Dale Yu: Review of Libertalia

Designer: Paolo Mori
Publisher: Asmodee / Marabunta
Ages: 14+
Players: 2-6
Time: 40-60 min

Times played: 4 with advance copy provided by Asmodee

Libertalia is the newest release from Asmodee – it should hit the streets later this month at GenCon.  Libertalia represents a paradigm shift for Asmodee.  As far as I can tell, it is the first game released by Asmodee where the primary release is in North America – I believe the European release will be at Essen 2012.    Asmodee was able to send me an advance copy to play prior to the release, and I got in a few plays of the game at Gulf Games.

You may recognize the name of the designer, Paolo Mori, from other recent releases including Vasco de Gama, Borneo and Pocket Battles.  As you can see, his designs run the gamut, and Libertalia appears to be quite different from his previous efforts.  Though Mori is Italian, the game has a definite “French” feel to it.

In this lighter game, players take on the role of pirates who are vying amongst themselves to get the most treasure from plundered ships.  They will each try to employ the services of the same crewmembers to get the best goods each day.   At the end of each of 3 weeks, players will total up their plunder, and at the end of the game, the player with the most doubloons in the bank wins the game!  Let me go into a bit more detail on how the game works.

The game is composed of 3 rounds, each following the same pattern of 6 “days” of plunder.  At the start of each round, players are given an identical set of cards – 9 cards to start the game and then 6 more cards at the start of rounds 2 and 3.  These cards are drawn from a set of 30 different character cards – and each of these cards has a special ability that affects the game.  To this, one player shuffles his deck and draws 9 at random.  The other players simply pick these same 9 cards out of their ordered deck.  Each player also starts the round with 10 doubloons (or victory points) in coin form.  Throughout the course of the week, players will try to gain more doubloons thru plunder each day.

The board is seeded with one randomly drawn treasure token per player placed on the space for each day (so, 5 treasure tokens each day in a 5 player game).  These tokens are all placed face up so that the players know what they are fighting for each day.  Most of the treasure tokens give you positive doubloons – treasure chests give 5, jewelry gives 3, and a barrel of goods gives 1.  You could also try to collect treasure maps, though you need a full set of three of them to score 12 doubloons – anything less equals zero.  There are also some cursed relics which should be avoided as they are worth negative 3 doubloons.

For each day, players secretly and simultaneously choose a card from their hand to play.  When everyone has chosen, these cards are then revealed and placed on the board in low to high order.  Each of the character cards has a rank from 1 (the Parrot) to 30 (the Spanish Governor).  In low to high order, you check if the characters played have a Daytime special effect. If so, that effect takes place now.  Some examples are: #3 Beggar – The owner of the character with the highest rank on the ship gives you 3 doubloons; #14 Brute – Discard the character with the highest rank on the ship; #26 Quartermaster – gain 1 Doubloon for each of your booty tiles (collected so far this week).

A few of the character cards from Libertalia

Since all players have the same hand of 9 cards to start the game, there will often be ties amongst the cards played.  There are special tie-breaker numbers on each card that prioritize the cards of the same rank.

Once the daytime effects have been executed, then Dusk falls and it’s time to collect your booty.  In this phase, you go in reverse order from daytime – so the highest ranked card chooses first.  When it’s your turn to collect booty, you must take one token from those available and put it face down on your den (player mat).  You must take a token if one is available unless your card tells you otherwise.  If your character card has a Dusk action on it, you execute that action while you collect your booty.  Some examples of Dusk actions are: #5 Cabin Boy – Don’t take any booty tiles; #18 Cook – Take an extra booty tile.

The different booty tiles

Most of the booty tiles show treasure, and these tokens will be worth victory points at the end of the week.  As you place your booty token on your player mat, you also take your character card and place it in your den.  Normally this card remains face-up, and as long as it is face up, it is eligible to perform actions.  However, if you happened to choose a “Spanish officer” treasure tile, your character card is discarded and placed face down next to your den (having to discard your character card can be either good or bad depending on what other character cards you play).  The final treasure token type is the saber.  If you choose this token, your character remains face up in your den, but you get the ability to force one character from the den directly to your left or right to be discarded.  Oftentimes, you’ll choose a character that scores points each night for your opponent, or a character that will give a nice end-of-week bonus.

