Review: Libertalia

Posted by James (admin) on May 17th, 2013

Libertalia game boatLibertalia is by Paolo Mori who designed one of my favourite games Vasco de Gama.  Libertalia is a very different game to Vasco de Gama as it is a simple and relatively quick, card-playing game.

Players are pirate crews who are trying to earn the most doubloons buy collecting booty.  Each player has a set of 30 cards each representing a crew member with a value (1-30), a special ability and a tie-break number.  Each player’s set of cards is the same except the tie-break numbers are different so that no two cards are exactly the same.  Each card’s special ability states if it will be used in the day, at dusk, at night, or at the end of the campaign.  To start the 1st campaign, one player randomly draws 9 cards from their deck, then all the other players draw the same cards.

The game is played over 3 campaigns, each consisting of 6 days when players will play one card each.  At the start of each campaign, booty tiles are drawn at random and placed on each of the 6 days on the board (one token per player).  Most booty tokens are simply worth 1, 3 or 5 doubloons, although treasure maps are only worth 12 doubloons combined if you have at least 3 of them.  There are also cursed booty tokens worth -3 doubloons, as well as saber and Spanish officer tokens which are worth no doubloons but have special effects (see below).

On each day, players are competing to take a booty token from those available that day.  Each day is resolved over 4 phases:

  • Sunrise: Players simultaneously select a card to play which are then revealed and placed in order of ascending value.  Ties are broken by the tie-break value (1-6) on each card.
  • Day: In increasing value order, each player uses the day ability of the crew they played (if they have one).
  • Dusk: In decreasing value order, each player takes 1 booty token and uses any dusk ability their crew may have.  Then, the player places their used crew card in their ‘den’ (in front of them), unless they claimed a Spanish Officer token when the crew member is discarded.  (If they claimed a saber token, they make the player to their left or right discard a crew member from their den.)
  • Night: Players use any night abilities of crew in their ‘den’; for example, earning doubloons by discarding crew from the den, earning doubloons from saber tokens, etc.

When a campaign is finished, players use any end-of-campaign abilities of crew in their den, then add up and record the dubloons earned.  Then, all the booty tokens go back in the bag and all crew in dens are discarded.  One player draws 6 new cards from their deck at random, then all the other players draw the same cards too, and add them to the 3 cards remaining from the previous campaign.

Libertalia cover

Overall, Libertalia is a simple game but the different powers on each card, the different card values, the different booty tokens up for grabs, and knowing other players have similar cards delivers a lot of interesting decisions packed into a relatively short time.

Picking which value crew to play each day is very interesting as you try to work out what booty you want (and don’t want), what other players may play, whilst trying to balance playing a good ability and a good value card.  For example, sometimes you want to play a low value card for its ability but don’t want last pick of the booty, or you want to play a high value card to take booty early but its low tie-break value means it may be wasted if other players also play the same card.

Whilst players gain the same cards at the same time, players will end up using cards at different times which means their remaining cards start to differ and players carry over different cards into the second and third campaigns.

I like how you only use 21 of the 30 crew cards in each game (and only 18 of those will actually get played), so each game will have its own different mix of cards and the times the cards appear will vary too.  Also, the random mixtures of booty tokens offer variety and makes some days feel different to others and require a different strategy.

It can be quite a brutal game – definitely don’t get attached to any crew in your den as they tend to get killed off pretty easily.  Also, players aiming for the big booty items are relatively easy to spot and other players aim to hinder them quite quickly; however, players using den cards to subtly gain dubloons are just as dangerous so need to be watched for too.

The crew abilities seem nicely varied and some are quite funny such as the monkey that allows you to pass on all the cursed booty tokens you have (although that did seem quite powerful).  The game plays quickly with a short pause at the start of each campaign to read the special abilities each crew card has and consider how these may be best used, but that will get quicker the more times you play.

Libertalia game den

So, are there any negatives?  There was one aspect that didn’t sit quite right with me and that was the tie-break system.  As mentioned, any ties in card number are broken using each card’s tie-break value (1-6).  The tie-break values are evenly spread between the players’ decks and spread sequentially through each set of 30 cards.  (For example, if A and B’s number 18 crew cards have tie-break values of 3 and 4 respectively, then A and B’s number 5 crew cards will have tie-break values of 4 and 5 respectively.)

This means that once you notice the difference between you and another player, you can predict what their tie-break number will be by looking at your own value.  Also, it means a player knows a card with a tie-break 1 value will always lose ties (which are reasonably likely as all players have the same cards).

I can see this system has been created to ensure the player decks are evenly balanced; however, it can be frustrating knowing which way the tie will go.  Also, it means each player deck has a specific set of tie-winning cards (and one player deck has an unbeatable card – value 30 card with tie-break 6).  Plus, as you only use 18 of the 30 cards, luck-of-the-draw can allow one player to play more cards with higher tie-break values than another player.

I think there could be other options that would be more fair.  For example, have a ‘tie-break player’ – similar to having a start player in other games – so that ties are resolved by starting with the tie-break player and going clockwise (the tie-break player moves on one player each day).  Or, the tie-break player changes each day and they decide how ties are broken – whilst not as fair as my first suggestion, it adds a bit more player interaction.

Another element that felt a bit strange was that some cards abilities aren’t very useful at the start of each campaign when there’s no booty or crew in dens.  As a result, players are likely to pick very similar cards on the first and second day.  However, players will have different views on what to play and/or collect soon enough as they use cards and gain booty.

In the end, neither of these issues were a major problem.  Libertalia was good fun, I enjoyed playing it and would like to play it some more.  Playing different value cards to set the order in which booty is picked is important, but the abilities of the cards play a big part too which is a nice extra layer of game play.  It can be quite brutal, but I think that’s fine in a relatively short and light game.

[Played with 5 players]

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