A deck-building game aboard the deck of a pirate ship

2-4 Players
40-60 minutes
Alleycat Games

Jess and I got our hands on Ruthless as part of a Board Game Crate that we subscribed to for a year, where two games per months were sent to us based on our preferences and our current collection. Out of the 12 crates we got, the Ruthless and Vadoran Gardens one was the best.

I’ve found it to be a relatively unknown game (it was certainly unknown to us when it arrived in the crate!), and the first thing that hits you is the striking box art which throws you straight into the pirate theme.

Ruthless is a deck-building game where the aim is to collect the best pirate crew in order to beat your opponents in a series of battles and become the most notorious pirate of all. The player with the best combination of pirates aboard their ship at the end of each round earns Notoriety Points (NP). After 5 rounds (6 in a two player game) the winner is the player with the most NP.

How the game works

As with any deck-building game, each player starts off with the same basic deck of cards, in Ruthless you start with powder-monkeys (or scallywags as me and Jess call them) and doubloons (treasure cards worth one coin). Each round you hire new pirates from the Tavern to join your crew and use the abilities of the pirates in your hand. These abilities include plundering more treasure cards, attacking your opponents, picking up more cards from your deck and plenty more.

4 scallywags and a doubloon (now try saying it in a pirate voice, sounds much cooler right?). This is what your starting hand might look like.

Pirates played from your hand join the pirates you bought this round to form your crew. Once everyone has played all the cards from their hands the best combination of pirates wins the battle and scores points accordingly. Then everything is discarded, players draw themselves a new hand of cards from their individual decks and you begin again.

So what makes a good combination of pirates? Well, each pirate has a colour and a number between 1 and 7 (except for Quartermasters and Captains), and you score points for the following:

2 of the same number is worth 4 points, plus 6 for each additional card of the same value (so 4 of a kind would be worth 16 points)
3 in a row is worth 6 points, plus 2 points for each additional card in the run (so 5 in a row would be worth 10 points)
3 of the same colour is worth 8 points, plus 3 points for each additional card of the same colour (so 5 reds would be worth 14 points)
3 in a row of the same colour is worth 12 points, plus 4 points for each additional card of the same colour in the run (so red 2, red 3, red 4, red 5, red 6 would be worth 20 points)
1 of every value card (including Quartermaster and Captain) is worth 25 points and is pretty much unbeatable!

Each pirate can only be part of one combination so there’s a little bit of brain power required to work out the most valuable set from your crew.

This is what your ship might look like at the end of a round. The run from 2-5 would be worth 8 points and the pair of 7s worth 6 points, giving me a reasonable total of 14 points for the round. The Quartermaster hasn’t helped this round but is worth 1 NP at the end of the game.

The winner of the round gets 6 NP and second, third and fourth place gets 3, 2 and 1 NP respectively. You also score NP for Quartermasters and Captains in your deck at the end, and there are some end game objectives to score points from which change in each game.

The key to winning is to get a good enough crew that you can use their abilities and pick up as many cards as possible – this will give you much better options for scoring points at the end of the round and allow you to cycle through your deck quickly. Pirates that allow you to “rescue” a card from your discard pile and pirates that allow you to draw from your deck are particularly important!

The other important thing (as in any deck-building game) is to get rid of cards that aren’t helping you. Some pirates allow you to “bury” cards (e.g. get rid of them from your deck permanently), so as the game goes on it will benefit you to bury your Powder Monkeys and maybe even your single doubloon treasure cards. Some of the end game objectives require you to bury certain cards too.

Two of the end game objective cards: Most treasure in your deck at the end (left) and most pirates buried (right).


Ruthless is a great game. Firstly everybody loves the pirate-theme right? The first player is whoever can do the best pirate “ARRRR” and all the cards’ actions relate to the theme really well, such as burying treasure, rescuing pirates, using the lookout option to see the next two cards in your deck, brawling to get rid of a pirate from the Tavern, preventing your opponents from getting them. They all make sense in the context of the game.

The artwork on the box and the cards is brilliant and vibrant – the pirates look suitably mean and scary.

It doesn’t take too long to play – we’ve found most games take 40/45 minutes which is ideal for a not-too-thinky filler game. It’s easy to teach as well, especially as the combinations of pirates are very similar to poker hands and the reference cards make it really easy to understand what points are available. Likewise the symbols on the cards denoting the actions have a reference card so it’s easy to get your head around what each card does after only a short time.

The reference cards are super useful when teaching the game.

There’s plenty of replayability due to the different end game objectives. You can ignore them completely if you like and focus solely on having the best crew but you might find yourself sinking to the bottom of the rankings!

There are a few mechanics I particularly like about the game:

  1. The parrots you can buy as wildcards can pretend to be any number and are super useful, you could use it to turn a three-of-a-kind into a four-of-a-kind or it could turn a run of three into a run of 5, massively increasing the points you get. But don’t go crazy with them as I did in one game as they don’t have an ability when played, so they can clog up your hand quite quickly.
  2. Another mechanic I love is how the Treasure cards work. Except the single doubloons, all acquired Treasure cards give you a choice when you draw them – cash in right now for some coins but discard the card forever, or put the card into your discard pile for later use, where you’ll get to use it time and time again. This is often a very difficult decision as you might desperately need the coins to afford a specific pirate, but keeping it for later will come in so handy and some end game objectives reward you for having lots of treasure in your deck. A balance of the two is usually good.
  3. As with every deck-building game there is an element of luck involved as you may be unable to get your best combination of pirates onto the table at the same time. The game designers got around this by introducing the parley token – worth 1 NP to each player that doesn’t use theirs during the game – it can be flipped over once during the game, and it allows you to discard as many cards from your hand as you like and redraw that many. Very useful if you’re in the last round and you pick up a load of rubbish!
A selection of Treasure cards. The gems on the right will reward you with 3 coins each time they are in your hand, or you could have discarded immediately after gaining it to instantly get 2 coins.

I’m genuinely struggling to find anything negative to say about the game- obviously if you’re looking for a chunkier deck-building game that will take longer than an hour then Clank! or Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle might be more your thing – but for the length of time it takes to learn and play this is well worth spending your hard-earned doubloons on. Overall I really recommend Ruthless and can’t wait to try the Tall Tales expansion!

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