Ahoy there! With bigger sails than Black Friday and more booty than Kim Kardashian, Libertalia is a swashbuckling race to be the heartiest pirate of them all. So let’s up-anchor and take a look. Arrrrr…
Brief Overview of Libertalia
Libertalia is primarily a card management game, in which players aim to collect as much loot as they possibly can. With a crew of colorful yet morally dubious characters to choose from, your job is to carefully select the right one for each looting mission to out-plunder your opponents.
Each crew member has their own rank and special abilities and so do your opponents, which can make character selection a real challenge. At the end of the game, the crew that has collected the most loot wins.
It’s a game of double-bluffs, ruthlessness, and, of course, some good ol’ blood-thirsty pillage and murder!
So, you’ve followed the treasure map and found the spot marked by the X. On opening the chest, you uncover…
- 1 game board
- 6 pirate dens
- 6 score tokens
- 6 crew marker cards
- 180 character cards
- 1 score track
- 50 booty tokens (4 chests, 6 jewels, 10 goods, 6 Spanish officers, 6 sabers, 8 treasure maps, 10 cursed relics)
- 13 doubloons of value 10
- 15 doubloons of value 5
- 45 doubloons of value 1
The artwork for Libertalia is just awesome. You can almost feel the hefty, rum-infused, gassy pirate belch on prising open the box. The ship and den boards are all beautifully designed, with dark, dank hulls emerging through the ocean spray. While, when you add on the bright and shiny loot tokens, it really starts to pop.
All 30 character cards, too, felt like a lot of care had been taken on them to evoke the gritty pirate theme, really bringing out the personality of each one.
The components are all more than adequately well-made to match.
Sadly, though, the game is let down by the rulebook, which I found really difficult to follow. I often had to re-read each paragraph several times to get my head around it, which is strange as it’s a very simple game to play. Most of the time, the issue was just a syntax tweak or that it referred to certain components in a confusing way.
For example, they could quite easily have given a thematic name to where the loot is kept. Instead, these areas are referred to in the rulebook as the “various spaces under the ship which will be looted by the players.” Maybe ‘The Hold’ would work better?
Similarly, surely there’s a better way to refer to the card-play area than the comically-bad “spaces on the ship which are set aside for that purpose.” The confusion was accentuated by some relatively unhelpful diagrams.
How to Play Libertalia
Each player takes charge of a pirate ship crew. Over the course of three campaigns, the goal is to be the player at the end who’s acquired the most amount of shiny, shiny riches.
Players start with 30 character cards in their deck. To begin, they all take the same nine characters, chosen at random, in their hand. The rest will be used in subsequent campaigns. You also each get a cardboard den, which is where you keep the cards that have been played so far in that campaign.
Next, put one random booty token per person, per day in each space next to the ship (what I am calling The Hold). These are your potential daily rewards!
The Character Cards
Most of the game is centered around these cards. Each one represents a different member of the crew, detailing their respective rank (from Spanish Governor down to Parrot – this determines the order people choose booty), special ability and influence (used to decide a tie in rank).
Special abilities are written on the card, next to a symbol that shows the time it is able to be used (daytime, dusk, nighttime or at the end of the campaign). For example, The Brute’s daytime special ability is to kill the highest-ranked card on the ship. While the First Mate grants you one extra doubloon for each character in your den at the end of the campaign.
The game is split into three campaigns, each of which comprises six days of looting and culminating in one day of rest when the loot is counted. Each day of looting has four phases:
Phase One: Sunrise
Every player places one card from their hand face-down in front of them. When all players have done so, they’re revealed and placed in order of rank on the pirate ship.
Phase Two: Daytime
From lowest to highest rank, resolve all special actions of characters who have Daytime special actions.
Phase Three: Dusk
This is when players get to choose their loot. From highest to lowest rank, each player takes a booty token from that day’s booty. Of course, the higher-ranked characters are likely to choose the best booty. Any characters with a Dusk special action should also resolve these now – they often affect the booty distribution.
Phase Four: Night
Any characters in a player’s den – those that were played on previous days in the campaign – who have Night actions should resolve them now.
The Day of Rest
Once you’ve played through six days of looting, the pirates rest and count their riches. First off, any characters that have end-of-campaign special abilities should use them now. Then, loot is valued, in doubloons, as follows:
- Chests – 5 doubloons
- Jewels – 3 doubloons
- Goods – 1 doubloon
- Three treasure map tokens – 12 doubloons (one or two on their own are worthless)
- Cursed relic – lose 3 doubloons
- Sabers and Spanish officers – nothing
Players move their score token on the score track the value of their loot.
