Dale Yu: Review of Black Fleet (Space Cowboys)


Black Fleet

  • Designer: Sebastian Bleasdale
  • Publisher: Space Cowboys/Asmodee
  • Ages: 14+
  • Players: 3-4
  • Time: ~60 minutes
  • Times Played: 3, at conventions and with review copy provided by Asmodee

black fleet

Black Fleet is this year’s new release from Space Cowboys, a newish company that has brought together the principals from a number of smaller European companies.  You may be familiar with their other release this year, Splendor, or from my recurrent ravings about the not-quite-ready-for-release Time Stories (which I will playtest again this upcoming October in Essen).

In Black Fleet, players take on the role of pirates.  They use cards to control their own merchant and pirate ship as well as two neutral navy ships as they prowl the Caribbean seas trying to acquire enough doubloons to ransom the governor’s daughter.  Players have a set of development cards which can be bought for 5, 8, 11, and 14 doubloons.  Once those are purchased, a player can buy his final victory card for 10 doubloons which signals the end of the game.

The board is set up with the two neutral navy ships near the center of the board. Players start with their merchant ship in a port, and they load up their merchant with three goods.  Players are dealt 2 movement cards – these cards have three numerical values on them: one for a navy ship (either yellow or purple), one for their pirate ship and one for their merchant ship.  Players also each receive a Fortune card – each of these cards has some special ability or temporary alteration to the rules that can be played when the time is right.

bf board

To start your turn, you play a movement card from your hand.  As I mentioned earlier, there are three numbers on the card.  This gives you the opportunity to move three different ships – each moves up to the number of spaces equal to its number on the card.  Each ship can perform one action per turn.  The different types of ships are explained below.  If your ship had been sunk (pirate ship attacked by Navy or a merchant ship that had been emptied of goods by Pirates), it comes back into play from one of the corner spaces. Furthermore, during your turn, you can play any number of Fortune cards – each of these has some sort of special ability or rules tweak.

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The Navy Ships – the card will tell you which colored navy ship moves (yellow or purple).  These ships want to sink pirate ships, preferably those of your opponents!  If the navy ship can move into an adjacent space as a pirate ship, that pirate ship is sunk and it is returned to its owner.  You gain 2 doubloons as a reward for ridding the high seas of the nasty pirate.  Any goods cubes that were on the pirate ship are simply returned to the supply. It can only attack once per turn.  Oh yeah, you can’t attack your own ships either. That would be too easy.

Your Merchant ship – this ship wants to deliver its good to a port that wants those goods.  If your merchant ship can move into a space adjacent to a port with demand, you trade in the cubes for doubloons (2 or 3 doubloons per cube).  Additionally, once you sell goods, you then automatically fill up with three cubes of the color that the particular port supplies.

Your Pirate ship – this ship wants to steal goods cubes from opponent’s merchant ships and then bury those cubes on beaches as buried treasure.  If the pirate ship can move into an adjacent space to a merchant ship, it steals one of the goods cubes off the merchant and earns a 2 doubloon bonus.  On a later turn, it can bury this cube as buried treasure and earn a further 3 to 6 doubloons for that.  (You cannot steal and bury a cube on the same turn).

Once you have moved all your ships, you clean up.  You first draw movement cards to bring your hand back to two.  Then, look at the movement card that you played. It may instruct you to draw one or two Fortune cards or maybe to discard a Fortune card from your hand.  Then, if you wish, you can purchase one of your development cards (or if they are all purchased, to buy the victory card).  If you buy a development card, you pay the cost in doubloons and then flip the development card over.  Each of these cards also has a special ability on it which is now in effect for you for the rest of the game.  You may buy these cards in any order, though you are limited to buying only one each turn.

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The game continues until a player has purchased his Victory card.  When this happens, play continues until all players have had an equal number of turns.  If only one person has bought his Victory card, that player wins.  If multiple players have done so, whichever player has the most money left is the winner.

