Spanish Main

Published by Harland Trefoil
Designed by Francis Tresham
Review by David L. Richtmyer (

I just got back from a vacation; part of which was spent on Cape Cod, and during our stay there I went into Boston to visit a unique game store: Games People Play. This store's specialty is foreign games; there were shelves for railroad games, German games, word games, etc. I looked over several of the more difficult to get German games, but ended up settling on as neat a game as I have ever found, however, and completely obscure: Spanish Main by Hartland Trefoil in England. The designer is Francis Tresham of Civilization and 1829/1830 fame.

The game is simplicity itself, though there are many strategies with which to win and explore. The topic is the looting of the New World in the 16th century. There is one strategic map, about 4 by 6 inches, with a plain square grid on it. At the bottom left hand side the last square is labeled "SM", for Spanish Main. At the far right are two squares, one for England, and further on down the side one for Spain. There is also a square labeled the Azores, and several squares on the upper left hand side labeled "America." Players choose a 16th century captain (one out of three each for the English and the Spanish), and take that captain's cards, plus a number of generic cards. The cards have numbers, representing the number of squares you can move on the strategic map: 2, 3, 4, 5. Each captain also has a number of named cards that only that captain can use, and these come in three varieties: one, minus one, zero, and six. Usually, the English captains have more of these cards than the Spaniard, representing (ahistorically, in my opinion) the superiority of English seafaring in the 16th century. You may only move your token horizontally or vertically on the strategic map and you must move the entire amount shown on the card played. The named cards allow you to move amounts that do not appear on the generic cards (like one or six), or they modify other cards. Minus one played with another card allows you to move one less square than the particular generic card that you played. The zero card is special. It allows you to move diagonally the number of squares shown on the generic card with which it was played.

Before you set out you must buy a ship and some cannon cards. These come in numeric values such as four, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, etc. Cannon cards come in either two or four categories. Each player starts out with a certain number of gold coins with which to buy these cards. The Spaniard has more than the English player to represent the head start they had in New World exploration and exploitation.

Each player begins play with a ship and their starting cards, and proceeds towards the Spanish Main square. You don't start with enough cards to make it all the way, so you must acquire other cards during your voyage; this must be done at the expense of moving on that turn. The unique thing about picking up cards is that the discard and draw pile are always face up, so everyone can see the top card. In addition, your hand is kept face up as well, so there is no hiding anything here, either. The named cards can only be used by the appropriate captain, so if you draw your opponent's named card you must hand it over to him. Woe betide the captain who plays down to his last sailing card, as he must then exchange that last card for the topmost card on the draw/discard pile. Your opponent will, of course, make sure that you only get the smallest sailing card denominations. This unfortunate state will either lead to you being left behind or prey to an interception (more of which anon), and can only be aleviated by getting into port. All this means that there is a great deal of interesting card play as you attempt either to get to the Spanish Main first or intercept your opponent.

You intercept your opponent, of course, to join in battle: either to sink him, or to disarm him and deprive him of his treasure on board. Combat is simply resolved. You pull out a cannon card from your stock (kept in a little envelope where you also hide your gold doubloons from your opponent) and roll a die. The result will either be a tie: both players lose a sailing card (representing loss of rigging); one greater than your opponent: he must lose a cannon card, while you lose a sailing card; two greater than your opponent: he must lose the cannon card he played (note the subtle difference), while you lose nothing; three greater than your opponent: same results as two greater but you can force the opponent into another round of combat. Players have the right to strike colors, and thereby escape with their ship semi-intact (although not with their treasure, which you cheerfully rob them of), and must strike colors if they are reduced to having no cannon and must take more damage.

When you finally arrive on the Main square, your token is tranferred to an ingenious 'map' of the Spanish Main: this is made up of 62 large (about an inch and a half) hexes that are back printed and laid out, cheek to jowl, in a diamond pattern. Before you lay them out (on a piece of dark blue felt, the reason of the felt will become evident in a moment), you give them a thorough shuffle. The backs have either low land, hilly land, or mountainous land printed upon them. You don't know what will be on the fronts until you land on them and explore them (i.e. turn them over). The felt, besides providing a pleasing blue sea-like background, allows you to flip over a tile by pressing on one side without upsetting all the other contiguous tiles.

