Bounties of Babylon – Man-of-war or total bore?

I'm sure I could make a booty joke here, but I'm far too much of a gentleman

Bounties of Babylon brings a boatload of bugs beside its buccaneers.

I do like a good board game. Actually, I like lots of board games. One of my favourite mechanics is tile placement, as you’d find in lightweight games such as Carcassonne or Tsuro. It allows you to have some control over your own destiny, but also leaves you at the whims of fate as you’re never quite sure if you’ll have a tile that will benefit you. Bounties of Babylon makes use of this mechanic in a high-seas merchants motif as you build paths to send your vessels around a map, collecting and selling bounties whilst also avoiding enemy ships. It’s a neat idea that could make a great tabletop game, but bugs and erratic AI make this a less enjoyable experience than it could be.

There’s no playable tutorial to be found here, but reading the how to play guide makes things clear enough. On each stage you’ll have a points target and a set number of turns to reach that target, as well as a limited number of lives. Stages are built on hex-based grids, with a few pieces already in place, including some paths your vessels can follow and some trading posts. At the start of your turn, you’ll be offered three tiles, from which you can choose two that you’ll then place on the grid, before you roll dice to send your ships around the area. They’ll collect bounties of the colour they land on, or sell those bounties at settlements in exchange for victory points. If you reach your target by the end of your turn limit you’ll progress to the next stage. If not, you’ll fail your run and need to try again.

Bounties of Babylon
Early stages on a run have fairly small maps, but later ones increase in scale.

Realistically, turns are split into tile placement and movement stages. Tiles include a path as well as a colour. The path shows you where a ship can go, and must match up to another path, meaning you can’t have a path ram into land. The colour dictates what bounty will be available if you stop there. There’s some actual strategy here, as you need to create paths that will allow you to get to traders, but also limit opportunities for your opponents to attack you. Then there are the colours to consider as you collect bounties of the colour  you land on as well as all bounties of that colour connected to that tile. 

You really want to plan carefully as you need good paths, good colour matches, and good escape routes if enemies start heading your way. I really did enjoy this aspect of Bounties of Babylon as it felt as though it made me think just the right amount without taking too long for me to make my decision.

Once tiles are placed, each of your ships will roll a die to determine how far it can move. Bad luck here can mean the plan you just set up can be instantly scuttled, which is incredibly frustrating. Most of the time you can recover though, and another turn allows you to set up potentially bigger combos.

After your turn, your opponents will go. Whilst they follow the same rules as you, they don’t have the same objective. They aren’t aiming for a score, rather their goal is to stop you from succeeding in the level. Essentially they’re there to spoil your good time instead of outmanoeuvring and outthinking you. They can take bounties just as you can, and if they land on your vessel, they’ll sink it, take some of your bounty, and reduce your lives by one. You can do the same to them of course, but you get a victory point for doing so instead of taking a life. 

Bounties of Babylon
Enemy ships will take one of your lives if they land on your space. Lives persist throughout a run, so picking up extras is smart.

The thing is that their AI is quite unpredictable. Considering their only real goal is to frustrate your efforts, enemy ships will often avoid opportunities to attack you and instead sail in a completely different direction. I’m all for AI that does the unexpected in games, but when they take the least optimal option repeatedly, I feel as though I’m playing against a random deck of cards rather than a thinking foe. The lack of multiplayer is also baffling. I realise that turns could be quite lengthy depending on how long someone thinks about their tile placement, but when the only online content for what looks like a perfect competitive game is a high score board then I think there’s a hell of a missed opportunity.

The real killer though, is the list of launch bugs that will utterly ruin your runs. In the first hour I played, I had a stage that just stopped working regardless of button input. Sometimes I couldn’t place a tile and the game wouldn’t let me trash it to progress. Other times it would and there’d be no problem. Sometimes the AI would place the tile and the game would just stop doing anything. Occasionally I’d be able to rotate the camera and nothing else. These happened several times all within ninety minutes of me playing, and they carried on when I went back for more. Each time one of these bugs reared its head, I’d have to quit the stage and start it from scratch. Sometimes I’d quit the stage and have to start the whole run from scratch, negating my previous six successful stages. It was maddening, and I hope against hope that these bugs have been ironed out since my writing this.

Further to that is the bizarre control scheme. This is designed solely with a controller in mind. You can play with keyboard and mouse, but be prepared for a lack of responsiveness and even more intermittent button inputs. The design looks as though it was designed with touch controls in mind, so the fact that mouse support is so spotty seems very odd.

Bounties of Babylon
Settlements are where you trade bounty for victory points. Depending on the merchants, you may not have enough to sell.

With all that said, I think that Bounties of Babylon is a very good concept. If this were a competitive tabletop game rather than a digital game you play against AI, I could see it working very well. Each play places their tiles, moves their ships, and picks up tokens that represent bounties. It would be a pretty easy sell with some nice components. As it stands, we have an admittedly nice looking proof of concept that doesn’t really meet its ambitions.

Bounties of Babylon is available now on PC.

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