Libertalia is a competitive card game that pits rival pirate bands against each other to see who can loot, pillage and plunder the most booty in three 6-day campaigns. Players must out-think their opponents using archetypal pirate character cards that each has a unique game effect. Players whose pirates gather the most doubloons after 3 campaigns can retire on their pirate paradise named “Libertalia.”
The unique mechanics of Libertalia start to reveal themselves during the set-up of the game. This requires a brief explanation of the decks of cards that are used.
Libertalia is not a deck-builder. Each player has – in their own piratical player color – a deck of 30 identical character cards. They are numbered from 1 to 30 and each depicts a pirate themed character advancing in rank from low to high. The ship’s mascot: the Parrot is card number 1, while the Spanish Governor is card number 30. At the beginning of the first campaign, the youngest player shuffles and draws a hand of 9 cards. That player then calls out the name and rank of each card as each other player removes those exact named cards from their decks to form their starting hands. Consequently, each player has the same crew and same game effects going into the first campaign.
Libertalia is played in a series of three Campaigns. Each Campaign is made up of six days of looting and pillaging and grabbing the best booty available. Ok, ok, that’s Pirate booty. I mean, it’s booty that the pirates want… ugh, never mind.
One day, consists of four phases that follows the cycle of the sun: beginning with Sunrise, Day, followed by Dusk and finally Night. There is also a Campaign Phase after all pirates have returned after six days of exploits.
At sunrise, all players secretly choose one character from their hand of nine and simultaneously reveal it. These character cards are placed in order on the play-board from left to right in ascending order of value. If the same characters are played, a small number in the lower left of the card (Influence) breaks that tie and defines the order of placement. Then the game effects are resolved as the “day” continues.
During the Day phase, cards with “Day” icons resolve their effects from lowest rank to highest. Then during the Dusk phase, any remaining characters resolve any “Dusk” effects in reverse order: highest value to lowest. Most importantly, players choose one booty tile from the corresponding space on the board in descending order. Then each character card is placed back in that player’s Pirate Den, where finally that card’s “Night” effects resolve.
This looting process is repeated until six days are completed. At which point, any pirate characters left in all players’ dens resolve their Campaign effect; represented by an anchor icon. These effects usually involve rewards of doubloons (victory points). The Campaign ends, total doubloons and treasures are counted and marked on the scoring track.
Between campaigns, players have up to three cards left that have not been played and the first player draws 6 news cards, announces them, and players add these cards to their remaining cards in hand. A new campaign begins as the plundering continues.
At this point, the players hands begin to be more varied as some cards have remained un-played in their hands. For the final Campaign, after the final 6 character cards are added players’ remaining hands, the rest of the deck is returned to the box and remain unused until the next game. The player with the most doubloons at the end of three campaigns wins!
The artwork is striking and inspiring. Pirate genre games come with their own specific set of thematic expectations. But the art and graphic work on this game propels you into the world of piratical debauchery. Each character is expertly rendered, and inspires more thematic game play. The components themselves are sturdy and for the most part, functional.
With a more economical layout, the game could be played in less space, but it doesn’t detract from the games enjoyment. In fact, the player cards (called “Pirate Dens”) are extremely functional with player turn actions and Booty Tile values listed on them for quick reference. The rulebook is clear and easy to understand: perfect components for an excellent game.
Libertalia is very easy to learn and the instructions are well written. Players can easily learn by playing, sacrificing very little strategy while doing so.
Who would enjoy this game?
Pirates! Aliens! Ninjas! Zombies! Ugh. It seems like these common game themes have been done and are being redone over and over again. That might be enough to turn some folks off even trying Libertalia, but we encourage you to take a second look. Often times these themes can be lightly pasted onto a set of mediocre mechanics – luring the unsuspecting gamer into a purchase based on the cool artwork and the hype. But this game, by Paulo Mori and Asmodee, offer gamers well integrated mechanics, theme, unique strategy, tactics and interactive card-play that is visually vibrant and well…just plain fun.
Libertalia’s strength is in Mori’s design. With each player beginning the game with the exact same cards, emphasis is on timing and card choice as opposed to player resources and random card draws. The 30 different card effects are well thought out and work well in combination with each other. The resulting card interactions, (and consequently, player interactions) provide an entertaining and compelling journey toward Pirate retirement.
The game also scales well. Two-player games are as fast and deadly like a saber duel, creating a game that promotes anticipating the other’s move and using your hand of cards to counteract their affects and grab the best Booty first. With 4-6 players, the game still plays quickly, but simmers a bit more like an impending tavern brawl. Remembering a played card becomes more difficult and elements of a more long-term strategy begin to emerge. The only truly random feature is the drawing of Booty tiles (one for each player, each day). But some character card effects can cause players to find themselves unable to collect Booty (which isn’t all that bad sometimes) and also to turn Cursed Idols and other detrimental treasure into a doubloon windfall.
There is one aspect of the game that may not sit well with some (especially family gamers), and has to do with some game effects targeting female characters.
The three female characters (Governors Daughter, Waitress and Granny Wata (a mermaid presumably) have effects that trigger while in a player’s den. For some reason, whether by design or coincidence, a situation is created where these female characters’ abilities are the exact cards that players must “kill” (using a Saber Booty Tile) to make sure their effects don’t take place. It just didn’t sit right as a father and someone who enjoys strong female role models. “I guess I have to kill the Governor’s Daughter…” Ok, maybe the pirating era was more barbaric, but its just seems like an unnecessary coincidence. It won’t spoil the enjoyment for most, but it is something to be aware of when choosing this game for specific audiences.
That strange idiosyncrasy aside, the game is one of the best designed on the market. Gameplay is elegant. And once more it bears mentioning that the art design is second to none. Artists Ben Carre and Stéphane Gantiez have created a feast for the eyes, each character perfectly rendered to a degree that they could come to life right off the cards. The art alone inspires and supports the theme, and makes the game that much more enjoyable.
Libertalia offers a great new turn on a Pirate theme, ingenious card play, streamlined game turns and tantalizing art. Even the most sheepish of pirates will want to plunder over and over again.
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