Dale Yu: Review of Dead Reckoning

Dead Reckoning

  • Designer: John D Clair
  • Publisher: AEG
  • Players: 1-4
  • Age: 14+
  • Time: 120 minutes
  • Played with preview copy provided by AEG

dead reckoning

As advertised on their original Kickstarter campaign – Dead Reckoning is: “The 4X Swashbuckling Adventure Game you’ve been waiting for! Take command of an able crew and set a course for adventure in Dead Reckoning. Explore mysterious islands, fight battles, upgrade your ship & crew, and build  fortifications to protect your holdings. The player with the most treasure in their chest when the game ends wins! Will you become a pirate, haunting the sea lanes and terrorizing your opponents? Or an explorer, rushing to discover what lies beyond the horizon? Or a master merchant, with a profitable trade route and well developed infrastructure? Every game will be different as each player follows their own path to victory! “

The original game and KS campaign was a great success – quickly funding on the crowdfunding site.  The game has received many great reviews online.  The demand for the game is high, and a new KS campaign is in the works – which will allow more people to back the original game as well the new Saga expansions.  Expansions for Dead Reckoning use a “saga” system in which certain content remains hidden and is discovered and added to the game organically only via playing. Rather than add everything at once, you gradually add it by playing and discovering. Depending on luck and player choice, new content may get added each game.

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We recently had a chance to play the base game, and it’s one that I’ve been looking forward to trying out.  I have been a fan of the Card Crafting System used in Dead Reckoning – ever since I first encountered it in Mystic Vale.  The Card Crafting System uses a unique mix of plastic cards with transparent areas along with regular cardstock cards – they can be combined and sleeved together to give all sorts of interesting combinations.

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The game is set up with the Harbor board and larger Ocean Board (with a 3×4 grid of sea tiles) placed on the table.  Four decks of Advancement cards are placed nearby.  There is also a fairly large Battleship and Board which is also placed near the center.  Each player takes their own set of stuff: ship board, reference cards, 12 sailor cards, treasure chest, coins, etc.    All players shuffle their deck, and draw 4 cards into their hand to start.

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The game is played in a series of simple turns – with 2 phases: Main Phase and Cleanup Phase.  Once your turn is over, you then level-up a card in your hand while your opponents are taking their turn. 

In the Main Phase – you can do as many of the actions listed below (with some restrictions)

  • Manage Cargo – load/unload/rearrange/jettison coins and barrels.  You can freely exchange at islands that you control
  • Play a card from your hand – place it on the table to be used at any point later
  • Use the ability of a played card (once per card per turn)
  • Set sails (only done once per turn, max value 8)
  • Move your ship (can only be done if Set Sails has already been done) – move orthogonally one tile per movement point; cannot explore more than 1 ocean tile per turn. If you end your movement on an unexplored tile, you must explore. If you end your movement on the same space with a Pirate, you must fight.
  • Buy the advancement card or resolve the encounter card in your space (limit 2x/turn)

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Note that there are 9 Achievement spaces on the Harbor board; if you ever meet the criteria for one of these, place your marker on it to indicate you have met the criteria. This could even happen on your opponent’s turn!  Some of the Achievements require you to do things multiple times; keep track of your successes with cubes in the Achievement area, and replace the cubes with your marker when you get the requisite number.

In the Cleanup Phase, you do these steps in order

  1. Refill Advancements/Encounters on empty board spaces
  2. Choose to be in Pirate or Mercantile mode – signify Pirate mode by placing a pirate token on your ship.  Pirates trigger mandatory fights against other ships in your space.
  3. Lose any unused Sails
  4. Sleeve Advancements – you can only place onto a card played this turn, and the new advancement cannot cover or be covered by another achievement.  You can set aside 1 Advancement each turn to defer until a later turn
  5. Discard and Draw – discard all cards played this turn, and then draw up to 4 cards (overall basic hand limit is 6).

When you have finished your turn, you can level up one Sailor card in your hand.  To do so, remove the ability card from the sleeve and turn it around/over so that the next level is visible.  You will be able to use this card and its new abilities on your next turn.

Battles – Battles are the heart of the game, and they use the novel Battleship (cube tower) / battle board setup.  Essentially, each side in the battle will determine how many cubes they have (based on icons on the islands, ship, cards, etc) and then these cubes are dropped through the ship so that they tumble out onto the battle board.  There are different areas on the board including points towards battle victory, plunder in goods, direct damage to your opponent’s ship, etc.  See where the cubes land, and the player with the most battle points (crowns) is the winner of the fight.  

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Game end is triggered when a player has 4 or more Achievement markers on the Harbor board at the end of their turn.  Each other player gets one more turn and then the game ends.  There are some special rules to make it harder to displace cubes from players who do not get another turn.

