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Beacon Patrol - Review

Designer & Artist: Torben Ratzlaff
Publisher: Shapes & Dreams
Player Count: 1 to 4 Players
Play Time: 30 to 45 Minutes

Climb aboard sailor and welcome to the Coast Guard, you’re part of the Beacon Patrol now! In this review of Beacon Patrol I explain the simple tile placement gameplay and underscore the importance of attention to solitaire play.


Beacon Patrol board game box cover
Beacon Patrol box cover

Beacon Patrol is a tile placement game by new designer Torben Ratzlaff featuring light, quick gameplay and good replayability. The game is set in the cold waters of the North Sea, where players are patrol boat captains, exploring coastlines and mapping the locations of nautical features. The game blends cozy aesthetics and simple rules with a strategic endeavor: players must cooperate to putz around, place tiles, and expand the board while exploring as many features in the archipelago as they can.


I played Beacon Patrol for the first time at the Pandasaurus Games table in the demo room at the Game Manufacturers Association Expo earlier this year. During the demo I noticed an error on the box. A photograph of game tiles featured on the back cover included a tile that was in a position that could not have been achieved through gameplay. I doubt my note was the reason, but the mistake seems to have been corrected for the final printing. There were a few other co-captains at the table including my LGS's wonderful rep from the Pokémon Company!


Not that any of that is particularly pertinent to the review; I just wanted to share that I have a unique, fond memory associated with this game. I thoroughly enjoyed Beacon Patrol at GAMA and now that I have a copy to play at my leisure, it has become my go-to relaxation game.


Gameplay


All ships begin on the Beacon Patrol HQ tile. Beacon Patrol shares the dilemma of many other tile laying games: no matter how central you place the starting tile, you will inevitably play heavy to one side and find the edge of the table. Or maybe I just need a bigger gaming surface. Players each begin with either two or three tiles in their hand (depending on the number of players) and draw back up to that amount at the end of each turn. Players will also begin with two, three, or four movement tokens also determined by the number of players.



The objective of Beacon Patrol is to expand the board and fully explore tiles, scoring additional points on the ones that contain nautical features including buoys, lighthouses, and—including the optional micro expansions—windmills and piers. A tile is considered explored when there are tiles touching on all four cardinal edges.


Players can place new tiles in any open adjacent space to the one their ship is on. New tiles must follow the correct orientation according to the reference arrow in the corner of each tile and all tile edges must match—water touches water, and land touches land. Once a tile is successfully placed, the player automatically moves their ship onto the newly placed tile. Ships cannot move over land (obviously) so you can’t hop over islands even if the other placement conditions are met.


Sometimes none of a player’s tiles will quite line up right. But that’s OK since players can take other actions on their turn. Ships may be moved to a tile that has already been placed. Each turn, players may only move up to a number of times equal to the number of movement tokens they have. Each player can also swap one of their tiles with one from another captain. Although a player may be able to snag a playable tile, the swap may stick a fellow captain with a tough one. These actions—placing, moving, and swapping—can be taken in any order.


Turn Actions and Scoring reference cards Beacon Patrol game components
Turn Actions and Scoring reference cards

Any tiles that cannot be placed are discarded and are out of the game. Since discarded tiles do nothing for players, any discarded tile effectively detracts from the number of playable tiles that can be used to explore. Players should avoid discarding too many tiles if they can!


The game ends and the score is calculated when all tiles have been placed or discarded. Explored lighthouses count for 3 points, explored buoys for 2 points, and all other explored tiles are 1 point. After the score is tallied, players will find out whether they are mere Novices or hardened North Sea Cartographers.


Solo


Beacon Patrol welcomes native solo gameplay, so there are no additional components to fidget with and only one rule adjustment to incorporate. Solo players may keep one unplayed tile each turn. However, this does not change the maximum number of tiles they may have in their hand so the player only draws back up to three tiles in their hand at the end of a turn.


