Next of Ken, Volume 58: Libertalia and Hemloch!

Next of Ken, Volume 58: Libertalia and Hemloch!

Ken B.     
 
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Stagger (with pirate swagger) on in for Next of Ken, where this week it's pirates and goth chicks with reviews of Libertalia and Hemloch.  What's a pirate's favorite restaurant?  Arrrrrby's.  Who's a pirate's favorite basketball player?  Ron Arrrrrtest.  What's a pirate's favorite branch of the military?  .....No, it's the Navy, you dolt.
 
 

The Ideal of Freedom is Ruling the Sea
 
Libertalia Box FrontLooking for a pirate auction game with tableau building?  Heh, damn that really doesn't sound that interesting.  But hear me out--Libertalia is a game that is way better than that scurvy-ridden description sounds.
 
Libertalia is essentially an auction game at its heart; however, where the fun comes in is the use of the special powers of the various character cards.  Some have effects that happen right away, others have delayed effects that will mess with who will win what, and yet others will stay in play and use their abilities every round until the end of the current week.
 
The bidding itself is welcome in that the prizes are minimalist in design.  You've got three different treasures at 1/3/5 points each. Then there are Treasure maps that are only good in multiples of three and are worthless otherwise. Spanish Officers that you 'caputure' but are worthless and also send your character immediately to the discard pile.  Sabers can be used to off troublesome character in opposing character's dens.  Last are the Cursed Relics, and you don't want to be holding these as they're worth -3 points at the end of the week.
 
The game flows like a combination between a clean, efficient bidding game like Ra and a tableau-building game like Race for the Galaxy, only without the bloat or self-importance of the latter.  For the course of three weeks, you send your guys out, try to get the good stuff, and along the way maximize the use of your powers so you end up with the highest score in the end.  It provides some very tough choices because there are plenty of times where you'll really want to get a character out in an early round, but you know he's not likely to win the bid.  Is it worth possibly taking a Cursed Relic so you can get a needed character out, while you bank on being able to ditch that Relic later?
 
It's fun, it's fast, and knowing that everyone is working from the same overall pool of characters throughout the game really opens up the strategy (where I thought initially everyone using the same characters would stifle strategy--not so.)  There's some delicious double-think...when do I plop down my Governor's Daughter, daring someone else to waste their play just to get rid of her?  When do I take one for the team so to speak and play my Wata so I can stop someone else's money flow?  Those kind of choices wouldn't be nearly as tough if everyone just had a random pool of characters--you'd simply play what you wanted and hope for the best.
 
The most surprising thing of all I think is how well Libertalia works with two.  I know of very, very few bidding Libertalia In Playgames that work at all for two, much less work well.  The structure of this game amplifies the double-think, and it becomes a head-to-head guessing game, when to go for it, when to sandbag, when to sneak out an important character, when to use the Monkey to slip them all these lovely cursed Relics you purposefully collected...but they have a Monkey too....question is, when is that annoying bugger going to show up?  It's tight, it's tense, it's fun, and most importantly it works well.  It's a rare game that I can say is just as enjoyable with two as with three, four, or more.  This is one of those games.
 
If you do play with two, just be advised that while the different colored decks use staggered tie-breaker values for when there is a tie in bidding, the way that these numbers are staggered, some colors actually end up with a sizable advantage over another.  Not a big deal with you have a lot of players, but with two, this can cause a headache and I'm surprised the instructions don't mention it.  For example, one pair of decks (I don't remember which) has one of them with a 22-8 advantage in tiebreakers.  Not good.  We noticed this after our fourth or fifth game--I looked at my wife and said, "You're always winning these friggin' tiebreakers!"  That's when we started looking over the decks and realized what was causing that.
 
Luckily, this is easily fixed.  For two players, use black versus red--they're evenly matched.  Problem solved.
 
The pirate theme is frosted on for sure, and the art is really nice but obviously influenced heavily by the Pirates of the Caribbean films.  There's little doubt the Pirate captain is based on Barbossa, and even his flavor text mentions being "cursed by Aztec gold."  It may be me, but the Governor's Daugher also heavily favors Keira Knightley as well.  At any rate, the art and flavor covers for the extremely light theme well, and the bidding and character interactions are crisp and keep the game moving, so you're not likely to mind so much.
 
