Yo Ho, Yo Ho: A Review of Blackbeard
Game Name: Blackbeard
Designer: Richard H. Berg
Publisher: GMT Games
Players: 1-5 (options for up to 10 players)
Playing time: 120-180 Minutes
Retail: $60.00 U.S.
- 1 Thirty-two page illustrated rule booklet
- 1 Game board (34″ x 22″)
- 2 Sheets of counters
- 2 Folded charts and tables cards
- 3 Six-sided dice, two black and one white
- 10 Pirate displays
- 110 Cards, in two decks
“There is nothing so desperately monotonous as the sea, and I no longer wonder at the cruelty of pirates.” - James Russell Lowell
One of the most popular – and successful – releases from a floundering Avalon Hill during the late 1980′s was Blackbeard. The pirate game came across as completely different from anything on the shelves at the time because it simulated the life and careers of historical pirates. Alas, one release from a board game company (during that time) wasn’t enough to stave off the financial disaster that eventually befell AH regardless of how a good a game it was; these weren’t the days of games selling a half million copies based on awards garnered. Of course, pirates have been mighty popular ever since the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise began to set staggering box office records so you know there are a whole lot more choices for you to jump on to get your pirating fix. There’s even a Talk Like a Pirate Day on the calendar for crying out loud.
Oh, and if you talk like a pirate on that day, I think I’ll have to track you down and smack you. Simply because you should know better! And if you’re looking to be Johnny Depp playing a pirate should just move along right now because this is a game that is a simulation of a real period of history which is something most “pirate” fans have no time for. Regardless of what you think of the films, the golden age of piracy was indeed a remarkable period in history, and the re-release by GMT Games of Blackbeard brings a versatile favorite back into the fold. Not only is the game back on the gaming table but it’s bigger and better than the original ever was. And that’s saying something!
The game begins when players select three different pirates, at random, from the stack of pirate cards. Regardless of what pirates are chosen, the players and learn to live with those historical characters’ strengths and weaknesses. The historical pirates have six abilities that come into play at different points in the game: Initiative, Ability, Leadership, Cruelty, Cunning and Duel. Players also have the opportunity to draw new pirates from the Pirate deck and add them to their roster in later turns.
I have to mention that Richard Berg has taken the original AH releases and redesigned it almost entirely (regardless of the claim by GMT that the game has only been tweaked) to bring Blackbeard into line with what gamers like to see and play these days. The entire play system has been overhauled. The result is a game that highlights, and even specializes, in player interaction resulting with almost no down time for any of the players. We know how people feel about having down time in their games these days! Heaven forbid if it isn’t ALWAYS your turn…
Black Bart Roberts, Long Ben Avery, Ned Lowe, L’Ollonais, and, of course, Edward Teach (Blackbeard himself) are some of the pirates available. There are twenty three pirates overall who make up the Pirate deck. Also included are the King’s Commissioners who are sent out to stop this pirate scum! Players choose one or more of their pirates to set sail on missions of plunder and pillage. Pirates may attack ships and ports, although they will quickly earn the enmity of the colonial governments, only to find sacking similarly aligned ports to be much more difficult after the first such raid. Combat is resolved with dice rolls; the port or ships combat/defensive value plus a die roll vs. the pirate ship’s combat value and the pirate captain’s leadership rating plus a die roll. If the pirate wins, he collects treasure and possibly hostages. Hostages can be ransomed later or tortured for information that will give the pirates an attack bonus against neighboring ports. We’re not talking about a comfy chair, Spanish Inquisition sort of torture either; if you torture a hostage they give up the ghost. Buccaneers wishing to cash in their treasure may do so at any friendly port, but pirate ports tend to pay the best return on such exchanges. One one-hundredth (1/100th) of the money “cashed in” goes towards the pirate’s victory point total.
Much of the action of this game is driven by the deck of Event Cards, something that GMT has been incorporating into its games over the last couple of years. Players may choose to use an Event Card to initiate its event or for the Action Points it can generate. Moving a pirate’s ship marker from one sea area to an adjacent sea area costs one action point, as does moving from a sea area to a port, or attacking a port or ship. A pirate’s initiative is the number of actions the player can take in a turn. Some event cards may be played out of turn, such as Warship Sighting, which allows the player to place a randomly drawn warship in the sea area where the current player’s ship has declared an attack or a loot action.
The goal in the end is to accept a Letter of Marque from one of the major world powers and retire to a port of that nationality, thus becoming a respectable sort to enjoy a sea dog’s final years in comfort and peace. Good lick with that! This is easier said than done, obviously, as there are a limited number of Letters of Marque cards in the deck. In a moment of desperation those action points that card provides may be more immediately useful than the event itself. Another catch is that said retirement must be performed at a port with a pro-piracy governor; otherwise the pirate can be assured of only one thing: a short drop and a sudden stop. Ouch! Governors are occasionally replaced by Event cards, so those that are more well-disposed toward the brethren of the sea become scarce as the game progresses.
A game of Blackbeard comes to an end when the General Pardon card comes up for the third time. After its first and second appearances, the card is simply reshuffled into the remaining Event Card deck hastening its reappearance.
This game falls somewhere between a traditional wargame and more of the style of board game we see these days. That’s not a knock on the wargames of old but more of a kudo to the crew at GMT for recognizing that the traditional wargame market is rather aged and that new blood needs to be introduced to the genre for it to survive. Blackbeard is designed as a game for two-to-five players although its rulebook provides modifications that allow up to ten freebooters to take to the seas. Other rule modifications ever allow for solitaire play.
Those who didn’t pick up this gem when it first appeared during its Avalon Hill incarnation should be glad for the second chance. Blackbeard really isn’t a difficult game to learn and there’s elegance to the new design that gives players enormous flexibility in their actions; the mark of a good board game!