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You are without a doubt the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of. But you have heard of me... - Pirates of the Caribbean
When I was a kid, I loved the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World. I couldn't really explain why, it was just something about these people that lived a life of excitement outside of the rules of normal society.
When I went back there 20 years later with my wife, the ride hadn't changed at all. My feelings hadn't either. The age of piracy is a truly fascinating literary subject, and to have a quality game attempt to recreate some of the pirate atmosphere? I was intrigued.
DISCLAIMER: I don't own this game, have not read the rules and have only played once. Feel free to correct my screwups!
Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. - Life on the Mississippi
Other than obviously being a pirate game, what niche does this fill? Blackbeard is a simulationist look at the age of piracy. The game takes 2-3 hours, but it's easy to house rule and quicken it up without affecting gameplay in the least.
You can play it solo or with up to five players with the rules as written. The game will support up to 10 or so, but the downtime increases and you would need a couple house rules.
Blackbeard has almost no euro influence and is basically a wargame with some AT elements, like incredible theme, highly chromed out rules, proper use of dice, and proper amounts of sex and alcohol.
The short of it is that Blackbeard is a fantastic pirate game. This is not some half-assed euro where you vote on what way the wind blows or auction off which pirate gets to go first or any other bullshit like that. Blackbeard is first and foremost a wargame-like simulation of life as a pirate.
The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do. For instance, you can accept that your father was a pirate and a good man or you can’t. But pirate is in your blood, boy, so you’ll have to square with that some day. - Pirates of the Caribbean
Actually, there are a lot of rules that matter in this game! Seriously though, I have played several Berg games and he is slowing down in his old age. Blackbeard is not the chart-fest many have come to expect from Berg. It is probably a little more rules heavy than your average designer, but this particular game is very accessible. Most of the mechanics (discussed in more detail under gameplay) are pretty simple.
The nice thing about Berg's affinity for rules is that it adds little cool flavorful theme moments to the game. For example, if one player's pirate sacks a port successfully, they get put into debauchery and revelry (the sex and alcohol mentioned above) which has certain game effects like increasing your crew's morale, etc.
If a second pirate can get to that port while the party is still going on, he can attempt a "booty grab" action, whereby he sneaks in and steals all of the loot off of the drunken pirate crew's ship while they are in town showing the lasses their third peg leg.
Did I perform a booty grab? Not until I got home. It would be a pretty rare situation where you would be able to do it in the game. Why bring up this obscure rule? Because I think 95% of game designers would NOT have included the rule.
Its a paragraph in an already thick rulebook covering a situation that would come up very rarely. Richard Berg included it in Blackbeard, and I think its a good example of how Berg's design style, while off-putting to folks looking for an overly simplified game, can really ratchet up the immersion and gameplay while showcase the theme of the game.
And don’t they wear the bulliest clothes! Oh no! All gold and silver and diamonds,” said Joe, with enthusiasm. - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Pirates do have nice stuff, and this game comes with a ton of very nice wargame-style components from GMT. The artwork with this game is absolutely stunning, some of the best I have ever seen in a board game. The portraits of the individual pirates are beautiful, the board is attractive, the chits all have easily recognizable artwork, and there are chits for basically everything. We didn't even use them all because many things you can just remember and you don't need a chit for, but if you want a chit, they are there.
The cards are of decent stock and have the same incredibly high quality artwork. The cards are easy to read with nice sized text. Anytime a rule in the book was mentioned on a card, it is cross referenced with a section number. For example, a card letting you duel another pirate references the duel rule in case you forgot. The cards have a slick almost plastic coating to them that makes them feel like you could spill your pirate rum on them. ARGH!
The board is of the same stock as the POG deluxe board and the Twilight struggle board. We played without plexiglass and it layed down fine. It looks awesome and is very functional.
In addition to the main board, each pirate gets a sort of control panel cardboard sheet for your pirate, his ship and crew. This is where the game information is stored and these mini-boards are also nice to look at. They pack a lot of information into a small space effectively.
The rulebook is beautiful and well organized. It wasn't edited for shit and there are several typos in the examples. That said, no one has found a major rules problem yet and Berg responds fast on consimworld.
The game is absolutely begging for some plastic pirate ships of some sort. GMT wasn't down with that, and their counters are awesome, but when I buy the game this is definitely a must have accessory.
You will always remember this as the day you almost caught Captain Jack Sparrow. - Pirates of the Caribbean
Do I even need to talk about this? The game has 23 different pirates, each with 6 different ability ratings to distinguish between them. The rulebook has information on the lives of these interesting characters, and each is historically accurate.
The ports, the actions, the hostages, different ship types, event action cards... all of the game's mechanics are uniquely tailored to the theme. Almost nothing is abstracted.
Everything from ship speed, ship cannon, cargo hold size, all the way down to the differences in the economies of the different places you can steal from... two identical ships will be worth different amounts depending on where they are headed for port!
Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me... - random pirates everywhere
At its heart, Berg has taken the basic card driven wargame mechanic and applied it to his old 1992 version of Blackbeard. I commend Berg for not euro-izing the game, since that would have no doubt resulted in a bastardization of all the beautiful chrome and thematic rules. His choice to use the CDG mechanic was a good one, and really facilitates the game well.
There are two types of cards in the game. First there are pirate cards. These cards represent individual historical pirates, from historical badasses like Edward Teach AKA Blackbeard himself, to girly french noblemen-turned-pirates like de Raveneau de Lusan.
Each pirate has six ability ratings, ala marvel heroes, D&D, or any other game with characters. Each is rated with initiative, ability, leadership, cruelty (of course), cunning, and duel ratings. These ability scores are used for different actions in the game, as I'll explain.
The map is area movement, with sea areas, transit boxes between different oceans, and individual ports. To start the game, you draw three pirate cards and get to place one automatically in any sea area you want. You hold onto the others and can place your other pirates later as an action.
At the beginning of the game, pro-pirate and anti-pirate governors are distributed amongst the different ports randomly (by die roll) and merchant ships are places around the oceans similarly. You choose a sea area for your pirate, preferably one near a merchant ship you want to rob, a port you want to destroy, or a friendly governor so you have a place to buy some rum & women when you get tired.
You also have to choose a ship type. There are three different ship types available to the pirates, two of which you can pick from at the beginning of the game. I won't go into describing the sloops, schooners, etc., but suffice it to say each has different size holds, different cannon, and different speeds.
The cards each have an event and a number 1-3 or a diamond symbol on them. The numbers are numbers of actions and the diamond symbol allows you to take a number of actions equal to your pirate's initiative rating. You can play one card on your turn, either for actions or as an event.
There are also "must play now" events which occur when they are drawn. These are pretty much the random crap of the day cards. Storms, political upheaval, seasickness, governor replacement, natural disasters, etc. Most of these occur in a random space on the board determined by die roll.
If crew loyalty sinks too low, you could have a mutiny on your hands. ARGH! Other anti-pirate cards include things like anti-pirate warships, King's commissioners, piratical ambition, which allows you to take one of the pirate cards in your hand and duel your opponent's pirate to take control of his ship, and kill his pirate.
In addition, there are King's Commissioners which each player can control up to one of per game. You play these on your opponent's turn. They are essential big badass warships that cruise around hunting for pirates. You roll 3d6 and if you roll less than the pirate's notoriety rating (more on that in a moment) you find him and get a chance to chase him down and kill him. If you off him with your king's commissioner, you score VPs depending on how notorious the pirate was.
KCs are a very cool part of the game and they ensure that there isn't nearly as much downtime as the Berg original. You are constantly waiting for your opponent to make a move that allows you to play a card from your hand or activate your KC.
Back to the action points. There are several different things you can do with your action points. You can move your ship, try to find a merchant ship in an area near you, loot a found merchant ship, attack a port, sack a port, move into a friendly port to do several different things from burying your treasure, ransoming hostages, bribing the governor, etc.
In addition to these various choices, you will spend a significant part of your turn dealing with the machinations of the other players, who will be siccing warships on you, calling their king's commissioners to battle you, and playing various cards on you to try to slow you down or stop you.
I'll try to go through some of the actions to give you a flavor of what playing the game is actually like. My last game, I had a pirate with a low cruelty rating (he was french) and so I didn't get a good bonus to sacking ports.
This pirate did have an excellent ability rating, so I decided that I would make my name by looting merchant ships. First, to find a merchant ship you roll your ability rating plus a d6 and must get a 7 or above, simple enough. If you find the ship, you may loot it. You roll on the treasure table and take your money and a hostage. The amount of money you get can raise or lower crew morale.
After looting a Merchant ship, the hostage can be stowed away for ransom or tortured for information (which of course raises crew loyalty). Information can be used to sack ports more effectively and has other effects. If you wish, you can steal the merchant ship and upgrade your vessel. In addition to getting cash, you also get notoriety points for looting the ship and killing the hostage.
Attacking and sacking ports works much the same way, dice are rolled and added to a pirate rating. Then the port has a defense rating added to its d6 roll and you see who wins. Of course, if you attack a port, other ports of that nationality are no longer friendly to you.
I am probably missing a few rules and subtleties when it comes to the port attacks and port sacking, because as I said I spent most of the game doing other things. My low cruelty pirate wasn't much for the sacking. I figured that out by attacking the weakest dutch port on the board and getting my ass handed to me.
Some of the other players had a lot of success with a port strategy, especially with the Debauchery bonuses after sacking helping with their morale... Our game was plagued with scurvy and nothing makes a sick pirate happier than rum and chicks. Plus, you gain gold and notoriety for attacking ports, sacking cities, etc. You also can go into debauchery and revelry to improve your morale, though you risk booty grab as described above.
You also get attacked by government ships frequently. You roll your ships speed plus a d6 vs. their ship's speed plus a d6 to see if they catch you. If they do, then a combat roll occurs. One interesting mechanic is that you get big notoriety for killing a badass King's Commissioner.
