2010-02-14

Game review: Blackbeard

Daniel nearly missed a fatal encounter with Blackbeard... or maybe he just knew when to run. Actually, the game wasn't that bad, but I definitely have mixed feelings about it. I'd like to play it
again, to see whether I think it's actually worth playing or not.

At its core, this is a straightforward "pick up and deliver" game with a pirate theme, and a "take that" element to provide challenges for the pirates to face. However, as it was produced by a wargame company (GMT), I think it has ended up twice as complicated as it needs to be to provide the same basic gameplay, and feels far more random than it should be.

The game took 3 hours to complete, not including setup time, for 3 players who hadn't played before (though I read half the rules before we started). That's within the 2-3 hour timeframe for the game, which is unusual for us, even with games we know.

The basic gameplay is what I expected from a "historical" pirate themed game. You sail your pirate ship(s) around the map to find merchant ships and take their stuff, while fending off attacks by warships. Then, sell the stuff in ports to get money, or attack ports to steal their stuff too.

Each player controls one or more pirates, and the pirates gain "net worth" and "notoriety" through their exploits. Pirates who retire convert their net worth and notoriety into victory points, while pirates
who die or fail to retire before game end only provide VP for their notoriety. When a pirate retires, you can get a new one and continue playing, or just use one of your other pirates already in play.

Some of the seeming complexity of the game comes from the way the rules are written. They're verbose, repetitive, and hard to read without falling asleep. The play aid is 4 sheet sides, and doesn't include basic things like the player turn order.

The other things that make the game feel too complex are rules that have little effect on gameplay. Maybe we just didn't use enough of the "take that" cards (see below for more on that), but we found the effectiveness of warships, storms, and scurvy to be minimal. Playing a warship on another pirate typically felt like giving them free notoriety for killing it, and not like it was a serious obstacle.
Even the worst storm anyone faced didn't send them back to port for repairs. No one was ever anywhere near running out of crew loyalty, speed, or combat.

And then there was the randomness. Merchant ships are chosen randomly and placed upside down in random locations. You then have a random chance of whether you find a ship or not, with the maximum chance of success at 50% most of the time. When you do find the ship and decide it's worth looting, it contains a random amount of booty, and a random hostage.  This resulted in a huge disparity in the number of merchant ships looted by various players, and the total amount of loot this resulted in.

The main tactical decision with merchant ships is: Go to India where the loot chart is the fattest. Of course, that depends on the roll of the dice providing India with merchants...

The scarce resource in the game is your total number of actions over the course of the game. Actions come from cards in your turn, and you typically get 1-3 actions per turn based on the card you choose to use for actions. In so many words: when the card deck is almost finished, the game ends.

This mechanic has several effects. First of all, it's very beneficial to play 3 action cards instead of 1 action cards if possible; but that's usually not possible unless you have the right pirate. Also, it means that a 4 or 5 player game probably takes just as long as a 3 or 2 player game, because the total number of turns/actions is going to be about the same.

Finally, it means that using cards for their events instead of actions reduces the length of the game, by increasing the rate the deck is consumed. So although on the surface, it seems that by playing more
"take that" cards, you might be able to whittle down other pirates via attrition. In reality, this would only shorten the game so much that the extra damage wouldn't matter.

I think the combat and storms could matter more in a longer game. But since your holds fill up after looting 2-3 ships anyway, requiring you to go back to port, you end up getting refits regularly anyway. I can see why the instructions include an optional rule to add +2 to all warship combat results.

We haven't fully explored some aspects of the game yet. For example, I think it may be more worth attacking ports than looting ships. It's a better use of actions, since it only takes one action to attack and loot a port, but at least 2 (and maybe more) to take a merchant ship. You might not succeed looting a port, but the chances are often greater than the chance of even finding a merchant ship.

Overall, I'm interested in playing again, to see if I'm missing anything, and to see if my greater familiarity with the rules makes it more fun. But my overall impression after one play is that it's a
huge luck fest, that requires much more effort than I prefer for the amount of fun it gives in return.

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