I find solitary Beacon Patrol is tougher than multiplayer. In countless playthroughs, I have only scored higher than the Captain tier once. With fewer players, the abstract strategy of the game becomes more acute. Even with four movement tokens, mobility is limited. Especially with a bigger board in the late game, it will be tough for the player to navigate to the ideal spot for the tiles in their hand. With only one ship on the board, it is more likely the player will concentrate in one direction, resulting in an elongated board that is difficult to traverse. This translates to more tiles being discarded or placed in nonoptimal positions.


Likewise, fewer players means a more limited pool of tiles to select from each turn. There is no swapping in solo mode which effectively reduces the number of live tiles to play from eight in a four player game to three. Fewer ships to cover the board and fewer live tiles means filling in that last tile to explore a key lighthouse can be a tough task.



Thoughts


Beacon Patrol has been really well received by my friends who aren’t avid board gamers. Fully cooperative, clocking in at under thirty minutes, and few rules and component movements to track, it checks a lot of boxes for a light, quick, and easy gameplay experience. Plus, being able to swap tiles with other players keeps everyone at the table engaged even when it is not their turn. That’s a huge plus.


As a solo title, it has also become one of my favorites to relax with—a turn-your-mind-off game without a lot of fiddling that still manages to deliver clever gameplay. It’s easy, but not simple. It lacks escalating tension, but is not uninteresting. Players are not made to feel as though each action must be optimized to enjoy gameplay, or even achieve victory. The act of playing Beacon Patrol is tranquil, beautiful, and thoroughly enjoyable.


I attribute that to the prioritization of gameplay experience over outcome, especially with the attention to aesthetics. Beacon Patrol is a beautiful game with a vibrant, bright table presence. The bold cartoonish art style and pastel blue coloration means the comic sans title font actually feels right at home. Each tile is a carefully drawn piece of an erratic puzzle and when laid down on the table according to the rules of the game, slots into a unique and special map of a happy little world that the players have not just explored, but created.


For instance, one of the perils of Beacon Patrol is creating a long stretch of land that cannot be crossed; this effectively splits the board and limits players’ ability to navigate the sea. I repeatedly found myself running into this problem, resulting in incoherent archipelagos and low point totals. So on one playthrough I tried only to make small islands, consisting of only three or four tiles each. I more liberally discarded tiles that would result in large landmasses in favor of more board mobility. The result was still a Novice finish, but a visually gratifying board.


I seriously enjoy the process of Beacon Patrol and its almost sandbox-like nature of map-making from randomly-drawn tiles. Not every move feels like it needs to get me closer to scoring more points. It can be difficult sometimes for games to evoke a feeling where each action and move is valued for its contribution to equanimity, rather than for its advancement of the metagame. Beacon Patrol has achieved this masterfully.


Beacon Patrol ship components pieces meeples tokens
Beacon Patrol ship meeples

Even still, there is a great deal to learn about the abstract strategy of the game through repeated playthroughs. In other words, it’s not just a fun and buoyant game, but one that you can actually get better at. After a few plays, especially solo, the player begins to recognize the utility of those full water tiles, how to avoid discarding a tile by playing it in a position that it won’t negatively impact your board state, and how to optimize taking move actions in between place actions.


Beacon Patrol was released just days apart from another cooperative tile laying game, Mists Over Carcassonne—a standalone title in the popular Carcassonne family of games. This had obviously resulted in numerous comparisons of the two, leading some reviewers to posit that Beacon Patrol lacks some the gusto, some of the ambitious that Mists Over Carcassonne packs.


I think this is an unfair judgment. That the two titles share a genre does not mean that they are meant to elicit a similar gameplay experience at the table. “Beacon Patrol is pleasant,” to borrow from Andrew Lynch at Meeple Mountain. And after playing it so enjoyably and repeatedly, I can affirm that it need not be anything more than that. Beacon Patrol radiantly achieves precisely what Ratzlaff intended. Although this game may be flying somewhat under the radar at the moment, I predict it will be a cozy staple on the game night shelf for a while to come—at least it is on mine.


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