Once all players have collected their booty tokens and done all the related actions, night falls on the ship.  At this time, all players look at their face-up character cards in their dens and take any nighttime actions found on them.  Examples of Night actions are: #7 Barkeep – Gain 1 Doubloon; #12 Freed Slave – Gain 1 doubloon for each character in your den with a higher rank than Freed Slave.

The Den of Jason Swallow

This same pattern is repeated for the 6 days in the current week.  It’s important to note that the nighttime actions happen each night – so if you are able to play your Barkeep on the first day, and nothing happens to him to force him to be discarded, that card will provide 1 Doubloon each treasure gathering day for a total of 6 Doubloons.  After the 6th night, it’s time to see how well you did for the week. As you make your final reckoning though, you also look at the characters in your den to see if there are any end-of-week actions to perform.  Examples include: #9 Carpenter – Gain 10 Doubloons, #25 Governor’s Daughter – Gain 6 Doubloons if you are the only player to have Governor’s Daughter in your den, otherwise pay 3 Doubloons; #26 Quartermaster – Lose 8 Doubloons.  As you can see, not every end-of-week effect is positive, and there are certainly times where you are looking for reasons to be able to discard some characters during the week!

The ship up top, the scoreboard below

Again to recap the scoring at the end-of-the-week, you add to your current coin total:

  • 1 point per barrel token
  • 3 points per jewelry token
  • 5 points per treasure chest token
  • negative 3 points per cursed relic
  • 0 points for sabers and Spanish officers
  • ?? for end-of-week actions on face-up characters in your den

You then note this total with your marker on the scoreboard.  Then, it’s time to reset the board for round 2.  To do this, all players take all the cards played this week and place them in a permanent discard pile.  Players have a cardboard Jolly Roger token they can use to put on top of this permanent discard pile to remind them that these cards are now out of play.  You need this reminder because there are some cards which refer to your “discarded” cards, but these “discarded” cards are only the ones discarded in the current week – not those from previous weeks!

All players keep whichever cards they had not played in the previous round.  To this remainder, the players then receive an identical set of 6 cards.   Since players probably didn’t play the same 6 cards in the first round, there will be some variation in the hands at the start of the second round.   The booty tokens are placed back in the bag and a new set of tokens is placed on the board.  Each player also resets his coin total to 10 at the start of the new round.

Once the board is reset, you go through the identical pattern of 6 days of treasure collection and then the end-of-week reckoning.  At the end of this second week, you count up your doubloon total and add it to your score from the first round.  Preparation for the third round is the same, and after this final infusion of 6 cards, it is quite likely that players’ hands will be very different.  The third round plays the same, and at the end of the third round, the player with the most doubloons on the scoreboard is the winner!  There is no end-game bonus scoring to fuss with.

So, I’ll admit – when I read the rules to Libertalia, all I could see was the “French-ness” of it – you know, that certain sense of random that all French games seem to have.  Between the secret-and-simultaneous card selection as well as multiple card effects happening each turn, it certainly sounded chaotic.  (Yes, I know that the designer is an Italian, but the main Asmodee company is French, so it’s not a big stretch.)   Normally, I’m not a big fan of super random games, and I went into my first game with some trepidation.  However, I’m glad to say that the chaos is somewhat controlled, and there is a good balance between your ability to try to plan things and the unpredictable effects that upset those plans.

The best part for me was the fact that all players have the same pool of cards to choose from by the end of the game – in each game, players will see the same 21 cards out of the possible pool of 30.  So, at least no one will be able to complain about card luck – everyone got the same cards at the same time.  Furthermore, since you get the cards at the same time, there is never a time where a card’s special ability should completely blindside you.  That’s not to say that someone may choose a better time to play a card than you had foreseen or that someone may have found a better way to combo two characters together.

