Saturday, June 7, 2008


How's this for a boardgame concept: you play Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard) in the golden age of piracy, sailing around the Caribbean and Far East, looting merchant ships, sacking Spanish ports, torturing hostages, and praying that you can retire with a nasty reputation before scurvy, British warships, or a governor's hangman cuts your career short. Pretty ideal, right? Well, welcome to Blackbeard: the Golden Age of Piracy - a remake of a classic Avalon Hill boardgame from 1991.

I've been waiting eagerly for this new edition to come out and got a copy last month. One big reason I was excited to try it is that Blackbeard has a reputation for being a strong solitaire game. That's a relative rarity in the boardgame market, as you might well imagine. I'm pleased to say that after having run through half a dozen solo adventures now and gotten a firm grasp of the complex rules, Blackbeard is everything I hoped it would be. While you're playing, you really get a sense of the world these men (and women) lived in, and the stories seem to write themselves.

The game has been criticized, perhaps fairly, for having a complex, obtuse, and periodically contradictory set of rules. However, I've never minded big rulebooks - often, that's a sign that a game has a lot to offer. Plus, you just need to remember that if you don't know how something is supposed to be played, you make up a house rule. This is particularly easy if you're playing solitaire. But rather than try and explain the rule system of Blackbeard to you in this post (which would be an exercise in futility), I'll give you a taste of my most recent game via a short session report.

You play on a world map appropriate to the time period (late 17th, early 18th century):

Note that while the map primarily focuses on the Caribbean, the eastern seaboard of the British colonies is also represented, as well as parts of Central & South America, the Gold Coast, West Africa, and India. Merchant ships dot the map and are your prime source of income. In Blackbeard, the world is your oyster.

In this game, I'm playing Edward Teach, although you have the option of playing 22 different historic pirates, including Stede Bonnet, Samuel Bellamy, and of course, John Rackham. As you can see, each pirate is distinguished by various attributes, such as initiative, leadership, cruelty, and cunning. Teach is one of the stronger pirates in the game, and I like how you can give yourself a tougher solitaire challenge by picking a less able privateer (Thomas Tew, for instance). Teach will begin the game with a small but fast Sloop.

Your goal is to earn Victory Points by 1) acquiring loot and converting it to Net Worth, 2) achieving Notoriety. But of course, you have competition. In a solitaire game, you play against 3 other pirates who are trying to achieve 100 Victory Points before you get 130. Sounds unfair? It is. But welcome to Blackbeard. My competitors for this game will be: Edward England, Christopher Condent, and Edward Low.

I start the game in the Indian Ocean, where the merchant ships are rare but the payoffs are exceptional.
There's a Dutch merchant ship in the area, but I need to corner it first. To do so, you roll a die (1d6), add your Pirate Ability (4), and if the result if 7 or higher, you successfully locate the merchant. However, my opponents play an "Anti-Pirate" card first, hoping to interfere with my efforts. There are strict rules for this in solitaire play so that you don't have to worry about the psychological trauma of trying to play against yourself strategically - most of the actions are predetermined. I draw a card randomly and unfortunately it's a Warship.

Turns out this damn merchant is protected by cannon. I can try to run away, but that would mean that the merchant ship and all that valuable loot would escape. I draw a Warship counter and it's a relatively weak one (4 attack strength); my chances of winning in combat are good. We roll the dice (1d6 + Crew Rating + ship Combat Strength) and Teach sends the Warship to Davy Jones' Locker. I get 4 notoriety points for this, which is equivalent to 8 VP's. Engaging in combat with the Warship damages my sloop (-1 combat strength) and one crew member is killed.

Now, I can continue to look for the merchant ship. I roll the die and fail. Twice. This merchant is just too fast for me and I have to give up until next turn. This brief summary of my first turn gives you a taste of Blackbeard's flavor and also its die-roll/chart/counter/card mechanics.

My competitors have a more successful 1st turn: a couple of them loot merchant ships, although their booty is minimal. Low is focusing on the Caribbean, Condent on the Atlantic coast, and England is roaming the Gold Coast.

(merchant ships - with differing values)

My second turn runs more smoothly. I corner the merchant ship, flip a counter and reveal a value-3 Brigantine. Another roll of the die (and consultation of a chart) tells me that this ship is carrying 2500 doubloons - a fantastic haul! My crew also discovers a Dutch governor's daughter on board, who we have the option of torturing for information, or ransoming for hostage. Her value as a hostage far outweighs what we'd get out of her through torture, so I keep her on board for now. Last, but not least, I decide to convert this merchant ship into my new pirate rig. My combat strength rises to 7 (from 4) but my speed is reduced to 1 (from 3). The crew rejoices because of our upgraded status and Loyalty increases +1.