The Following Campaigns
The next two campaigns take much the same course of action, with any used cards being discarded out of the game. Each player will have three remaining cards in their hand. Six more characters are then chosen at random from one player’s deck to bring their hand up to nine, which all other players must also put into their hand.
Then the next campaign begins. Once all three campaigns have been played, the player that has the highest score on the score track wins!
Your First Game of Libertalia
When playing Libertalia, a lot of the strategy will come down to smart card play. Remember, everyone has been dealt the same cards as you. They know what you have. They also know that you know what they have. So pay close attention to what they’ve played and what they’re hanging on to. Think about what you wouldn’t want your opponents to play, and then maybe play that.
A useful tactic to employ is to use characters with Night actions early on in the week. When in the den, these characters get to use their abilities every day of the week, so you should look to make the most of them as soon as you can. The Barkeep character, for example, earns one doubloon each night he’s in your den!
For me, the main source of confusion – thanks to the clunky rulebook – was the saber and Spanish officer booty tokens. It wasn’t at all clear what benefit these provided, if any, as they don’t give any rewards at the end in terms of points. So, to clarify, these can be used in several ways, however, the main benefit of the saber token is that it can kill a player in your opponent’s den. You could, for example, take out your opponent’s aforementioned Barkeep to stop them earning that extra doubloon.
The Spanish officer, despite sounding cool, is a little limited, and in most cases is more of a pain than anything else. It basically kills the character you’re playing that day. Sometimes you might want to do this, but not often.
In both cases, there are times you can trade in those tokens for rewards.
Finally, for a little bit of fun, rather than randomly taking nine character cards from the deck to make up your group’s hand, I recommend making a bit more of a show of it. Reveal one card at a time and get the strategic juices flowing.
Pros & Cons
- Really easy game to learn
- Loads of card combinations
- Opportunity for some seriously devious gameplay
- Poorly written rulebook
Libertalia is super easy to learn. The fact this is a card and role-focused game, and all the information about the characters is written on the cards, means there will be little need for newbie clarification questions that ruin the flow or integrity of the game.
But, while it might be easy to learn, there’s some real strategy needed to win this. Your opponents have all been dealt the same crew that you have. No one’s winning this game simply due to the luck of the draw. You all know the weapons you have at your disposal, and your respective weaknesses. This means you can plot some seriously devious traps for your opponents. But be careful, because so can they.
The replayability of the game is great, too. You’re provided with 30 cards, however, you only use 18 of them in a game. That may not sound like a huge amount extra, but it’s more than enough to keep things fresh as the exact make-up of the nine cards in your hand each day drastically affects your strategy. They all work together in different ways.
And yes, they’re all ranked, but this doesn’t mean some cards are overwhelmingly more effective than others – all sorts of mayhem can happen. Lower ranked cards can be powerful in their own special ways, which is where the strategy of this game comes in. The Brute, in particular, mixes things up. While he may only be ranked 14, he instantly puts all players’ sure-fire winners at risk. But, as you all have the same cards, so are yours!
One drawback is that, despite this being a simple and relatively swift game, the rulebook would give you the total opposite impression. It’s convoluted and confusing, as explained above and could have used some much more helpful diagrams to get the game going quickly.
Libertalia is a fantastic card management and role-selection board game with a whopping 30 different potential sea-dawgs to play. Your goal is to become the wealthiest pirate of them all by plundering as much booty as you can over the course of three campaigns.
Skillful card selection and cunning strategy will be key here, as you look to out-wit competing crews to get more than your fair share of the loot. It’s great fun and boxed up nicely, with some beautifully designed components.
In my book, Libertalia is one of the top pirate games out there. Indeed, Game Cows co-founder Bryan placed it fourth out of 20 on his own list of best ever pirate board games! The theme is so wonderfully displayed, you’ll find it hard not to spend the rest of the day calling people ‘me hearty’ (although to be on the safe side, I’d avoid ‘wench’).
Libertalia isn’t just a thematic success, however. In terms of gameplay, it’s a fantastic card management and role selection challenge, too. It will take true cunning to win and, with everyone having the same characters to choose from, there’s never any arguments over who got dealt the best hand.
Finally, while there can be as many layers of strategy to this game as you like, Libertalia is not difficult to understand or teach (unless you choose to read the rulebook). So, be ye a pesky landlubber or a timber-shivering veteran, I strongly recommend getting all your hands on a deck. Bottles of rum optional.