Salvaging goods from a shipwreck is one way to make a living. Wrecking the ship first comes with a different name though…
Combining the design talents of Bruno Faiduti and Eric M. Lang, HMS Dolores was a game that I had my eye on for quite some time. All I knew about it at the time was the name, so I was expecting a shipping game of some sort.
What we ended up getting was a quick filler game of negotiation and risk. Like so many small packages, things are not always as they seem.
Setting the Scene
For such a small quick game, the basic theme of HMS Dolores is quite dark.
Players take the role of shipwreckers – thieves that lure ships onto dangerous coasts during bad weather to salvage the cargo.
Each turn will always take place between 2 players that divide up four crates that have washed ashore. Feel free to talk out your strategy and wishes for how to divide the loot, but be careful.
The final decision is made by a game of Rock Paper Scissors, where greed will be swiftly punished.
Playing HMS Dolores
Setup is pretty simple but has a few steps. Shuffle all of the crate tiles together, and deal some cards to each player (the number depends on the number of players).
Now, add the five message cards to the remaining pile, and shuffle the deck once more. Finally, take the bottom 15 cards, add the sunset tile (the end game timer), shuffle this smaller deck and put it back under the deck.
Once this is done, you can begin playing the game. Each round, there is a dealer that deals out four tiles on the table, and plays against the player on their left.
The goal of the game is to get as many points as possible, with the score of your highest item and the lowest item being added together. This will be explained in detail later, but for now, think that you are trying to make as many even scoring piles of items as you can.
Looking at the ‘salvage’ on the table, you and your opponent decide how you wish to split the bounty. In general, you will take the two items on each player’s respective side – but there are other options.
You could choose to go first and take one item from the board, leaving your opponent whatever remains on their side. There is also war, where you try and take everything.
All of these options are freely discussed beforehand, but it’s what you present in the final phase that counts. This phase is played like Rock Paper Scissors, and you have three options.
Peace (an open hand) means you are happy to let things stand, and take your respective halves of the board. If both players take peace, everything is quickly settled.
War (a closed fist) means that you want everything. If your opponent counters with peace, you have everything. If you both go to war, everything on the table is discarded – no one gets a prize.
Going first (thumbs up) means you wish to only take a single tile – but you can take this tile from anywhere. If your opponent played peace, and you took from there side, they will also only get one prize. If they played war, you pick first but they get the remaining three crates.
Harshest of all is if you both decide to go first. Similar to a dual declaration of war, the crates on the table are all discarded. Both of you will also have to discard a crate from those before you as a further penalty as well!
Once you have split the bounty, the player on the dealers left becomes the dealer, and the process continues until the sunset tile is drawn.
This is the heart of HMS Dolores. Similar to the prisoner’s dilemma, do you watch out only for yourself? You may get more than the others, but you could also lose everything as well.
Do you decide to play ‘straight’ and share a victory with others? This makes honest negotiation the better play but leaves you open to betrayal. How do you convince a player that both of you discarding a crate each will actually help you both?
End Game Scoring
Once the sunset tile is dealt, the game is instantly over – do not finish the round. Each player sorts their tiles into the individual commodities and adds up the point score on the cards of each item.
As previously mentioned, you then add the point scores of the highest and lowest amounts of stock, this combined total being your score.
For example, the top player has 3 + 2 + 2 + 1. The highest score is 3, and the lowest score is 1, so four points total. The middle scores are disregarded.
The middle player has 2 + 3 + 3 + 1, and scores 7 points – the two 3 stacks and the 1 stack.
The bottom player though has scored big with the bonus double trick. They have 4 items as well, but each is worth 2 points – 2 + 2 + 2 + 2. Two being the highest value, they score 8 points. 2 is also the lowest value, scoring another 8 points for 16 in total.
Everything about HMS Dolores is about balance. Having only a couple of items of equal value can lead to a decisive victory as illustrated.
Achieving such a balance requires quick thinking in negotiating the split, and going back on your word can destroy your opponents’ score.
Only want the one crate, but you know that any crate is bad for your opponent? Convince them that you will both play war and wipe the table, then pick first and let them take the remainder.
Desperate to get rid of that one item that is throwing your score balance? Convince your opponent that you want as much as possible and will go to war, so they should pick first to get anything. When you both pick first, you can get rid of that score destroying item easily!
This is how HMS Dolores is meant to be played, and it holds a lot of appeal to me. But I need to be playing with the right people. Not everyone is comfortable with bluffing and deception, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t play HMS Dolores.
Forget the Prisoner’s Dilemma, what about the Player’s Dilemma?
If you play with ‘kind and honest’ player types, the cooperative puzzle of maximising scores has its own appeal. It also helps to play teaching and learning games like this. Players can listen to your advice without needing to weigh up a ‘deception’ factor and can get a fast handle on the scoring of HMS Dolores.
Mixing the gentler, more cooperative players with the more backstabbing kind is where I see games of HMS Dolores fall down the most. Because you only interact with the player on your left and right, someone that always ‘honest’ or always out to mess with you can be disheartening, even in such a quick game.
And this is where I think HMS Dolores biggest weakness – you need to be with the exact right group for you.
Now this common among many forms of entertainment, so I don’t count it as a con of the game as such. But you can easily spot the right and wrong group at the end of a game.
If the group played similar styles, they will shuffle around a bit to change player order and have another go. If the group is too disparate in their gaming choices, the minority if not the whole group will shuffle off to other games.
Find the right group though, and you have a fun little filler for any occasion.
The other weakness is player downtime. HMS Dolores is a quick game, but waiting for your turn to come around can take you out of the game a bit. There isn’t much that can be done about this, but I tend to stick to 3 player games for this one.
Teaching players HMS Dolores is pretty simple – it’s a variant on Rock Paper Scissors, with combination consequences.
Playing with like-minded players is a fun diversion, but playing with someone that enjoys backstabbing friendly players kills the mood for everyone.
I have found my favourite plays to be with people that are working to get the best score. When I see a player pointing out combinations that help maximise their opponent’s score makes me happy. This style makes HMS Dolores suitable for mixed ages as well, as you can help younger players optimise their set collection strategy.
Not a game that I will reach for constantly, but a game I will usually be a part of if it’s on offer, and quick enough to be a different filler experience for many games night.
Not sure what the score means? Check out my Review Scores explanation for more info!