Game Review: BLACKBEARD

blackbeard cover

Designer: Richard H. Berg
Publisher: GMT Games
Players: 1-5
Playing Time: about 3 – 4 hours

Complexity: medium/competitive
Random Interference: medium
Components: A
Aesthetics: A
Overall: A

(For general information on my game rating systems, CLICK HERE.)

I’m not quite sure when or how or why this happened, but at some point in the past 200 years, we fell in love with pirates. And—like ya do when you’re in love—we’ve turned a blind eye to our beloved’s flaws, and we focus on those things that still set our hearts all aflutter, same as when we were new.  We forgive and forget the rape and rapine, the pillaging and plunder, the animalistic brutality, the criminal syndicate, and the sheer sociopathic violence of these unwashed thieves. From that place of paternal, even unconditional love, we talk with rotten English dialects; we transform villains into cartoonish heroes. Best of all, we take an entire generation of international black market behavior and all its miserable ramifications, and we make awesome board games out of it.  In this fine tradition, I present to you: Richard Berg’s Blackbeard.

Play Summary and General Commentary:

The original Avalon Hill box cover (1991)

The original Avalon Hill box cover (1991)

This review is taking the tack (see what I did there?) of the current version of Blackbeard published by GMT Games, but this is a kind of reimagining of the game, having previously been published by Avalon Hill—before they capsized (another one!). Where appropriate, I’ll mention the ways the game was changed (*ahem*—improved) from the original, but the essence of Berg’s design has stayed the course and fared well. (All right; I’ll stop).Players take on the role of one or more historical pirate captains and sail around the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian Ocean, capturing merchant vessels and raiding colonial ports. The pirate captains are represented by identity-stats cards, and each captain has a ship log, on which the controlling player tracks general damage to the vessel, speed modifiers, market value of cargo in the holds, and various dynamic statuses.  All of this—like all the markers on the board—is handled with die-cut chits. Pirates accumulate “notoriety points” for the dastardly actions they commit, and these ultimately add to “victory points” the player receives for the cold cash accumulated by selling off goods in port, as well as for victories in battle. The basic engine of the game is a combination of card play and action selection. Players have hands of cards drawn from a common deck, and generally, the active player plays a card either for its express effect, or for a certain number of action points, which are spent as the player sees fit for movement, attacks, in-port activities, and the like.  Meanwhile, some of the cards have “anti-pirate” effects, which can be implemented by the inactive players to bring all sorts of grief on the active player in the form of storms, wear-and-tear blackbeard boardon the ship, mutinies, and the summoning of the “watchdogs” of the game: bot-governed warships.

Something some gamers might find distasteful about this is that the inactive players are largely calling upon environmental forces to impede the active player, rather than making direct attacks, which can be argued as unrealistic and as though the inactive players are “playing God.” Another downside of this mechanic for me personally is that it’s the “first declared” anti-pirate action that takes precedence if multiple players try to lay it on at the same time. I tend to dislike “speed” rules or rules that invite interpretation at the table, as they ultimately invite argument.  However, the anti-pirate mechanic does ensure that all players of the game are essentially “active” and attentive at all times, even when it isn’t technically their turn.  This is a HUGE improvement over the original Avalon Hill version, in which: (a) not only did the inactive players have nothing to do when it wasn’t their turn (resulting in lots of purely parallel play), but (b) the players did not even take their turns sequentially! The draw deck randomly determined which player operated next, and you could literally wait for considerable amounts of time before receiving a turn.  Worse, when you finally got a turn, it might have been as uneventful as “I rolled 4 and sailed 4 hexes.”  Ugh. The justification in the old rulebook was that this simulated “long, idle months at sea.” All it really did was inspire you to play an entirely different game on the side—or altogether.  (The GMT version has area movement rather than hex-movement—another HUGE improvement.)

The old, hex-based map.

The old, hex-based map.

What remains true about Blackbeard is that it is predominantly “player versus environment,” and the environment hates you.  Merchant ships are completely bot-controlled and simply appear and disappear in the various areas.  This is wholly unlike Merchants and Marauders, where merchant activity is more intelligently controlled by the players.  In Blackbeard, merchants are merely so much fruit for the picking. Also unlike Merchants and Marauders, ship-to-ship combat is entirely resolved with a single throw of the dice, resulting in one ship sinking and the other surviving.  There is no consideration for such details as the sails, the cannons, and/or hostile boardings.  Furthermore, as the game goes on, the environment becomes increasingly hostile towards the pirates.  As pro-pirate governors at the ports are replaced with anti-pirate ones, and as pirates accumulate an attack history against various nations, they find themselves with fewer and fewer ports where they might actually drop anchor, sell off goods, and refit their vessels. As pirates gain more notoriety, the opposing players can take a more active role in directly attacking them by taking command of one of several historical King’s Commissioners—represented by chits with far fewer stats than the pirates (basically just combat stats).  Pirates try to accumulate as much wealth and notoriety as they can before they are killed (which feels inevitable); commissioners try to kill them. The game continues in this fashion for a somewhat pre-determined length of time: a unique card called “General Pardon” is buried somewhere in the deck. The players agree ahead of time whether the 3rd, 4th, or even 5th appearance of the card denotes the arbitrary end of the game.  Most victory points wins.  Players always score victory points for successes they’ve had with both pirates and commissioners they’ve controlled—even those who’ve ultimately been killed along the way, but they get blackbeard componentsbig bonuses and multipliers on those points scored by pirates whom they voluntarily “retired” before death.  This is also a big improvement on the Avalon Hill version, where there was only notoriety points and no victory points, and you lost ALL your hard-earned points when your pirate was killed, having to start all the way at 0 even half-way through the game and with no viable safe ports left on the board.  It was incredibly demoralizing, especially given how hard it is to earn points, and how easy it is to get killed (two realities that remain true in the current version).