A few of the ladies on the crew

So – while things might happen that you don’t expect – all of the information is in front of you at the start of each round.  You know exactly which cards are available to all players and you know which treasure tokens will be available on which days.  There are no cards which change the treasure token composition once the board is set up.  Now, you might not know who will get a saber or which character will be discarded, but the possibilities are all in front of you.  Additionally, there are no super game-changing cards that grant immediate victory (or loss) like you’ll find in some chaotic games.

The game plays fairly quickly, and most days are finished in just a minute or two.  That being said, there is a fair amount going on each day, and there will certainly be times that you need to think for a bit to choose which card to play. First, it’s important to think about how your card’s rank will affect both the timing of any possible daytime actions as well as treasure token collection in the Dusk phase.  If there is a booty token that you really want to pick up, you will have to play a higher ranked card to be able to choose it.  Keeping an eye on Spanish Officers and Saber tokens is also important.  Managing your characters in your den is an important way of maximizing your scoring – there are some cards you want to “keep alive” as long as possible and others that you want to be face-down.

Even though the box recommends the game for 14+, I’ve found that both of my boys were able to pick up on the game fairly easily (they are 9 and 11 now).  There is a bit of text on each card, but the actions themselves are fairly straightforward.  Additionally, it’s no problem if anyone has a question about a card because all the players have the same cards!  There is a bit of direct targeting with the saber treasure tokens, but for the most part, it still doesn’t feel that mean because players are still limited to only their direct neighbors.

There is certainly something to be said for having experience with the game because you’ll have a much better idea of what possible characters / actions could be coming later in the game, but I don’t think that it is an insurmountable advantage.  Players who are new to Libertalia may just need a few extra minutes at the start of each round to have time to read their cards and try to figure out how to best use them.

On the whole, I’ve very much enjoyed my four games of Libertalia.  It’s a nice game to play with the family and on a casual game night.  Even with all the text on the cards, I’ve yet to find a gamer who wasn’t able to get into the flow of the game by the middle of the first round.  The secret-and-simultaneous card selection leads to a number of unexpected card interactions which seems to always lead to much laughing/groaning from the players.  The game comes in around an hour, which is about the right length given the weight of the game.  It’s not the sort of game that will ever be the centerpiece of a serious gaming night, but it’s definitely one that will come out as a longer filler or as a closer.

Opinions for Other Opinionated Gamers

Greg Schloesser:  Designer Mori gallantly attempts to create a lively pirate atmosphere with Libertalia.  From the truly outstanding, professional artwork to the entertaining variety of characters, the effort is made to draw players into the theme.  This effort is somewhat successful, but not completely.  There are no pirate duels, no boarding of merchant ships, no walking the plank.  Instead, what we have is a fairly random affair of playing cards and performing the indicated actions.  In this sense, as Dale has pointed-out, the game has a decidedly French design feel.

All is not completely random, however.  Each player will have available the same twenty-one cards over the course of the game, so players know what MAY be coming.  They may not know exactly which cards will be played and at what time, but at least there is some knowledge available so one can plan their cards to play.  Further, all of the booty tiles are face-up, so players can attempt to structure their card play in hopes of grabbing preferred booty.  Proper planning and timing are important, but one must realize that these carefully laid plans and decisions could, and often are easily foiled.

Still, in spite of this knowledge, the results of each round and campaign can be quite random.  A player’s plans can be quickly dashed by the card play of one’s opponents.  Of course, this randomness is reduced a bit when playing with fewer players, but the game seems more fun, albeit more random and chaotic, when playing with five or six.

I must be careful not to judge Libertalia as a detailed recreation of pirate life and adventures.  It is not. Rather, it is clearly designed to be more of a lightweight, fun romp that is more suitable for families as opposed to dedicated gamers.  The game seems to fit that market just fine.  Randomness seems far more suited and acceptable for light, family gaming than within the confines of strategy gaming groups.  So long as one can live with this randomness, Libertalia does a good job of what it is attempting to accomplish.

Ratings Review from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!
I like it.  Dale Yu, John P, W. Eric Martin
Neutral.  Ted C., Greg Schloesser
Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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