Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A Pirate's Life For Me

Played it but once I admittedly have, but Libertalia might be my new favourite game, and not just because in artwork and approach it clearly should have been called Hector Barbossa: The Badass Early Years.

The basic idea is pretty simple; you have three weeks to swipe as much booty as possible (with Sundays spent drinking and counting your doubloons, presumably because no-one is out on the high seas that day other than missionaries and old couples in dinghies). The problem is, for reasons unexplained (well, Jamie didn't explain them, anyway), every player's crew is sharing the same boat, leading to something of a scrabble for loot.

There's only four pieces of loot available a day (due to, I don't know, EU piracy regulations, or something), and not all booty was created equal.  It might be worth a great deal, or very little. Worse, it might be actively harmful - cursed Incan treasures are something of a problem, and the Spanish Officer is quite literally a killer. All tokens are face-up, so you know what's coming, but that doesn't mean you can be sure you'll avoid getting cursed or shoved into a gibbet.

(There are also sabres lying around the money and authority figures, that you can use to assassinate other pirates when they think they're safe in their dens of iniquity.)

Each player has one copy of the same thirty pirates, but goes into each round with only nine. These are chosen at random by one player and then duplicated by the other three.  That's over fourteen million combinations, in case you were wondering (I know you were!). Each turn each player plays one pirate face down, which are then revealed.  This motley band of pirates can grab booty, but also have special abilities which are deployed variously before, during, and after the scrum for goodies, or when the week gets to Sunday.

The joy of the game is second-guessing what your opponents will play, and how best to counter them.  Each pirate has a rank. Higher ranks grab booty earlier, as befits their station, but it's the lower ranks who get to go first in the pre-grabbing round, and they tend to have the most powerful abilities, some of which involve punching up, which makes placing your highest ranked pirate down to grab some juicy treasure a distinctly risky proposition. Once the loot has been hoovered up, the surviving pirates return to their den, from which they won't emerge for the rest of the week.

In short, it's kind of like a pirate-themed Top Trumps with perfect information and bizarre extra rules ("My bosun is rank 14, but he murders your captain!"), played over six sets of three phases that inform and interact with each other.  You have to balance ranks versus skills, how much a character is worth to you in the late stages versus what it could be raking in for you whilst in the den, whether to use your high ranks to grab plum booty on good days or avoid disastrous choices on crappy ones, and figure out how all of this will interact with the bloodthirsty drunken sea-dogs to either side of you.  And even that doesn't fully describe how far ahead you need to think, because the pirates you don't play in one week get carried over to the next, along with 6 new ones (leading to an astonishing total of almost four million billion possible combinations over the entire three weeks).

It's a delight both tactically and strategically, in other words, heavy on the kind of conniving back-stabbing one associates (accurately or otherwise) with pirates, and is very pretty to boot. Highly recommended, as the folks from Merano like to say.

No comments: