SNAP Review – At The Helm

I’ve always enjoyed sailing. I wonder what it was like to captain a ship before modern technology – relying on incomplete charts, trying to avoid hazards and keep my crew safe, balanced with the desire for a speedy voyage. There are so many dangers out in the open ocean – would we have made it safely to our destination at all?

Let’s find out in this SNAP review for At the Helm.


At the Helm is a solo deck-building game by Ted Heidersdorf and it’s published by Button Shy Games. It takes about 15 minutes to play, and it’s best for ages 12 and up.


So, what about the art in this little 18 card game?

Everything here has an old-timey nautical theme that makes me think of Moby Dick or Treasure Island – sort of a weathered chart look. There are three different kinds of cards – items, challenges, and a captain who tracks your health – and they all look different enough to easily tell them apart.

At the Helm item market

The starting cards are also clearly marked, which makes it easy to get set up and just get going.

The challenge cards are cleverly designed. Every card can be used for one of its two challenges, or as a pointer to keep track of your progress on the other challenges.

At the Helm challenges: Discover Island, Smuggling Job, Giant Squid


Speaking of progress, let’s talk about how At the Helm works.

Start by choosing three challenges, each on a different card. The point value on each card indicates the difficulty of that challenge. The fourth challenge card will be your indicator, with a compass needle pointing to the progress markers on the other three challenges.

Then deal out the eight Market cards into two rows. Place the Captain card with the “7” at the top to indicate your starting health.

Then shuffle the five starting item cards into a deck. Draw three to be your starting hand. Are there broken hearts in your starting hand? Take damage for each one – and turn the Captain card to show your new health value.

On each turn, choose one or two cards from your hand. Play them and use their abilities, advancing the progress on a challenge, increasing your health, or improving your hand. Or, simply discard them, if there’s nothing else you can do.

Then resolve any negative effects from the challenges that aren’t complete. Draw back up to three cards in your hand – and take damage for each broken heart on the items that you draw.

When the deck runs out, choose a card from the bottom market row and add it to your discard pile. Shuffle the discard pile to become your new deck, and slide down cards in the market to fill any gaps in the bottom row.

Fulfill all three challenges to win the game – but if your health reaches zero, or if there are no more cards in the market when the deck runs out, then you lose the game.


So let’s talk about what I expected from this little game.

It’s solo, a nautical theme, and deck-building! This Button Shy game combines three of my favorite things. But I was really curious how you could possibly have a deck-building game, even for one player, with such a tiny deck.

Since it’s trying something so audacious, I expected there would be a little bit of complexity in the rules to make everything work with just 18 cards. I am no novice to Button Shy Games.


And what surprised me about this little game?

The deck-building mechanic works surprisingly well. There are two ways to add a new card to your deck – either waiting until the deck runs out and choosing from the bottom row, or you can “buy” a card anywhere in the market by using a coin – pictured on the Pearl card and also on the Pocket Watch.

Pocket Watch: +coin OR do not reduce health when drawing cards at the end of this turn.
Pearls: +coin

You also occasionally have the opportunity to trash cards from the market for a big, immediate benefit. Of course, that means fewer cards you can add to your deck, and it shortens the game.

Is it worth it? Maybe.

After playing a dozen times without winning once, I finally discovered one of the secrets to At the Helm. This game plays best when you take it slow, focusing on keeping your health up and minimizing the bad effects from your incomplete goals. It’s really tempting to play multiple cards and make big strides towards a goal, but that usually comes with a big risk of either losing too much health and losing the game – or running out of cards left in the market, and ending the game too soon.


So would I recommend At the Helm? Tentatively. I think if I had not really loved the theme of this game, I would not have played it so much when I kept losing.

It’s an interesting kind of solo game. I love that it’s completely self-contained and doesn’t need any other components, and I will keep playing it now that I have figured out a little bit more of the strategy.

If At the Helm sounds interesting to you, hopefully my tips here will help you, too. I’m going to rate it 3½ knots out of 5.

It’s currently sold out on the Button Shy Games website, but you can sign up to be notified when it’s back in stock – or buy the print-and-play version from PNP Arcade.

And that’s At the Helm, in a SNAP!

At the Helm - wallet and cards

The Family Gamers received a copy of At the Helm from Button Shy Games for this review.

SNAP review music is Avalanche, provided courtesy of You Bred Raptors?

three and a half square knots
At the Helm
  • Knots


Age Range: 12+
Number of Players: 1
Playtime: under 15 minutes