My thoughts on the game

Black Fleet is a cute, light-weight family game.  Though the age suggestion on the box is 14+, this has gone over well with my fifth-grader (age 11) and his classmates.  The rules are simple to learn, and once you have a grasp of the basic mechanics, it’s not hard to apply the special abilities on the cards to the game.  It has gone over well in the family setting here, though I think that it is a touch long for what you get in the game for my regular gaming group.

The turns move fairly quickly, though there is often a little break at the start of a turn as players need to consult the board (and possibly count out moves using their fingers) to see which movement card benefits them more.  When it’s not your turn, there’s not a lot to do.  Your ships might get attacked, but there’s nothing you can do to stop that from happening.  Also, it’s hard to really plan your move until your turn because you’re never quite sure if your ships will be sunk nor where the navy ships will be – so it’s hard to really try to plan anything out.

The turns themselves are the same – play a card, move ships, get doubloons, etc.  The big difference in any given turn is based on how the board is set up and whether or not you have a particular Fortune card or Development card ability that will allow you to maximize your gain.  I would say that it is rare to have a turn go by without at least one scoring move (generally 2 doubloons).  Early in the game, many turns only provide you with one score.  Once you get some development card actions though – such as one that allows your ships to attack from one space further away or a card that lets a Navy ship on your turn attack either a Pirate ship OR a Merchant ship – the scoring rapidly increases, and turns of 5 to 7 coins are feasible.  Remember that you need a total of 48 doubloons to buy all the Development cards and your Victory card.

There is a little bit of variability in the development cards, and it could turn out that someone gets a more synergistic set of cards than others.  That’s a little bothersome to the gamer in me, but when played in a casual setting, it’s not that big of a deal.  Anyways, any luck in the development cards could easily be offset by fortunate draws of Fortune cards during the game.

The game speeds along, and the development cards actually help accelerate the game because the little rules tweaks on those cards tend to make it a bit easier for you to accomplish your goals.  Though earlier I said that some cards may be better than others or some cards may work better in concert, there is still room for player skill to mitigate that.  You can buy the cards in any order, and an astute player will look at his possible added abilities and figure out which ones will be better to use earlier in the game.  In some games, you may want to buy the lowest cost card (cost of 5 doubloons) to get an early special ability – but in other games, it may be worth your while to wait it out and get a more powerful action for 11 or 14 doubloons which will then make it easier for you to buy the rest.  In the end, it doesn’t matter in which order you buy the cards but only that you bought them all.

The components are pretty sweet (even for a non-parakeet such as myself).  The ships are molded plastic, and the attention to detail is pretty nice – there are actually shelves on each ship to hold the cubes!  Furthermore, little details that might go unnoticed include the vacuum tray.  If you take all the stuff out of the tray, you’ll find that there is a skull and crossbones hidden in the tray.  Yeah, stuff like that doesn’t really do anything for gameplay, but it does show an attention to detail on the part of the publishers.  Another nice touch is the metal coins that have a nice heft in your hand.

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I should also note that the game also has a 20 doubloon victory point card which can be used to extend the length of the game or to act as a handicap (where you have weaker players have a 10 doubloon victory card while others have a 20) – but we have never used these.  We haven’t needed a handicap, and to be honest, the game is pretty well balanced in terms of game length with the cheaper victory card.  I wouldn’t want the game to continue on for another two to four turns to get the extra 10 doubloons.  The game is cute, but every turn is the same – with the exception that Fortune cards can change a rule short-term.  I don’t see any advantage to making the game 21% longer (going from a target of 48 doubloons to 58) when there are no new or different decisions to be made in those extra turns.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Dan Blum (1 play): I actually rather liked this, which is a bit surprising since it’s fairly chaotic and therefore not the sort of thing I usually go for. However, I felt that the amount of chaos here was appropriate for the theme, the weight, and most importantly the length of the game. So it’s a light chaotic game, but not one that will tend to outstay its welcome, and I thought the feel was about right for a pirate game.


That being said, I only played once, and it was a three-player game. With four players the game will presumably take longer and have more chaos, so I might not like it as much that way. My opinion is therefore somewhat tentative.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dan Blum (but see above)
  • Neutral. Dale Y
  • 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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