I like Libertalia a lot.  For years, my go-to bidding game has been Ra, another auction game not strong on flavor but crisp on gameplay.  Libertalia is more focused on the character combos but you won't win if you're not getting the good tresures, so it's a nice mix and I really enjoy balancing those two aspects.  In fact, I'm digging Libertalia so much there's a strong chance it will replace the old standby, at least for awhile.
 
Strong recommendation for Libertalia.  It's good, solid piratey bidding fun, with just a dash of "hey, I'll stab your dude in his patchy eye so he'll stop making you so much damned coin."  Good times.
 

Concave, Your Trust--Your Fears Come From Evil Lust
 

Hemloch Box CoverI've talked about John Clowdus' Hemloch in this column before, thought I'd give a few final thoughts on it after spending more time with it. 
 
It can't be easy for the game to live in the long shadow cast by Omen: A Reign of War.  There are similarities in some of the structure in terms of placing guys at location and doing battles there.  Like Omen, Hemloch is all about the control or dominance of locations, piling on characters who use their strength and abilities to swing the tides of battle in your favor.  
 
There are certainly little quirky things going on in Hemloch make it a game worth visiting.  The day/night deck as it changes causes battles to come more and more frequently as the game wears on.  The area majority/area control element of placing your houses on each card gives the game a bit of a spatial element that, while fairly simplistic, will add a little more oomph to the choice of where battle should take place.  Several of the characters' abilities are keyed in on maniuplating this spatial positioning, giving the game another level of play.
 
Also welcome are the choices of how to use your cards, which has become a Clowdus trademark.  Characters are more powerful at certain districts, but those same characters will trigger location text if played at a different location.  It's a choice of power versus benefit, and that's not something that is present in Omen at all.  You'll often find yourself wondering--is it best to put this guy here for raw power?  Or should I use them at this other location just to nab a Potion I need?  Or what if your opponent is running away with the points at yet another location--should you forfeit the extra strength *and* the cool one-off power just to shore up your defenses elswhere?  
 
It's a tricky balancing act, for sure.  You only have two actions per turn.  You can only deploy one character per location per turn.  You can also get an additional action or even steal an opponent's character, but these require you to exhaust your precious Trinkets and Potions, giving up valuable points in the process.
 
The battlefield ultimately isn't as dynamic as Omen.  If you win a battle in Omen, you have to discard down to only one character, while in Hemloch you lose half instead.  That means the battlefield isn't changing as often, and that Hemloch Rusted Servitorflow is definitely missed.  
 
I like Hemloch.  The artwork is fantastic and the whole design sensibility is very cool--there's a Tim Burton level of
 the beautifully grotesque in the artwork, and the whole plot of the game sounds like some lost horror sci-fi hybrid from the 90s.  
 
There are certainly advantages to Hemloch over Omen--the cleaner, smaller pool of powers makes for more tightly controlled gameplay, and there's no need to draft for the "best" experience,  so  you're up and running quickly.  The wild swings of Omen aren't for everyone, and I don't think that this fact can in any way be overstated.
 
A couple of the guys who tried both games at Trashfest said that at first blush, they may actually prefer Hemloch.  I think there's something to be said for a simpler approach sometimes, particularly if you come at it from a purely boardgaming perspective.  CCGers are used to walls of text and byzantine rulesets; those looking for some pick-up-and-play action are likely less tolerant of such things.  I think that's why Omen will speak more strongly to some, while others will prefer Hemloch.
 
I'll tell you what--if you're a fan of what John is doing, you owe it to yourself to check it out at the very least.  It's good, weird fun.
 
 

 
 
And that's a wrap, another column, another day.  So until you grasp the fact that "It's MY garden, you dig?"  I'll see you back here, on these very pages,  real soon now.
 
 
 
 
 
Next of Ken, Volume 58: Libertalia and Hemloch! There Will Be Games
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