This week I can finally talk about Libertalia, and that's exactly what I intend to do. It's the strongest game of the year contender so far, so I'll whip through this and then you can get on with ordering it and stuff. If it's tl;dr then just take this away with you – BUY THIS GAME. Let's not beat around the bush. Even James Purefoy liked it.
I thought that the best way to get across my enthusiasm for Libertalia would be to show you the transcript of a conversation I had with James Purefoy when we first played it together. I think you'll be able to see my passion coming through.
JAMES: Libertalia. What does that mean?
ME: It's just a name. It's the name of the ship you're stealing from. We're pirates.
JAMES: Why didn't they call it “Pirates”? Libertalia sounds like something boring, like a statue or an opera.
ME: There are things called “Pirates” already.
JAMES: Libertalia sounds like a trading and commerce game where you buy and sell boring statues and art crap in 18th Century Venice, like a boring middle-aged dick.
ME: You can call it whatever you like, Jimmy. I'm going to explain the rules now, okay?
ME: Do not look at your iPhone during this.
JAMES: No phones. Got it.
ME: Okay, so here's how it works. Each player has a deck of cards. And each card is a different member of the pirate crew. In the middle of the table, there's a ship called “Libertalia”. On that ship there is a lot of booty. On each day of our campaign of piracy, there will be as many booty tokens as there are players, and we'll all be trying to get our hands on the ones we want. Booty gives you doubloons, and the player with the most doubloons at the end of three campaigns wins.
JAMES: Hey, Solomon Kane is on iTunes. Nice.
ME: No phones!
ME: Now here's the interesting thing. At the start of a campaign, one player draws a hand of cards. He then announces the characters he has in his hand, and every other player takes the same characters. So, you only ever have the same characters as your opponents. The player who uses those characters most effectively will win.
JAMES: So what do they do? These characters?
ME: I'm glad you asked that, James. Each character has different abilities. Abilities activate at different times of the day. Some activate while on the boat, stealing booty. Some activate at night, when the characters are back in the pirates den. Some activate at the end of each campaign. You have to know exactly when and how to play them. It's a thrill.
JAMES: You'll have to give me an example, for crying out loud.
ME: Okay. Let me first explain about character rank. Each character has a different rank. When you choose your character and play it onto the ship, it will take its place according to its rank. The abilities will activate from low rank to high, and the characters can take booty from high rank to low. So if you play in a low ranker, you know his ability will activate early. And if you play in a high ranker, you can expect a reasonable shout of your choice of booty.
JAMES: Can't stop thinking of arses whenever you say “booty”. Why the big deal about choice of arses?
ME: Well, booty comes in many shapes and sizes. Some will give you doubloons. There are maps that reward you handsomely if you manage to collect a set, and give you nothing if they don't. There are cursed idols that will lose you doubloons. There are sabres that let you kill characters in other players' dens.
JAMES: Oh right. So you can kill opponents' characters?
ME: Sometimes, yes. And there are also Spanish Officers on some booty tokens too. And those bad boys will kill your character if you are forced to take that token. Your character card won't return to your den, and you'll never see his night-time ability, if he has one.
JAMES: Do you need to take arses?
ME: Yes. You can't choose to turn an arse down. You just have to position yourself to get your hands on the arse you want, and that's a major part of the game.
JAMES: So you'd just play a high ranked card every time then? To get your preferred bum?
ME: It's not that simple. Remember that the abilities activate first. So you have to try to bluff and outwit your opponent. The Beggar, for example, is a very low ranked character whose ability will kick in early. He lets you take 3 doubloons from the highest ranked character on the ship. The Brute, a medium ranked character, attacks and knocks out the highest ranked character.
JAMES: The Brute rules.
ME: He does. Although, weirdly, I've seen boats FULL of Brutes on a few occasions now. And that's a lot of fun. They just brawl and knock each other out. No-one gets any booty.
JAMES: If a particular day had a lot of bad booty on the boat, cursed stuff and so on, why couldn't you all agree to play your Brutes, and just have a big fight? Diplomatically agree on a play so no-one has to take bad arses?
ME: You could do that. But would you trust every opponent not to play in a low ranked sneak who doesn't fight, and then has his pick of those bad tokens?
JAMES: Why would you want bad tokens though?