Many of the low land tiles, which form the border of the diamond, are actually all sea tiles: it's difficult to tell where the coast line is in the haze of the tropics! Most of the tiles have a combination of land and two different depths of water on them; in addition three of the tiles have 'shallows' on them and one has 'rocks'. Large ships will sink if they land on a shallows tile; all ships, large or small, will sink if they hit the rocks tile.

From your base you can, in your turn, explore other tiles, one by one. To place the tiles they must exactly match their surrounding territory (i.e. tiles), so that land matches up with land and sea with sea. If you can't place them they are placed face up in a common pool for further placement--by yourself or your opponent--in a later turn in a better location.

You may also move about on the previously discovered tiles. On tiles with contiguous sea you can move in the Main up to four tiles per turn. You can't sail in an all-land tile, nor in a blank space.

The reason for the discovery of this new territory is, of course, in the best western tradition: loot 'em for as much as they're worth. Some of the tiles have rectangles with numbers printed upon them; these are 'treasure chests' and can be looted immediately. Other tiles have colored blobs upon their land areas; these represent silver and gold mines. If you discover a mine, or force your opponent off of one by battle (done the same way as you do it on the high seas), you can mine the mine for one gold or silver coin per turn. Your ship will hold up to its numerical value in gold/silver coins, or, if you are willing to toss away your cannon, up to twice its value. So a six ship with six cannons can hold six coins; if it gets rid of two cannon it can hold eight coins, etc.

At this point, you must sail back to the outer edge of the diamond tile/map, and then move back to the strat map and pick up more sailing cards. You then try to evade your opponent and get back to Merry Olde or Castile, and deposit your loot in safe keeping. The first person to achieve 35 gold coins (4 silvers are worth one gold) wins. There are a couple of sudden death victory conditions also: if the draw deck runs out and another card is needed by a captain/player, or if the last tile on the Main has been explored (but not necessarily placed), the game comes to a sudden end and players total their worth, both back home and on the Main.

Advanced rules allow you to build forts on the Main. Forts can either be bluffs, with no cannons, or you can rob your ship of cannons to man the fort and hope that your ship is not sunk on the journey back home. You can deposit your ill-begotten gold in the fort for safe keeping, then sail back in your little schooner to the home country and float a loan (there is a bank in the game) to buy a big ship with tons of space/cannon, so that you can retrieve your gold and get it back to the mother country safely.

Placement of the tiles can be exquisite: say you've discovered a big gold mine, but your opponent has a bigger ship and is nearby. You can't place the tile because of compatibility problems, so you wait until you find a place where you can (a) place the tile legally, (b) where it is now far from your opponent, or even better, (c) is next to a shallows tile that his big ship can't sail through while yours can. By the time he gets back to the mainland to trade in for a schooner, you've depleted the mine and are off to fame and fortune in your homeland. Of course, all the while he'll be attempting to explore another way towards that big mine by circling around you. It should now be apparent that you actually 'build' the map while you discover it; creating it in puzzle fashion. Players of Scrabble will be able to use some of their skills here. Good card play, knowing when to bluff and when to not, when to fire and when to run all make up for a superb strategy stew that uses basically simple mechanics. This game has the most unique game engine I've found since Up Front and We the People/Hannibal.

Now, the question is: why hasn't a larger publisher picked up this game. Many of Tresham's other games have been picked up and sold under license elsewhere (Avalon Hill's editions of Civilization and 1830, for example). This game is not, of course, a very good simulation of New World exploration. The graphics and physical quality are about on par with an Avalon Hill game of the late 70s or early 80s. But as a game it is exquisite. And the further on I've gone in my gaming career the further I've gotten from the detailed simulations (3DoG, OCS) and the closer I've embraced little jewels like Spanish Main. Great tension, tough decisions, and a playing time of 1.5 to 3 hours all add up to great entertainment. I couldn't give it a higher recommendation.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell