In the Pouch article that introduced the Sail Ho! variant, the creator made the claim to have developed a balanced scenario. However, based on play experiences from the Sail Ho! league, I feel that, insofar as no-press play is concerned, that claim is inaccurate. I'll start with the caveat that I only have data from the Sail Ho! league (having played in three of the games and observed the results in the others) and therefore can only base my statements on the no-press environment. Press, obviously, would have a major impact on the situation, so take anything I say and apply it to Sail Ho! in the press environment with extreme caution.
Having said that, and acknowledging that with only 16 games complete, there is not a statistically significant sample, it is pretty clear that the field is heavily tilted to the south. Consider the results from the league blog:
Out of 17 games, South has won a whopping 10, with West a distant second at 5 and North and East staggering into a last place tie with a single win apiece. A percentage breakdown looks like this:
So why is South in such a dominant position? Let's examine each of the powers and see if we can determine what is happening.
I will start in the North.
In two of the three games I participated in I had the extreme misfortune of drawing North. Frankly, North gets it in the gut from the start in this scenario. The first (though not necessarily greatest) problem is that North gets no fleets. In a variant that was created to emphasize naval combat, I find this an extremely questionable decision that seriously limits North's options. Secondly, there is a single space between supply centers of North and East. In the first move, North faces the unfortunate question of whether to go for the build in Pro or bounce East in Chi. It takes nerves of steel to pass up on the latter, but if North does not go for the bounce, he risks a hostile unit next to a home center. So then he either has to defend (and again pass up the build), or likely lose a home center early. Problem is, the other option (accepting the bounce) is not much better since he then gets only one build and is so heavily outnumbered in fleets that he is pretty much stuck defending the few centers he has and has no realistic offensive capability.
So let's assume that North gets lucky and sends both units after the open SCs and East does not move to Chi. Further, assume that North gets two builds. Naturally, he builds two fleets. It is the only sane thing to do (indeed, for the most part it seems that people never build armies at all regardless of which power they are playing). Great start, right? Well, maybe not so much. The problem here is the spacing of the two home supply centers. To move either fleet next to the other home center requires a total of three moves, which means that even when North has two fleets, they are too far from each other to offer meaningful support. Meanwhile, assuming that East and West get at least one build each, each Northern fleet will face overwhelming superiority in opponents fleets and will be unlikely to be able to make the move into a mutually supporting position.
In conclusion, I feel that short of an unlikely set of circumstances, North is pretty much hopelessly gimped from the start and forced into a defensive war early on where all he can do is try to hold onto whatever early gains he makes.
So what about East?
Well, some of the same problems that hamper North are in play as well. East also has to consider whether or not to move to Chi. However, the equation is slightly different, as the only chance that East has for 2 builds is to take a Northern home center. Therefore they have more incentive to move there, but that in turns serves to force North's hand. In any case, East gets a slower start and must always devote significant attention to North, while the other neutrals they could get are quickly contested by the other powers.
Furthermore, East has to face pressure from all three other powers. In addition to North, as discussed above, the eastern island is contested by South and the middle island by West and South (and to a lesser extent North, although as pointed out above, North is at a severe disadvantage due to the starting setup). This means that East will find it very hard to advance.
I will admit that I am surprised that West does not make a better showing. (Ironic since West's percentage is about what one would expect from a truly balanced scenario.) West has more starting fleets than anyone (and in fact, has half of the total fleets at start), and has access to 5 neutrals in the first, more than any other power (North can reach 2, South and East can reach 3), and can reasonably expect 2 builds. Given this, I'd expect West to be the dominant player. However, this strength is mitigated somewhat by the fact that, like East, West must deal with all three opponents throughout the game. This tends to mean that West is drawn to the upper half of the map giving South a relatively free shot at expanding. Furthermore, West is very vulnerable to being flanked and having hostile fleets threaten home centers. Nevertheless, West remains a formidable opponent, and one of the only two (in my opinion) that has a realistic chance of consistently winning.
Lastly I will consider South.
All of the above mentioned factors help South be such a dominant player. South also has only two powers that are an immediate concern, as North cannot reach South in the early going, and vice versa (though the advantage for North of only having two powers to contend with is undermined by his weak starting position), while East and West come into immediate conflict with all three other powers. Furthermore, I feel that West is more naturally drawn to the center island for expansion as North cannot touch it in the first year and East will be tempted by the eastern island since they will not want South to dominate it. Indeed, when South struggles, it tends to be because West goes after Tar instead of the central island.
So, what can be done to correct some of these problems? That is a difficult question. The first answer I can come up with is to make North more competitive and relieve some pressure on East at the same time. To do this, I suggest moving a Northern home center from Aeo to Pro and giving North a fleet in that center. That makes it possible for the two Northern home centers to support each other with fleets and brings more pressure against West in the center island, which will hopefully induce West to move against South earlier, thus curbing Southern expansion and power. Secondly, I propose splitting SOA into two seas both of which are adjacent to Goc and Lov to remove the immediate threat to the home centers of West and North.
In conclusion, Sail Ho! is an interesting scenario, and has a lot going for it (not the least of which is that draws seem to simply not happen, so a conclusive victory is the norm) but it suffers from a few, fatal flaws that make winning more a matter of who is lucky enough to draw the best power rather than skill. Hopefully the changes I proposed can make the scenario more balanced and fun.
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