiple options, and all of the movement cards that feature turns let you turn in either direction. While playing, I’ve never felt limited by my cards, though I have felt driven to say buy more turning cards or to watch the market for a pivot.
One thing people may not like in this game is the randomness. Seas of Havoc is a deck-building game and luck of the draw can impact the game. There is additional luck involved with what cards come up in the market as well, though there is the ability to clear it before a purchase.
Then there’s the fact that things like Sea Monster tokens and the shipwreck tiles appear on the map randomly using coordinate dice. Even the fact that you roll dice to find out where you start at the beginning of the game can give some players an advantage over others.
This randomness combined with the actions of the other players makes Seas of Havoc much more tactical than strategic. You can’t really predict what the board state will be from turn to turn.
Thankfully the game doesn’t go full Ameritrash. You aren’t rolling to see how far you move and there’s no to hit roll or defensive roll when firing cannons. We did find the game to be more random than expected, especially with the very Euro mechanics used, and that was a turn off for some of the players we introduced it to.
In Episode 225 of The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast, Zoom!, where we initially reviewed Seas of Havoc, Sean put it this way:
“This is probably the biggest downfall of the game for me. There’s all this meaty strategy and asymmetry and thoughtful action selection, but all your best plans can be led astray by a roll of the dice. It’s a more modern blend of American and Euro styles, but that’s not for everyone out there. Some people really prefer the determinism of a pure euro without the randomness that can ruin well-laid plans.”
For me, as someone who loves programmed movement games, who digs deck-building mechanics, and who has been in love with worker placement since Caylus, I found a lot to like in Seas of Havoc. The randomness and tactical nature of the game are features to me, and I adore the asymmetry that’s baked right in. While I am completely indifferent to the theme, I found myself enjoying every play of Seas of Havoc.
Overall, Seas of Havoc has gone over well with everyone I’ve played it with, though it does appeal to some players more than others. No one has truly disliked the game, but some people have enjoyed it more than others. I personally really enjoy it and look forward to trying out different ship and captain combinations in the future.
If you are a fan of any of the core mechanics used in Seas of Havoc you should try to find a way to give this game a shot. The worker placement system works great, the deck building is interesting and well done, with a very interesting flag driven combo system, the programmed movement feels right and isn’t as limiting as you might expect, and the naval battle aspects, while light, do give that Age of Sail feeling.
If you dig all of those mechanics and love asymmetry then you can probably just go pick this one up. Just be aware of the tactical nature of the game. This is not a historical simulation in any way. This is more of a fast and furious sea battle between asymmetric pirates that’s played in about an hour.
If you collect pirate games and just love everything with pirates in it, I think Seas of Havoc will probably be a hit. Despite combining multiple different popular board game mechanics, the game is quite straightforward and has a great flow. Even with its weight, I think this is a game many players will enjoy regardless of experience level. Honestly, I think a 10 year old me would have loved this one!
Finally, be aware that this game isn’t for everyone. It’s not a quick rapid fire dice chucker with cannonballs flying left and right, nor is it a deep resource management Euro. If you don’t like any of the core mechanics here, I can’t see Seas of Havoc winning you over.
There you have my thoughts on Seas of Havoc from Rock Manor games. One of many pirate-themed board games that have been released over the years and one I consider to be one of the best for me and my group.
What’s a pirate-themed game that you and your gaming group enjoy? Tell me about it in the comments below, or, better yet, join The Tabletop Bellhop Discord and share your thoughts there!