In Foreign Waters – A Review of The Shores of Tripoli

The Shores of Tripoli

U.S. Navy & Marine Corp vs. The Pirates of Tripoli

Author: Kevin Bertram
Publisher: Fort Circle Games
Format: Boxed Game
Cost: $66.00

I hope I shall never again be sent to Algiers with tribute, unless I am authorized to deliver it from the mouth of our cannon.

~ Captain William Bainbridge

In December 2020, as The Shores of Tripoli was making landfall in the United States, Fort Circle Games sent Rolling Boxcars a review copy.

Long-time readers should not be surprised that I had once pursued multiple Master’s degrees in European History and Public History or that I am also an avid wargamer. When it comes to wargames, I have to begrudgingly admit that my interests are all over the place, but I have a soft spot for quick-playing, card-driven games covering interesting subjects. Knowing little about the game’s subject matter, I was intrigued and quickly agreed to do this review.

Who is Fort Circle Games?

Fort Circle Games is a new publisher founded in 2017 to develop and publish board games steeped and grounded in history. Their aim is for each game to be approachable, easy to learn for novice gamers and students, and challenging enough to encourage repeat play. Fort Circle Games is located in Washington, DC, and is named after the fortifications network that defended the city during the Civil War. The Shores of Tripoli is the first game they have produced and have others in the works.

Subject Matter

The game’s subtitle tells us a lot about the game’s subject matter, but this specific period of United States history is not one often covered by wargame designers. It is an uncommon but fascinating period in early U.S. geopolitics, diplomatic relations, and Naval strategy. The following excerpt succinctly sets the scene for the opening turn of the game. Taken from the “Historical Supplement,” written by game designer Kevin Bertram.

After the American Revolution, American merchants lost the protection the British navy gave to their ships on the seas. In 1785, the loss of that protection took on real meaning when the Ottoman Regency of Algiers captured two American merchant vessels and took their crews into captivity. Over the next decade, American diplomats tried to establish treaties with the four Barbary states (Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli) so that no more American ships would be captured, though around a dozen more were captured in the intervening time. In the late  1790s, all four states agreed to treaties with the United States, but the demands in those treaties were a steep price for the United States to pay.

The Barbary states had been operating a protection racket in the Mediterranean for hundreds of years; in exchange for leaving a nation’s ships alone, the Barbary rulers insisted on being paid money and gifts, sometimes at regular intervals but more often upon the slightest pretext. The United States had neither the resources nor the patience to keep up this system indefinitely. Beginning in 1794, the federal government made halfhearted preparations to send a naval force to the Mediterranean to take care of the problem by force, but undeclared war with France between 1798 and 1800 got in the way. When the navy finally left for the Mediterranean in 1801, Tripoli had already declared war.

What’s in the Box?

The game comes housed in a heavy-duty game box and includes:

  • 11″x34″ multi-fold hard-mount game board
  • Game Rules
  • Historical Supplement
  • Thomas Jefferson Letter to the Bashaw of Tripoli (Replica)
  • 2 Decks of Cards
  • 2 Turn Markers
  • 12 Wooden Gold Coins
  • 12 Wooden Frigates (8 blue, 2 red, 2 yellow)
  • 21 Wooden Gunboats & Corsairs (3 blue, 9 red, 9 orange)
  • 34 Wooden Cubes (4 blue, 10 white, 20 red)
  • 24 Six-sided Dice (8 blue, 8 red, 8 yellow)

The quality of the components is top-notch! Playing pieces are wooden. Each of which is uniformly cut and painted, giving the game a very polished visual presentation at the table. The cards are also high quality and have a linen finish. To me, they felt as if they might be slightly thicker than cards used by other publishers.

Core Game Concepts, Mechanics, & Principles

The Shores of Tripoli strives to recreate the First Barbary War between the United States and the pirates of Tripoli. As a Card Driven Game (CDG), there are a lot of abstracted concepts folded into the design, such as simplified naval movement, short naval combat, harbor bombardment. Card play alternates back and forth at its core, but to better understand the game’s nuances and the card play, one must understand the bigger picture.


Setting up the game is quick and easy. Each player takes their respective deck of cards, the three Core event cards are placed face up in front of their respective player—these three cards never change—the deck is then shuffled. Each player proceeds in placing naval assets in specific harbors or on the turn track. The Tripolitan player also adds ground infantry units (represented by red cubes) in several harbors. All other assets are placed in the supply boxes on the gameboard.

Turn Sequence & Game Years

Expected game length: 45-60 Minutes (per the box)

Games are played out over six turns, with each turn being broken into four seasonal phases (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter). The game year dictates how many cards players draw from their decks and when to shuffle their discard piles to create new draw piles. As with card play, noted below, card availability and reshuffles are an important element and integral to a player’s overall strategy.

Each of the seasonal rounds consists of each player playing a card for its event or discarding a card to take one of several specific actions. The American player always goes first. This sequence is repeated through each of the four seasons; after the winter season is complete, the turn is over, and a new year begins.