ME: You might have a Monkey in your pirate crew. He can carry cursed items to an opponent's den.
ME: Or you might have a Spanish Spy. Those Spanish Officer booty tiles that kill your character? The Spy can use them, trading the hostages for nice rewards.
JAMES: This game sounds amazing. Up there with Solomon Kane maybe.
JAMES: So everyone plays a character, abilities happen, people choose their booty. Then what?
ME: Then it's night. The characters come back to the pirate dens, if they're still alive. And then, night-time abilities kick in. Your Barkeep generates money. A Waitress who loves the illustrations on the maps will take them off your hands for 3 doubloons. She's a great character for making those worthless maps matter when you fail to complete a set. The Mutineer will make one of your characters vanish during the night.
JAMES: That's a bad thing, right?
ME: Sometimes. It might be. But it might be a good thing too, depending on how you play. The Quarter-Master, for example, is a great character. He's high rank so chooses booty early, and he will also give you a bonus for the booty you already have. But at the end of each week, each campaign, he will cost you 8 doubloons. You have to pay the guy. So you might want to stick your Mutineer into the den, and let Mutiny take its course.
JAMES: So much to think about here. If I wasn't hyper-intelligent I might be struggling. So this stuff at the end of the campaigns – important?
ME: Hugely. Your Topman loves a small crew. At the end of each campaign, you'll get five doubloons from him if you're the player with the smallest den of characters. That will inform much of your strategy. The Gambler costs money to play, but he will return 8 doubloons at the end of the week. If he survives.
JAMES: Ah, so people might want to choose one of those Sabre booty tokens during the day, to let them kill your Gambler?
ME: Sure. Or play a Gunner during the day, pay him, and have him shoot your Gambler straight in the head. One of my favourite characters is the Governor's Daughter. I mean, she LOOKS like the Governor's Daughter. And if you're the only one who has her in your den at the end of the campaign, it turns out she IS her, and you get a fine ransom. If more than one player has her, she was just a local prostitute, and she costs you money.
JAMES: This is a French game, right?
ME: Indeed. Now, I've just told you about a handful of the characters. There are thirty of them. And every time you play the game it's a random selection. And they all interact with each other in different ways. When I first read the rulebook, I just didn't feel anything. It just looked like a Euro-style role selection bidding game thing. Nothing jumped out to me saying YOU ARE READING THE RULES OF A POTENTIAL GAME OF THE YEAR. It's so weird. But the minute you start playing, the table just explodes with excitement. The possibilities just rush through your head like crazy. I love Cosmic Encounter because you have these random powers, and you have to work out how best to play your power to win you the game. In Libertalia, you're having to work out how to make a whole hand of powers work for you. And everyone is in WAIT FOR IT the same BOAT, all trying to make smarter choices. The game also scales ridiculously well, from two players right up to six. But with a good number of you, it really shines. There's tension in every single play. The fate of an entire game can spin on one choice. One smart bluff can get you right back in the running. There is high drama on that ship. It's beautiful to see players' reactions when the game finally clicks for them. Every expression saying the same thing. This. Is. IN C R E D I B L E.
JAMES: You okay?
JAMES: You weren't talking to me there. Who were you talking to?
ME: The readers of the column. I really need to get across how great this game is. I worry that people might let this one pass them by, because it's not some Kickstarter darling stuffed full of unnecessary toys. It's a beautiful design, with beautiful artwork, full of smarts and joy.
JAMES: You're talking to them again. While I'm sitting here! A bit rude.
JAMES: A bit rude.
ME: I was summing up.
JAMES: Have they seen Solomon Kane?
ME: Well, I should expect so. We keep telling them to watch it.
ME: When do you traditionally stop a transcript of a conversation?
JAMES: Usually when it stops being relevant.
ME: So I should have ended it a few lines ago?
ME: I'd expect people will just stop reading anyway.
JAMES: Yeah. Will I put some tea on? Then I'll tell you about this model I've been seeing while you've been assembling plastic robots for board games.
ME: I think they're still here, by the way.
JAMES: Can't you say that thing you say? To end it?
ME: I hate it.
JAMES: Then I'll say it. “See you next week. Buy Libertalia. And STAY DICEY!”
JAMES: I did cringe a bit there, actually.