What Doesn’t Work So Much for Me:
So far I’ve tried to offer a fairly thorough examination of the mechanics, laced with some critique, especially of the original version. Let’s really measure the cut of her jib, shall we?  I love playing Blackbeard.  Believe it or not, I loved the original, too (most of the time), but here’s what doesn’t work for me so much on the current version:

  • Chits and Color-Palette Everything is parchment-color.  Not that parchment-blackbeard close upcolor is automatically bad; in fact, it goes very well with the theme.  But EVERYTHING is parchment-color.  The mapboard, the pirate chits, the merchant chits, the enemy chits, the governor chits, the pirate identity cards, the event cards… everything.  Nothing stands out, especially with all the markers being flat chits. This is something the Avalon Hill version had over the GMT version: its bolder, primary colors were easier to see, especially for us color-deficient folk, even with the flat chits.  For my own sessions, I’ve taken to propping up the first set of governors and the ship-chits in binder-clip stands, and I use shiny new quarters to mark the fleeting positions of the merchants (see photo).
  • No Swashbuckling or Broadside Battles Let’s face it: half the reason we pretend to be pirates is because of the romance.  Unfortunately, Blackbeard reduces all of that to a few simple stats and die rolls, and it remains at the “crow’s nest,” grand-strategy view.  You don’t get to feel like that cunning captain who carves legends out of wooden ships and iron men.  For that, I guess you have to play Wooden Ships & Iron Men.
  • Ye Be Dead Men Already Related to the fact that the ship-to-ship battles are grossly simplified is the fact that death is swift and sudden in this game.  As a King’s Commissioner, one suck roll can spoil the four turns it took you to catch up with your man.  As a pirate, whether by random storm at sea or at the hands of that commissioner who did spend four turns chasing you down, it makes no difference if you’re some recently elected rabble-rousing mutineer or the legendary Dread Pirate Roberts himself (in this case, Bartholomew Roberts); you’re just as easily killed in the span of a single turn.  You gain no sort of resilience or “armor class” or additional “hit points” or even “street cred” or anything like that for time served.  Perhaps this is realistic, since these scoundrels’ lives—even the notorious ones (especially them) were cut brutally short, but from a gaming perspective, it’s frustrating.  Again: it’s not as complete a devastation as it was in the old version, but it still cheapens the experience a bit.
  • More Math than a Pirate Ought to Know The least appealing part of Blackbeard is the cumbersome numerics that go into so many actions, most especially attacks on merchants and the subsequent collection of spoils, raids on ports, ship-to-ship battles with warships and commissioners, and multiple conversion rates for goods sold at different ports.  It’s like it wants to be a role-playing game, but ignores every aspect of actual role-playing (like swashbuckling)!  Having stated this, I wonder how much of these calculations were part of Berg’s original vision for the game, and how much are residue from the Avalon Hill compulsion to turn every miserable real-life situation into a statistical simulation generator and call it a “game.”  The current version is still MUCH cleaner than the old one, but the math that does remain is clunky and counter-intuitive. 

What Really Works for Me:
Alright, so there are definitely some barnacles on the hull, but let’s talk about what Blackbeard really has going for it.

  • Artwork If you can get around the monotone color scheme and the flatness of the pieces (perhaps with stands like I use), or with token ships or meeples or something, then you’re left with a very handsome map.  It’s really nice to look at and fits the theme perfectly, and the cards and ship rosters are all equally good, both in terms of aesthetics as well as quality.  In fact, the card-stock for the draw deck is so sturdy that it’s actually difficult to warp the entire deck for shuffling purposes.  This is a plus in my book.
  • Solitaire Solubility Blackbeard has a highly functioning solo-variant, which is only slightly modified from the full version, so essentially nothing is lost.  In both the original and the new versions, I have probably played more rounds of the solitaire variant than I have multi-player sessions, and in both cases, the solo practice has kept me sharp and well-versed on the rules and all the minutiae, so it hasn’t been quite so clunky with the other players as it otherwise might have been.
  • The True Pirate’s Life Blackbeard is gritty, historical, and thematic.  There’s a whole lot of “pirate” games on the market, but too many of them have little or nothing to do with what 18th Century piracy was actually about.  Instead, they’re centered on cartoony pirate stereotypes and activities that have little historical basis (like treasure maps and parrots). Or worse: they are entirely unfaithful to their theme, and the jolly roger is nothing more than a spooky decoration for a basic counting or trick-taking game, like Loot.  Essentially, most pirate games on the market are social or kids’ games.  Blackbeard is for the more serious, historical enthusiast.  So, for my money, Blackbeard is my go-to title when it’s the pirate’s life for me.

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3 thoughts on “Game Review: BLACKBEARD

  1. Eric Ortega says:

    Great review, but you left out one thing. The time I was on my way to sure victory for the first time in this game, only to have my buried loot lost to the most random earthquake of all time. I will never let that go, and will probably mention it one last time on my death bed. I want another damn shot at this game.

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