Good thing too, because my opponents play a "Mutiny Conspiracy" card against me just as I'm moving my crew over to their new digs. I imagine (in a role-playing way) that this means my first-mate decides he's going to take this opportunity to try and take over as captain. I roll 2d6, and pray that it will be lower than my Crew Loyalty (8). I roll a 10. Uh oh. A mutiny is the last thing I need right now. I mean, does this look like a good time...

I think not. This is when Cunning comes into play. I use one of Teach's expendable Cunning points to re-roll the 2d6. This is Blackbeard's way of trying to ameliorate the significant luck factor. This time I roll a 5 and I'm safe. Blackbeard has put down the mutiny and we now have a more fearsome ship.

Turn 3 arrives and my opponents are primarily dealing with "Debauchery and Revelry". Every time they loot a ship, their crew demands it. I can also play this card against my opponents when they enter a port, effectively causing them to lose a turn. The upside of D&R is that your Crew Loyalty increases. So if you're worried about being hit by a mutiny, sail into a Pirate Port (like Tortuga) and let your crew run wild for a turn.

I decide to sail for the nearest Dutch port to try and ransom my valuable hostage. But then tragedy strikes: my opponents play a "Scurvy" card on me. Getting hit by scurvy has a number of implications: 1) every hostage you have on board immediately dies (there goes my governor's daughter), 2) one crew member is killed, 3) crew loyalty goes down by 1 for every turn that you carry scurvy. To get rid of it, you need to sail into the nearest friendly port. I sail to Bombay, get rid of my scurvy, and convert the 2500 doubloons of loot I have into Net Worth at a 1:1 ratio (due to the presence of a pro-pirate governor). But right now I really need to get some more crew members, as I've lost 1 to combat and 1 to scurvy. The best way to do this is to sail for a Pirate Port, and there's one in Madagascar (Isle Ste. Marie) to the south.

While I'm in port, a "Storm at Sea" hits the African coast and almost sinks Edward England. I play "Wear & Tear" on him as an anti-pirate card to make things even worse. Low, however, has been raping Spanish merchant ships and torturing hostages for significant Notoriety points. On my next turn, I draw a couple more cards and decide to refit my ship with some "Heavy Guns" while I'm in port. These add 2 more to my combat strength, so now I'm ready for anything.

Low uses his turn to successfully attack the Spanish port of San Juan (Boricua!) for a few gold coins and more valuable notoriety. He's nearly ready to retire, and if he did he would cash in a hefty 32 victory points for my opponents: 1/3 of what they need to win. And all I've done is loot one Dutch ship full of spices, suppress a mutiny, and almost die from scurvy.

I finally get a free turn (no anti-pirate actions to speak of) and make it to Madagascar. I hire some new crew and to celebrate, declare a session of Debauchery and Revelry. My crew loyalty increases by 3 and the recent attempt at mutiny is a distant memory. My plan at this point is to sail for the Caribbean where the merchant ships are aplenty, and use my heavy guns to begin sacking valuable ports, like Havana and Port O'Spain. Even if my opponents send a King's Commissioner after me (a bounty hunter for pirates), my chances of defeating it in combat are decent. Confidence is high.

Low takes his turn and draws a random event card. It's a "Disease Outbreak". As you can see, it strikes a random port on the board, and there are dozens of options. I roll the dice and - you guessed it - it comes up Madagascar. Blackbeard and his entire crew die, probably while recovering from the nastiest hangover ever. The game is, brutally, over.

To be sure, this represented a short session - but still one that was enormously fun to play. Blackbeard is both a game and a historical simulation. The designer (Richard Berg) has attempted to make it as realistic as possible and a true piratical role-playing experience. I have to admit, it feels like it, and I've found myself reading up on various pirates and their ships because of this game. I'm not sure if I would ever play it with other people, because for one, it would take forever to explain. Secondly, much of the strategy of the game comes down to how best to fuck with your opponents: playing Scurvy when they're far from port, or calling up a Warship just when they've been hit by a Storm at Sea. This kind of backstabbing gameplay will only appeal to certain hardcore gamers - but probably the type that would be attracted to a game on pirates.

Blackbeard is truly a unique boardgame experience, and for that I can heartily recommend it to those of you who are obsessed with pirates (and who isn't?) and are willing to put a little effort into mastering the intricacies of play.

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