Let’s take to the skies in this epic game of sneaky card play and second guessing…
Note: Stonemaier Games sent us a copy of Libertalia so we could write this unbiased review.
The original Libertalia from 2012 came out long before Jess and I got into board gaming, so we were coming at this with no preconceptions whatsoever. However, we did see the hype from the board game community who were eagerly awaiting the revised and expanded game published by Stonemaier Games, so we felt very privileged to be sent a review copy.
Players control pirate crews who take to the skies on voyages in search of treasure. Whoever takes the most treasure over the course of the game will be the winner, but you’ll need to play every trick in the book if you are to outwit your rival pirate crews…
How the game works
The game is played over 3 voyages, which consist of four, five and six rounds (days) respectively. The aim is to earn the most loot from your pirate activities over the three voyages, to win you’ll need to be clever, sneaky and a bit lucky. So how does a voyage work?
Each player has an identical deck of 40 numbered cards. At the beginning of a voyage, one player shuffles their deck and deals themselves 6 cards. Each other player goes through their deck and finds the same 6 cards, so that everyone begins the game with the exact same hand. Each card represents a different pirate from your crew, which has its own ability which I’ll come back to.
On each day of the voyage players simultaneously and secretly select one card from their hand and place it face down in front of them. Once everyone has picked, the cards are revealed and placed on the island from smallest number to largest (ties are broken in order of reputation- which can be increased or decreased through various card abilities and loot tokens).
Then, moving along the line of cards, any cards with a daytime ability have their actions carried out. Not all pirates have daytime abilities so these are skipped. There’s a whole array of actions but they can involve killing off other players’ pirates, stealing loot, earning/destroying reputation etc.
Once you’ve hit the end of the line, you move back down the queue of cards performing any dusk actions and then selecting a loot token from the pool available for that day. Therefore the highest value card will use their daytime ability last but use their dusk ability first and in most cases get first dibs on the day’s loot. That’s the most important bit to remember! A sneaky pirate who would otherwise have picked up loot last may be able to disrupt the other players through use of their daytime action!
There are 7 different loot tokens (barrel, chest, sabre, amulet, map, relic and hook), each of which provide their own goodies which vary from game to game. Some provide or take away treasure (points), others give reputation, but the more interesting ones allow a little ‘take-that’ action such as killing other players’ crew members.
Once the day is over, players move their pirates from the board to the area in front of them (“on your ship”), and any with nighttime abilities then activate! All pirates on your ship will activate nighttime actions after every day of the voyage, so playing powerful ones early on will reap their rewards multiple times!
Once all days of that voyage are over, some pirates then have end-of-voyage bonuses, which is usually an amount of treasure, but sometimes allow you to put cards back into your hand. All other pirates from the voyage are discarded to your graveyard and a new voyage begins!
At the end of the three voyages the player with the highest loot total wins the game!
The main thing I realised after playing Libertalia is that I really love games that have the mechanic of queueing up action cards in secret (other great examples are Colt Express and Oriflamme). It’s such a fun, strategic and mind-gamey mechanism because the whole game you’re trying to guess what cards your opponents will play and counter that. But they’re also trying to guess what you’re playing! It can end up with some very satisfying gameplay in any game where this is used, but particularly with Libertalia.
The interesting thing here is that you go up the queue from lowest number to highest to perform day actions and then back down to take loot and perform dusk actions, so you can easily end up getting bumped off before you have a chance to take that first loot token you thought was coming your way.
Having cards with day, dusk, night and end-of-voyage actions gives you plenty of things to think about without overdoing it. Plan ahead and get your most profitable night cards down early but then you’re risking them getting killed! Or should I look to kill off the other players’ stronger pirates? A perfect amount of decision making without making it overly cumbersome.
Replayability is great too as there are 40 unique pirates, 18 of which will get used in any game and in any combination. So barring some sort of mathematical miracle you will never play the same sets of cards twice. Each combination allows for a different mixture of loot-grabbing, pirate-swapping, murdering crewmates for you to get your head around.
And if that wasn’t enough there are several different options for what each of the 7 types of loot tokens does!
It’s a very good-looking game. I particularly love the artwork on the box, it really sells the game well. The cards are well-made, the loot tokens are weighty and shiny and very tactile to hold so the production quality hasn’t been skipped at all here (except now I’m used to metal coin tokens the cardboard ones here are a bit of a shame). One could argue the board itself isn’t that essential to the gameplay since its mostly just a queue of cards but again the artwork on it and the layout really helps the theme come alive.
We didn’t think the game plays as well at 2 players as it does with more- you involve a “Midshipman” which has a value of 20.5 for purposes of ordering your pirates and it has a few rules that increase the interaction but for us it didn’t give us the same delight as it did at higher player counts.
Other than that though I don’t really have anything negative to say about the game. It’s really quick to learn and teach, another Stonemaier masterclass in how to keep a rulebook short and sweet whilst covering everything, meant we were up and playing within 10 minutes of opening the box the first time.
After repeated plays we enjoyed it more and more each time, so if you enjoy the theme (who doesn’t love sky-based pirates?!) and the mechanic of simultaneous action selection, then I would heartily recommend you grab a copy of Libertalia, but only if you’ll be playing it with more than 2 players.
I should point out that I haven’t had the chance to test out the automa yet, so will update my review once I have played it solo.
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