Types of Cards & Card Play

Each deck contains Event Cards and Battle Cards, with the American deck having two Victory cards. Event Cards are broken into three different types: Core, Unique, and Common Events. Core and Unique cards have icons denoting their card type. Core cards begin the game face-up in front of their respective player and do not count toward the eight-card hand limit. Unique Events are drawn from the deck and are part of the player’s hand, and count toward the hand limit. These cards may be played for their event or discarded to take an action such as movement, pirate raiding (Tripolitan player only), or shipbuilding. Core and Unique Event cards played for their event are removed from the game at the end of the current turn. If discarded for an action, they are sent to the discard pile instead. Common Event cards can be used for either their event, without being removed from the game, or to take an action.

Battles Cards are different and are not used for their event in the normal way. They may only be played for the event in response to certain conditions. For example, a successful Tripolitan Pirate Raid, Naval Bombardment, or Ground Combat. However, they can be discarded to take an action.

The American deck also contains two “victory event cards” that, when played, result in an American victory if all conditions can be satisfied.

There are some hard decisions to be made during the seasonal rounds. For example, is it worth holding an event card just because it “might” be useful at some point in the future, or is it better to discard it to take an action? In the case of the Tripolitan player, do they conduct a Pirate Raid in the hopes of gaining gold, build corsairs, or play a card for its event? The American player has to contend with building up their naval presence and softening Tripolitan targets early on. They face the same conundrum of playing a card for a specific event or discarding one to build a gunboat or move ships to set up future blockades and naval battles.

Players alternate back and forth, playing cards for their events or taking actions. With all CDGs, nuanced card play is critical, and The Shores of Tripoli is no different.

Roads to Victory

The American player has two paths to victory via Victory cards in their deck.

  1. Forcing the Tripolitan player to sign a peace treaty (“Treaty”);
  2. Capturing Tripoli and installing Hamet Qaramanli on the throne (“Assault on Tripoli”).

The Tripolitan player has three paths to victory.

  1. Acquiring twelve gold through piracy or card play;
  2. Sinking four American Frigates;
  3. Eliminating Hamet’s Army while defending Derne, Benghazi, or Tripoli.

If either player completes any one of their specific victory conditions, the game ends immediately. If neither player has won by the end of 1806, the game ends in a draw.

Movement & Combat

The gameboard is divided into three types of spaces—harbors, patrol zones (shaded areas outside of harbors), and open seas. Movement is uncomplicated and simply involves discarding a card to take a Move action (American) or Pirate Raid action (Tripolitan). The American player may discard one card to move up to two frigates from any location(s) to any other location(s). It is also possible to move American gunboats with the frigates under certain conditions. If movement is called for by a card’s event, the card’s specific text must be followed.

A Naval Battle commences if ships end movement in a harbor or patrol zone occupied by enemy ships. If the harbor is unoccupied, but the city contains Tripolitan ground forces, a Naval Bombardment commences. Otherwise, American ships ending in a friendly unoccupied harbor or patrol zone safely anchor.

Naval Combat last one round. Each ship type involved on both sides rolls a specified number of d6 dice (1 or 2), and a hit is scored for every 6 rolled. Before any dice are rolled, players may elect to play Battle Cards—which may affect the battle. Players then roll and allocate any hits they receive. Frigates can take two hits before being sunk; gunboats and corsairs can take only one hit. Damaged frigates are placed on the next year on the turn track, signifying they are being repaired. Ships that are sunk are removed from the board. All undamaged American ships return to Malta. Surviving Tripolitan ships return to Tripoli.

Naval Bombardment only lasts one round and is a one-sided engagement. Each American Frigate rolls two dice, and each gunboat rolls one. For each 6 rolled, one Tripolitan infantry is eliminated. The city remains Tripolitan controlled even if all units are eliminated unless Hamet’s Army moves into the city. After the Bombardment, all ships return to Malta.

Ground Combat occurs when the American player moves Hamet’s Army into Derne, Benghazi, or Tripoli or through a card’s event. Unlike naval combat, ground combat continues until one side has been eliminated. The Americans may first bombard the defenders; both players then have the opportunity to play battle cards, dice are rolled (1 per unit), and hits are allocated by the player. Each roll of a 6 is a hit and eliminates one infantry unit. Battle rounds continue until one side has been eliminated. If the city is Tripoli and the Americans have captured it, they win automatically. However, there are additional rules for assaulting Tripoli.

The last type of combat-oriented action is the Pirate Raid. This is available to the Tripolitan player only and is initiated by discarding a card or through events. Corsairs typically sail from Tripoli to the nearby open waters hunting merchant ships for gold. The American player can intercept these raids if they have ships in the Tripoli Patrol Zone. Surviving corsairs then move out into open waters, and the raid is abstracted through a dice roll—one d6 for each corsair involved. Each 5 and 6 rolled nets the Tripolitan player one gold. Corsairs then return to Tripoli’s harbor.

Solitaire Design

Boardgames, specifically wargames, that play well in solitaire mode are something akin to white whales and unicorns. Many have tried, some fail, but in the end, most provided a mediocre experience at best. Fortunately, The Shores of Tripoli solitaire mode is one of the few, in my opinion, that is a success story.

In solitaire mode, the game plays slightly differently from the standard game. The American player’s (human) setup and gameplay are identical to that of the standard, two-player game. The Tripolitan player is now called the T-bot ( or robot player), and it functions by following a prescribed set of sequences.

When it’s the T-bot turn, it reviews the card text of six events cards placed in the “event line.” The first card that meets its conditions is the card played for that seasonal turn. If none of the first four cards are playable or have already been played, the fifth card, “Five Corsairs Check,” is likely to be the one played in most turns. This initiates a pirate raid. In the unlikely event that “Five Corsairs Check” cannot be played (e.g., having less than five corsairs in Tripoli), the T-bot draws from its draw pile and plays the card if possible. The second line of cards, “Battle Line,” is consulted each time the T-bot plays a card to see if any conditions are met.

I drew a card that was not playable in my solo game and found no other alternatives; I sent it to the discard pile. In the end, this meant the T-bot player did not actually do anything of note for that seasonal turn. In the future, I might explore following such a discard by using the final “event line” card, “Raid or Build,” to have the T-bot do something of note. Though it’s unclear if this would change the balance of the game in any way.

All cards in the T-bot deck are summarized on the back cover of the rulebook and provide guidance on playing the card and when.

The T-bot player is easy to set up, and the game played quickly and smoothly—my test game ended in the winter of 1803. Very little time was spent referencing anything related to the T-bot, save for reviewing the card text and guidance on the back cover. Even though the “lines” are set in specific orders, the “Battle Line” can be arranged freely, but the recommended order works just fine. In the end, the T-bot simply and elegantly facilitates solitaire play.

Thoughts on Gameplay

I was fortunate to meet up with my regular local wargame opponent recently, and we put the game through its paces. First, I want to highlight that reading and grokking the rules was rather easy. As such, I conveyed the rules to my opponent quickly and easily, allowing us to get the game started in short order.

The game setup was clearly outlined in the rule book. The game only has a small number of components making setup fast. With the game now setup, we were ready to play out the year 1801. Our game played out in just over an hour and ended at the Tripolitan player’s phase in the Spring season of 1804 with the earning of the final two pieces of gold tribute; earned from the play of “Sweden Pays Tribute” card. I feel the game may have played a little slower than it should have, but this includes game setup, rules explanation, three full turns (1801, 1802, and 1803), the occasional rules discussion, and associated lookup in the rulebook.

As a CDG, there is a tendency to over-analyze what cards you have available in your hand and how best to use them. Coupled with the cards with clearly identified prerequisites such as other cards in play, ships in certain locations, or on or after certain years. To alleviate this to some degree, my opponent and I  both agreed that players should pick a side and play multiple games as one side. Both as a way to learn the cards in that respective deck and understand the nuances of card combinations, when to hold specific cards, or when to discard them in favor of taking an action. The author’s short player strategies gave us clarity on how we should approach gameplay from our respective sides. That was nice to see included in a short, concise, and readable presentation.

On several occasions, we did find ourselves questioning the language on several cards (i.e., “Launch the Intrepid”). The answers were easily found online at Boardgame Geek, but… It would be nice to see an FAQ/Errata summary on the Fort Circle Games website. We’re both veteran CDG players and have become accustomed to games, including a booklet or several pages in the rulebook dedicated to listing all the cards and providing short, concise explanations of the language’s intent on the card. This could have mitigated our questions had it been included, but by no means impacted our ability to play and enjoy the game.

We both thoroughly enjoyed the game are making plans to play again soon. Because of the reasonably short playtimes and small physical footprint, this is a great game for the local coffee shop or pub—our preferred meetup locations.


The Shores of Tripoli is a well-designed game that simulates its subject matter nicely while still allowing the players to retain the decision-making one would expect. Having noted some very minor quibbles above, none of which, in my opinion, detract from the game as a whole. Furthermore, the fact that The Shores of Tripoli is a CDG ensures approachability, accessibility, and replayability.

Approachability and accessibility come in the form of simple rules without the minutiae or complexity of hex-and-counter naval games, beautiful wooden components, and a small physical footprint. Replayability is derived through the card-driven mechanics of such games. Each game presents players with cards in a different order, prompting different strategies to be used. The inclusion of a solitaire mode that is well designed and simple to use increases not only the accessibility but also the replayability. The game’s form factor is great for coffee shops, pubs, and game club meet-ups. I also feel it’s well suited for American History classes at the grade school level. All of which conforms to the company’s stated goals for their games.

In the future, it would be nice to see a curated FAQ and a card summary made available on the web as optional resources for players.

The bottom line, players who enjoy CDGs or early American historical topics are sure to find The Shores of Tripoli, a winner!

~ Modoc

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