Avast, ye scurvy dogs! Do ye dream of adventures on the high seas, fraught with dangers and glory? Are ye strong enough to overcome the greed of others to collect the lion’s share of the treasure? Can you roll your arrrs?
If those ideas positively shiver your timbers, then listen as I sing a salty shanty about Libertalia. There will be cursed treasure, betrayal and nautical puns abound!
We’ll set sail after the gap. Yaaaaarrr!
OK, no more nautical puns, I promise. Just so you know though, I could have gone on for hours. Hours.
The basic premise of the game is this – up to six players can take control of their own crew of pirates, represented by cards ranked 1 to 30, from ‘worst’ to ‘best’. Each of these cards depicts a cliché character, from Parrot to Cabin Boy, from Voodoo Priest to the Captain himself. These crews are then sent to raid three ships over the course of three weeks (in-game time, thankfully) in order to be the ones with the most loot at the end.
The weeks are divided into six cycles of Day/Dusk/Night, with a final day of rest, and each character card has an ability that must be activated during the relevant time of day. Most of these abilities are simple and easily undertaken – for example, the Brute can throw another character overboard, instantly removing some competition. Others, on the other hand, are tainted with sacrifice. The Gambler will cost you doubloons to play, but guarantees a greater return in the future – if he survives the week, that is.
The hand of nine cards you receive for the first week will be identical to your rivals’ hands – if you have a red Parrot, you know for certain that the blue captain has one too. The trick of the game is knowing when to play each card. Actions are played out in ascending order of rank, and booty gets divided in descending order. So the question is – do you play your high ranking characters to try for the best treasure, or someone weaker in the hopes that their ability will cause problems for the other players? This is what all your opponents are considering too, so cue the mind games!
At the end of the day, characters go back to your ‘den’, taking any booty tokens they collected with them. The booty comes in assorted flavours; treasure (of which there are three different values), maps (worthless alone, but super valuable in sets of three), cursed treasure (deducts from your overall haul), sabres (for killing opponents) and Spanish officers (for killing yourself). Booty tokens are taken randomly from a bag and divided throughout the days – one for each player to take. At the end of the three weeks, totals are counted and the richest crew wins!
Planning will only get you so far though – of the nine cards you start with, there are three you won’t us, which get taken over to week two. Suddenly, you no longer have identical crews to play with. Who used their Gunner last round? Who was the only person to keep their Governor’s Daughter? Does anyone still have that damned Monkey that keeps swapping the cursed treasure?!
This was the predicament we found ourselves in the last day of the final week. The booty had been poor for the whole week – nothing but Spanish officers and cursed treasure. A few maps, but not enough for a set. So all anyone had was a deck laden with dead corpses and a hold full of voodoo gold. And we all had our Monkeys. These bastards take all the cursed treasure you have, and pass it to the player on your left. We play our choices – four monkeys, all different colours. Now the adrenaline kicks in – in case of a tie for rank, each card is numbered one to six, a different number for each deck, as a secondary rank. We all peer in to see who has the ‘strongest’ monkey, as they’ll be the last person to pass the curses left, after collecting them from all the other players. Needless to say, I ended that week 27 doubloons in debt, putting me in super-dead last.
Libertalia has a great little mechanic where the youngest player in the game is the one with control over how the game goes. They select the booty tokens available on the ship, and they pick the hand of cards that players will be using in each round. It’s a nice idea aimed at getting young ‘uns involved in the game – no one should feel left out just because they can’t think three turns ahead.
The game itself is beautifully crafted. The board and tokens are all solid and well-made, and the cards have great art that leave in no doubt that the man in your hand is a freed slave, or is the barkeep. It comes with a thick bag to store your booty tokens, and a sturdy box that would look great on your shelves. The whole thing feels like it’s dragged straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean, although that’s probably doing it a great disservice – the tropes of scurvy pirates and their cursed treasure existed long before Captain Jack.
The feeling of being a pirate is a tricky theme to master, in both board- and video-games, but Libertalia manages to capture the essence of swashbuckling very well. It’s a fantastically well-made and themed game, perfect for gatherings of friends and family where some light-hearted murder and betrayal can be taken with good-humour. No two games will ever play out the same, which is always a sign of a good board game. I highly recommend playing.
Bonus Ramshackle-Points for playing with an eye-patch and enforcing mandatory pirate talk. Yaaaarr!