The game then is scored.  Players score points for:

  • Coins per the Achievements completed
  • Coins for each coin they control in their treasure chest/ship/islands in their control
  • 1 coin per building on island they control
  • Coins for upgrades to their ship
  • Coins for certain advancements that offer end of game scoring
  • Score for control of each island based on number of cubes present

The player with the most coins wins. If there is a tie, a one-off tiebreaker battle is done on the battle board using  cubes equal to the number of cannons on the tied players’ ships.  Repeat this until there is a clear winner.

My thoughts on the game

Well, I know that the base game has been out for a few months now, but this one is new to me, and we had a blast with it on a recent gaming weekend.  We had this one set up on the dining room table, and we needed much of the table space as this one takes up a lot of space!   I’m definitely looking forward to the upcoming Saga expansions, which are not-coincidentally going live today on KS.  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/alderac/dead-reckoning-letters-of-marque-from-aeg

It was interesting to watch how people developed very disparate strategies to try to win the game.  A lot of the strategies are due to the card crafting of the crew – you can try to shape your crew towards the actions that you want to take.  There is a fair bit of strategy in the upgrading of crew cards.  One of us took an unexpected but powerful strategy of holding a particular card in his hand for the first 3 rounds, and then ended up with a maxxed out level 4 card on the fourth turn; which became a very powerful weapon each time that it came into his hand.  This plan continued and that player ended up with three Level 4 cards quickly.  The card crafting is well integrated into the overall game, and I like the way that you always get to upgrade a card each turn – this helps give an arc to the game and to the growth of your crew.  That can be accelerated by picking up Achievement cards which are also added to the card sleeves holding your crew members. 

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One of us was very attacky, trying to sail around in Pirate mode, attacking anything they could, and taking plunder from both the defeated ships as well as from the battle board.  This was furthered with an Advancement that gave gold coin rewards for attacking…  Another gamer concentrated on the cube placing/area majority on the islands, using both crew actions as well as a couple of Advancements that allowed for some significant extra cube placements.   One other turtler took control of two islands near the harbor, fortified them with all the buildings and then tried to rapidly produce goods and coins and then ferry them between the islands and the harbor.

After a few games, I think I will definitely explain to people how much scoring comes from the area control.  It is definitely an area of the game that you cannot ignore.  I don’t think that you need to specialize in it, but there are too many points in this part of the scoring to not be at least somewhat involved.

The random board set up as well as the shuffled Advancement decks provide enough variety to keep you on your toes as you look for a good strategy.  We continue to use the recommended beginner tiles that reward you for meeting particular achievements, as we find that it gives everyone some initial strategies to focus on.  Also, for me, it helps keep me from falling into a rut because I usually will try to move towards one of the bonuses that are on my tile each game.

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The battle board is a nice gimmick.  It clearly catches the eye as it dominates the table.  The cube tower part works OK enough, though we found that height at which you dropped the cubes could definitely affect how far towards the end the cubes would go.  This added a bit of strategy or shenanigans to how the cubes would be dropped (as there are a much higher proportion of crowns in the nearer section and better loot in the further section).   We did have some issues as people at the other side of the table couldn’t see the results easily (as the cubes are obscured by the walls which are needed to keep the cubes on the board) – but by the end of the game, we were always all standing up crowded around the board to watch the action.

The way that battles are resolved – in the favor of the player with the most crowns – kept all parties in a fight, even if the number of cubes were not the same.  Also, the fights are just plain fun, and I like the way that the penalty of a single ship damage is the only cost of losing the battle.  This encourages people to fight, which really increased our level of fun.  There were battles where players didn’t care if they won or lost; they were in it for the loot to be collected from the battle board!

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The game stores itself nicely, and there is a diagram on the inside of the box to tell you how to make everything fit.  Things have their own little boxes, which are great for storage, but they also work well as containers during the game.  Just open up a box, place half the stuff in the lid, and now you have two bins for those bits, one for each side of the table!

This honestly wasn’t the sort of game that I thought I would like, but at this point, it’s a keeper for me, and I’m looking forward for a chance to try out some of the Saga expansions.  All of the current expansions, as well as at least one more, will be going live on KS later today – https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/alderac/dead-reckoning-letters-of-marque-from-aeg

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y
  • Neutral. 
  • 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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2 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Dead Reckoning

  1. Add me to the “Like It” category… and I’m looking pretty seriously at the KS when it opens later today.

  2. Most of the games I play are games that I buy sight unseen (other than what’s on BGG). While the battle cubes thing is positioned as a selling point, for me it’s a huge turn off. No way I’m buying that.

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