For me, a great game is one that that has moments to get the heart pumping. This can be anything from the tension of a particularly tricky placement in Bausack, feeling your heart race as you try to steady your hand, to the nerves of a big dice roll in Lords of Vegas that could well turn the game in your favour. There’s now a new game to add to the list that will amp up your adrenaline production, if only because you’re hoping that your meticulously crafted plan will pay off. Libertalia is here, and it will fill you with rage in the most delightful way.
A little history: it’s said that way back in the 1600s the colony of Libertalia was founded on the island of Madagascar, a place where pirates could live out their days safe in the knowledge that they were essentially untouchable. A utopian but warlike state that was more than happy to protect its own, Libertalia supposedly only lasted around twenty-five years until it collapsed in on itself, but for that short period of time it was a paradise for rogues and pirates. In the new game from Vasco de Gama designer Paolo Mori, between two and six players have the chance to enjoy one final voyage and pull in as much booty as possible.
If you’ve ever played the classic Citadels, you’ll already have a heads up on how to handle this one. All players begin with the same nine randomly selected characters (as chosen by one player) and the game takes place over three rounds, each one consisting of six turns. Players will select roles from their hands in secret, laying them out in order of seniority when they’re revealed. From the lowly Parrot all the way up to the Spanish Governor, the chosen characters each have special abilities; moving along the line from left to right, these are triggered if they show a Daytime icon and can be anything from gaining extra doubloons (the game’s currency and points) to removing opposition cards from the board. This is where the heart rate starts to rise as you hope that you’ll end up in just the right position (and that no-one else’s pick has a major effect on yours).
Step Two: Dusk is where you divide the booty up with the most senior character going first. Before each of the three rounds, tiles are drawn from the bag and laid face up in six spaces. Treasure chests, jewels or goods are all worth points while treasure maps are worthless unless you manage to get a set of three. Not everything is good, however; cursed treasures deduct points and Spanish Prisoners will destroy your character should you be unlucky enough to be forced to pick one up. Sabres are a little more useful, allowing you to kill an opponent’s character that is sitting in their den.
Their den? Ah yes. Once the booty is shared out, we move to Step Three: Night. All character cards return to the players to be placed face up in front of them in the Den. If the card has a moon symbol on it, this action is triggered now and can potentially pull in some decent revenue – after all, a decent pirate will take the opportunity to get their cash no matter what the time…
Keeping characters alive in your den is key to winning the game, especially if they happen to have the Day of Rest icons that can truly swing a game in your favour. At the end of the round, any of these special one-off actions are worked out, your total for the week is worked out and the game is essentially reset – all used characters are removed completely from the game, you start with ten doubloons all over again… Six new character cards are selected at random that all players will use, then the action starts all over again for another two rounds. Once the third is over, the winner is whoever has the most points – simple.
And that’s where the real pleasure in Libertalia comes from – the sheer simplicity of it means that the game is explainable in minutes; then you get to focus on how you’re actually going to try and win. With only nine cards available to you at the start of the round (and even less as the turns progress), your options are actually pretty limited but it’s easy enough to form a plan of what you want to do. Unfortunately, as everyone knows what cards you’re holding and also see the limited booty available for that day, it could be that they have the same ideas as you. The true path to victory lies in being tricky, in taking the path less obvious and hopefully getting away with the loot – you know, just like a pirate might do.
Initial plays may seem somewhat overwhelming as you try and work out the optimal combinations to get exactly what you want. Sometimes you may have to take a hit (or a cursed treasure) in order to make sure your longer term plans work out, but you can never be certain that everything will end up perfect. The more players in the game – remember, it handles up to six – the more chaotic things get and the less likely things will go your way. However, as you learn the workings of Libertalia you’ll soon realise the little tricks you can pull off to turn the tide in your favour. It’s certainly a game that warrants multiple plays, and with games taking under an hour even with the maximum amount of folks sitting round the table, you’ll have it out again and again.
Production is of a high quality throughout; the rulebook is well written and laid out with all the information presented in a straightforward manner. The various bits and chits are on thick punchboard and cards are on great stock. Everyone gets a little playmat that explains precisely how the game works and what they should be looking out for. A special nod must be given to the artwork which is excellent – each of the thirty characters in the game are beautifully realised. You’ll be able to see a few inspirations here and there; the Captain himself could well be Geoffrey Rush’s brother, and I’m sure that the Waitress was Jack Bauer’s daughter Kim in the first few seasons of 24…
Libertalia is a game that is slowly building a great reputation which is well deserved. Simple to pick up yet filled with options, it’s taking the Role Selection genre and adding something a little bit special to the mix. I’ve got a feeling that it’s going to be in a fair few Top Ten lists when the year comes to a close.
Libertalia was released by Asmodee in 2012. Designed by Paolo Mori and playable with between two and six people, you’ll be looking to pick up a copy (and believe me, you’ll want one) for £33 from the fine folks at Gameslore.