Board Game Review: Libertalia – Dividing the Plunder

I’m always skeptical of pirate games. The theme is a fun one, and too many games with garbage mechanics try to make up for it with a fun theme. (See also, Zombies). Libertalia is certainly pirate themed. But instead of sailing the seas and buckling swash, the whole game is about the division of pirate loot. Can you gain the most for yourself?

The Basics. Libertalia is played over three rounds, each round having six turns. The pirate board is initially seeded with loot tokens. Each turn will have one for each player and the players can see what will be on offer in advance. Sometimes, it’s treasure worth coins. Sometimes, treasure maps worth a ton if you collect enough. And other times it’s Spanish officers or sabers allowing you to kill your crew or the crew of others. And some are cursed treasures worth negative points.

Every player also gets a deck of 30 cards. They are ranked from one to thirty and each provides a unique power. However, all the players’ numbers are identical. So number one is the Parrot and all players have a number one with a parrot and the corresponding power. All have a 14 which is a Brute. And the same for the Spanish Governor, the highest card with a rank of 30.

These guys are the least influential members of the ship

At game start, one player shuffles up their cards and then selects nine at random. He announces which cards he selected and then everybody digs through their deck and keeps the same nine.

On a turn, everybody chooses one card from their hand and they are simultaneously revealed. They are placed in ranking order and their powers take effect. Then, starting with the highest card, each player chooses a loot token. Surviving cards are then placed in front of a player. Many will grant bonus points if they survive until the end of the round. Then you do that five more times.

At the end of the round, bonus coins are awarded and treasure is tallied. Players get points equal to their treasure. Then the game is reset for the next round. The only exception is the three unplayed cards in your hand. You keep those. Then the player chooses six more and everyone takes those six to start the next round. In that way, players might have slightly different capabilities from one another going forward.

After the second round, a third is played. Whoever has the most points after all three rounds is the winner.

Mid-level characters represent generic crew

The Feel. My plays of Libertalia were fun, but somewhat disappointing. Although the cards all have pirates on them, and the artwork is fun, the game doesn’t feel piratey. It’s more of an auction game – which I generally like. I suppose a group could really ham it up and talk like pirates for added atmosphere, but the game itself does little to evoke swashbucklers.

Libertalia does a lot of interesting and clever things. By ensuring that players all select from the same cards, it means that you know the universe of possibilities. If every player had all thirty cards, or even a random sampling, it would be hard to figure out your best move. By knowing what the others hold, you still may not know exactly what they will select, but you’ve got a much better idea of potential outcomes.

And, from round to round, the deviation starts to take effect. Players might throw down different cards during that first round. Which means, going into the second, I may have saved different cards than you. Which, again, means that we no longer have identical hands. This can lead to some pretty interesting interaction, especially by the final round.

The most prestigious aboard the boats

Also, I really like that you only play with a subset of the thirty cards. This makes the experience different from game to game. I can tell you that when everyone has a Brute in their hand, the game is played differently – players are much more cautious – than when he isn’t in play. This changes up the experience and allows for novel gambits.

Despite some interesting aspects, though, Libertalia is very middling in the fun department. Although there are thirty cards, the powers seem to really boil down to just a few categories. Get more or less loot tokens. Kill off previously played cards. Or exchange or discard loot tokens (helpful if you’ve grabbed some cursed treasure). Probably 90% of the powers are small variations on one of those three themes.

Coins are everything

It also carries points over from round to round which can be a bummer. In my first game, there was one player who got absolutely hosed the first round. While everyone else had points in the 20s or beyond, he got 7. Effectively, he lost because that deficit was just too much to make up in the next two rounds. So that first round could really decide your fate. After all, if you’re up by 10, the next player will have to earn 10 more points than you to catch up. Not always easy.

Last of all, Libertalia isn’t as fun as you’d think it would be. There’s something antiseptic about the way your choices are carefully arranged, powers used in sequence, and then predictable choices made. Though the double-think and guessing of what card to play is neat, the whole rest of the game is ministerial and banal. Which, again, flies directly against the pirate setting.

But the right loot helps you get the most coins

Components: 4 of 5. The components include standard sized cards and cardboard chits. It comes with a bag for the loot tokens. The artwork and flavor text are really superb and elevate what would otherwise be fairly standard fare to something much more interesting.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Libertalia also has a good balance here. The randomness helps keep things different from play to play, but it impacts all players equally. There is some luck in which cards you choose to hold over, especially if the next set happens to compliment them. But that’s quite minor and you’ll be making all the major, impactful decisions.

Mechanics: 3 of 5. There are definitely some neat ideas lurking within Libertalia. I like that players start with the same set of cards, but can diverge a bit based on player choices. I really like that it accommodates six. But overall, the mechanics are really nothing spectacular. In fact, after the cards have been played, the round pretty much resolves itself and player choices are minimal.

Replayability: 3 of 5. It’s true that the randomized nature of the card selection will keep individual plays feeling different and perhaps open up different gambits. The same with loot distribution. But the problem is that the game just isn’t all that great. So there’s little reason to return to it if there’s serious competition from other titles.

Spite: 4 of 5. Spite can run high in this game. There is a solid “take that” element and some characters can straight up murder characters that other players have played. Further, the saber loot lets you kill someone in another player’s ship, so you’ll see plenty of skullduggery. Those deaths can dramatically impact end-of-round points.

Bid it up in a five player game

Overall: 2.5 of 5. As a whole, Libertalia is fun enough, but just not all that interesting. There’s some really neat ideas, but they don’t coalesce into an awesome game. Perhaps it could have used a bit more development. That said, while it pales in comparison to other four and five player games, it is actually pretty solid for a six player title. This is a good choice when you’ve got six players. But otherwise you’re probably better off playing something else.

There is 1 comment.

  1. Andrew said on September 22, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    Agree with review. I see this game recommended alot and my first play was pleasant enough, but the last time we played it was a boring slog of a game. To play competitively one has to pay attention and remember who has played what in order to make educated guesses; but the theme of the game and artwork don’t evoke taking it that seriously. After the game the comment was “huh, that was fun – what else do you have?”

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