We learned quickly in the game I played that if one pirate manages to get a heavily armed ship and upgrade its cannons, you basically shouldn't even bother to send your KC after him--- all you are doing is feeding him notoriety points. KCs can also go after pirate ports and destroy them, earning points for the KC's controller. Of course, you can suffer damage to your ship, hurting either your combat rating OR your speed.
The other important mechanic is retiring your pirate. This is how you actually turn all your booty and notoriety points into VPs, and eventually win the game. There are bonuses for retiring certain ways and notoriety points can be huge if you manage to retire your pirate in a way that results in double VPs.
Retiring is also not as easy as it sounds. You need to bribe a governor into being a safe haven for your pirate or get a letter of marque from a certain ruler allowing you to retire. You might have to find a pro-pirate governor, because the anti-pirate ones won't let you retire.
This part of the game also has a bit of a press your luck aspect, as it is easier to earn notoriety with a seasoned pirate in a tricked out ship than it is with a newbie in a schooner, but every turn your pirate is out at sea, you run the risk of him getting killed and losing you a lot of potential VPs. You still get some VPs if he is killed, just not as many as you would have gotten for retiring him.
The tactical parts of the game are pretty easy to grasp. You figure out fast what you should be trying to do and whether you will succeed at it in the short term. The meaty decisions of the game are what strategies to take with your pirates overall, such as two or three pirates operating at a time or all your eggs in one basket?
Further, will you try to build up one super famous indestructible pirate that the king's men fear, or build up a number of smaller pirates that can stay under the radar earning you points and retire one every few turns to score points?
This is the "gamey" sort of abstract VPs part of the game, but if you were to play this so many times that the evocative theme, interesting narrative, and chromed out gameplay wears off, this would probably be the part of the game that provides the most replayability.
Other cool stuff happens during the game. If your crew loyalty gets too low, a mutiny can occur, and if you don't pass a loyalty roll, result in a new pirate for your ship and the loss of a lot of your stuff!
Duels can also cause replace your pirate captain with a newbie from the deck or an opponent's hand. You can form pirate alliances and operate your pirates together as a two man team, getting bonuses but splitting rewards.
There is nothing so desperately monotonous as the sea, and I no longer wonder at the cruelty of pirates. - James Russell Lowell
Some people will gripe that the game has too much luck. The game does use a lot of dice, so you are minimizing risks to conserve your pool of rerolls, while maximizing your various victory point paths. The cunning rating of your pirate acts as rerolls, so the "luck" is just another resource to be appropriately managed in the game.
The luck adds much needed uncertainty to the decision tree. Do I try to do a few more dastardly deeds, knowing there is a chance I will die at sea, or do I retire now and get double the VPS I have now?
Some people will gripe about the complexity. Look, this is not a complex game if you just take the time to learn the rules. The rulebook is long, but thats because there is a lot you can do and a lot going on, NOT because it is complex.
Most of the things you do in the game will come down to roll a d6, add some stuff, compare, and if yours is bigger, you win! (add joke here) Seriously, its not that complex of a game. Its one clearly designed to be played while drinking after you have learned which actions do what.
Some will complain about length. Look, its a meaty game, its going to take time. There are a lot of house rules to reduce the playing time if thats your thing, but if you are one of the jerks who won't play anything over 45 minutes because someone touched your peepee when you were a child, just don't even look at this game. Its not for you.
I read one complaint that people thought you just did the same thing over and over without any direction. Well, you can do that... but why would you? The game is a little bit of a "sandbox" like Grand Theft Auto or Simcity, where you are playing the game, but at the same time you are screwing around in this open ended narrative, making your own fun.
The incredible thing about the design of Blackbeard is that the mechanics really lead the game along as a story. For example, our first game I was trying to play the thing like a euro. So sue me, I saw a VP track, OK? I was moving all over the place chasing merchant ships and stealing their stuff, because I felt like that was the most "efficient" way to get VPs.
Well it was... except when your notoriety shoots up, the damn King's Commissioners are all on your nuts! So, I had to change my strategy and upgrade the cannons on my ship so I could survive the other player's KCs being in my business... My merchant ship stealing wuss pirate became quite feared after killing three KCs and spend the last third or so of the game running around trying to retire in a safe haven for the maximum VPs!
So, while you could ruin the game for yourself by doing the same actions over and over, why would you? If you know all the options available in the rules there will almost always be something better to do than the boring choice.
Q: Why don’t pirates get carpal tunnel syndrome?
A: Because they practice … Arrrgghonomics.
- Bill Austin
I hope this review has helped people make up their minds as to whether or not this game is for them. Personally, I think its a masterpiece of simulationist game design, a magnum opus marriage of theme and mechanics, the artwork is stupendous, and most important of all, its an absolute blast to play, fun from beginning to end.
Its probably not for everyone, or even for most people, but Richard Berg can expect his cut of my pirate treasure as soon as I can wrest ye old visa card from the wife (known round these parts as the scourge of the mall).
*copyright Tom Hancock 2008