In Libertalia the players are competing pirates hoping to end the game with the most treasure. There’s a small board (the ship), but essentially this is a card game.
Every player has a deck of 30 cards containing different types of pirates. Before each round, someone randomly draws nine cards, and all players find the matching cards in their own deck – this will be the hand for this round. The rounds represent a week, and on each ‘day’ players secretly choose a card to play from their hand, before all cards are revealed simultaneously and laid out on the ship. The cards, as well as having a character on them, also have a number, and the numbers decide in what order the characters will be activated. This can be pretty crucial, because some characters benefit from being activated sooner, some later. and some do fairly destructive things to the other players. Some might get you doubloons depending on what other cards you’ve played, or get you doubloons in specific circumstances – i.e., you’re hoping someone else will play a certain card in order for you to reap the benefit.
It’s also crucial because at the end of every day, there is booty to be won – and the highest-numbered characters get to choose first.
And some of the booty is rather less booty-licious than the rest of it: in fact some of the booty is more like a poisoned chalice. So you’re balancing the action the character gives you, with what booty you’re potentially picking up with them….
After booty has been claimed, the cards played for that day go into the individual players’ den, which means they can’t be activated again this week – but they can still be targeted by the other players. The dens also show everybody who has played which cards, which give the game a juicy seam of second-guessing and bluff. After all six days have been played, the seventh day is a day of rest, when cards in your den will score you doubloons. How they score is far too variable to list here; there are numerous ways but they’re all pretty straightforwardly explained on the cards.
And after three weeks of this, the winner is the richest pirate!
There really is plenty of variety in the box, and if you like the theme the game certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. For my own tastes, it felt too random and too chaotic. That probably says more about me >controlfreak< than it does the game, but I found the unpredictability of it all started to make me feel like I was a cog in in a game-playing experience, rather than someone with any control over their own destiny. Also – text on cards! – I’m never a fan of when much of the game is reading text to determine the rule for a particular scenario. But for the right crowd, this will be a bona fide hit.
Libertalia has at its essence the second-guessing thing – if everyone’s going to play that then I should play this! Except that instead of just numbers, everyone’s playing roles, which may or may not interact with everyone else’s roles. So you’re guessing in nine directions at once, multiplied by the number of players. Some people have the brain for this and it could feel highly strategic, to others it’s pure chaos. There is a middle ground, but there are other games that give the same flavour that I’d rather play, I think.
High. Your pirates can be outbid, outfoxed, and out of the game: there's death and destruction here.
Low, as long as nobody takes an age to choose their card.
There's a little. Familiarity will teach you that playing cards a certain way is going to work best - but of course, the best laid plans may be run through with a cutlass by your opponents.
If you love the chaos of it, the sheer number of possible hands, not to mention potential card combinations, gives Libertalia huge replayability. Probably best with more though - two players in particular can seem rather unpiratey.