Sailing the skies with a motley crew in search of treasure, Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest from Stonemaier Games is a fun and exciting ride!
- Strategic * Hand Management * Take That * Push You Luck * Solo Mode * Simultaneous Action * Variable Action Selection*
Greensash, Captain of the Shining Eclipse!
T’is okay, me hearties. You can just call me “Captain Greensash”!
To clarify: there is no Greensash in the game. But if you head to Stonemaier Games you can generate your own Libertalia Sky Captain character! Which of course I did. Because, well, why wouldn’t I?!
And the fact that you can go and get your own pirate-y persona before you even open the box is the first hint that Stonemaier have once again hit a high note in terms of quality and immersive play. It’s not a big thing for them to have done. It’s not even a difficult thing for them to have done. But this little detail does show how “into” their own game they are, and how much they want you to be right there with them. And I tell you now, friends. I’ve been wearing my eye patch, parrot, and epaulets ever since my first game of Libertalia!
So what is Libertalia?
Just to be clear from the get-go, I have never played the original 2012 Libertalia. I am conscious that there are a lot of fans out there, and I know that Jamey and the Stonemaier crew have made some changes. But the designer, Paulo Mori, has been on board with the revamp, so I am guessing the game’s heart has been in safe hands. So when I refer to Libertalia, it is going to be the 2022 version.
Scene setting wise, Libertalia is a game about being competing sky pirates. You play admirals in charge of sailing ships full of brave buccaneers who ride the winds to far away islands. Your goal is to grab the shiniest of treasures and most notable reputation to boot. You head off on three voyages, each one longer than the last. And on each day of those expeditions, you send out a loyal crew member to bag you the best loot.
Mechanics wise, it’s a simultaneous action, hand management, variable turn order strategy game for 1-6 players.
But in fact, Libertalia is more than all of those thematic and technical things. The strangest thing is though that it plays like it isn’t. And for me, that unexpected quirk is a very good thing indeed.
I appreciate that is rather a strange statement, but trust me for I will explain! First though, it will probably help to do a very speedy overview of the game play.
Sky High Set up!
As mentioned above, Libertalia is played over three rounds (“voyages”), and you get to decide whether the game is played on the Calm or the Stormy side of the board (there is even Unchartered for those who like a random mix!).
The first voyage is 4 days long, then 5, and finally 6. Randomly picked loot tokens are placed on each day of every voyage (1 x player count), the loot tiles are placed on the corresponding slots (Calm/Stormy side up) and everyone gets a treasure chest score dial, graveyard tile, reputation token, and some starting Doubloons (the amount of which depending on your randomly assigned space on the reputation track).
For each voyage, everyone has the same 6 character cards from which to select their daily loot scouting and snatching crew member. To decide which of the 40 characters are in play each voyage, one player randomly chooses 6 from their shuffled deck, and the other players find the identical ones in their own numbered decks.
These swarthy sailors represent your hand for that particular voyage, and everyone simultaneously reveals the one they want to play that day. These cards are then are popped onto the Island section at the top of the main board in numeric order (lowest to highest) with any matching character ties broken by reputation ranking (highest rep = card is placed on the right of the other).
Once the crew are assembled (no Thor in sight!), it’s time to activate their special abilities. Daytime powers go first from left to right (i.e. lowest ranking crew member to highest). Then it’s back the other way for dusk. Some characters may have specific dusk abilities, but otherwise this is the time when you each get to pick a loot token from those available that day.
Once done, that character will go back to your ship (i.e. kept to one side ready for scoring at the end of that voyage (unless a power – yours or someone else’s – has banished them to your graveyard that is!), and then any night abilities are triggered (again working left to right). After the last day of each voyage, any anchor abilities shown on characters in your ship will be triggered, the loot token powers will be activated, and all the Doubloons earned that voyage will be added to your score dial.
Once done, the crew in your ship are banished to your graveyard, but any unused crew for that voyage stay in your hand ready to be mingled in with the next 6 recruits. Loot tokens are returned to the bag (unless the corresponding tile allows you to keep them for the next voyage), and your Doubloons are exchanged for the amount shown next to your space on the reputation track. The nominated player shuffles the remainder of their deck, 6 more crew are added to everyone’s hand, and the relevant 1 – 5 day slots on the main board are refilled with randomly picked loot tokens.
At the end of the 6th day of the 3rd voyage, players will reveal their final scores, and the richest Admiral will be crowned the Swarthiest Sky Pirate of them all!
So, pretty straightforward on the set up front. Note: There is a slight step-change for 2 players with the addition of the Midshipman. This swarthy sky dog meddles with Island priority order and gives your opponent the chance to bin off a treasure token if your crew member happen to be on his immediate left in rank order. It takes zero effort to operate, and I think works really well to flip change what could otherwise become quite predictable play against two familiar players.
But, whatever player count is around the table, the depth of strategy that the interplay between the various character cards in Libertalia offers should make this a long game. As the number of players goes up, the play time should also drag out. The two combined should add weight like full barrels in a ship’s stores. It should make you want to furrow your brow and deliberate your hand for an age. Knowing that choices made now will create ripple effects across the rest of your game should be enough to keep you there. Knowing that your opponents have many (if not all) of the same cards as you, and therefore could be having exactly the same idea as you, should make you ponder just a little longer (and to be fair your first few games will most likely be like that!).
But also knowing that any moment everyone is going to simultaneously reveal their character for that day. Knowing the frantic effect that the daily “ta-da” stage is going to have on the Island actions, turn order, and reputation, and therefore whether your strategy worked or not, dials it down again.
Libertalia thus becomes a strategic-push your luck-calculating-frantic-should-woulda-coulda cocktail, and I’m drinking it down faster than my rum ration!
Sail. Loot. Repeat!
I think the re-setting element at the end of each voyage comes in here. But, like a lot of things about Libertalia, it hits in two competing ways. Conscious that not all crew members are going to make it to the next voyage kicks up the cruciality of my decision making every turn. Am I going to want to keep the Explorer in my hand for a voyage when I am likely to be lighter on maps? If I play the Smuggler now, I could gain that precious Treasure token during the daytime phase, but what if my opponents also play theirs? They have more reputation than me so my ability will be wasted! Should I focus on more of a take-that tactic and try to take out another player’s Brawler? Decisions Decisions!
But on the flip side, knowing that at the end of the voyage, I get a new crew of 6 characters who may interact better with those still in my hand, cools my jets. Likewise, seeing a lots of treasure tokens appear on each new day gives me hope that I can maybe catch up over the next, longer voyage…..so long as I keep my eyes shut when everybody else is turning their scoring dials up and up and up, that is! Haha
Granted, not everybody will like to see their efforts reset to baseline after a hard fought voyage. Yes, you’ll have some unused crew kicking about. But mainly it’s back to the drawing board in terms of how to get out ahead on the next series of days. I like it, though. I am not great at managing a sprawling strategy that unfolds over hours of play. As such, the punchy, crunchy gameplay suits me well. I get to feel like I am playing a longer, heavier game, but the mechanics are working together to make it feel lighter.
Sneaky Sabering and Profitable Plundering!
A lot of things help in this game; good memory, steady nerve, flexible tactics. But you don’t need to be the best at all or even a specific one of them to win. Partly because the degree to which the characters interact with your own and your opponents’ is sky high. Many crew members generate nice bonuses when played in conjunction with others, or when your ship is storing particular loot tokens. Others are downright meaner. Some, for example, discard other cards (even before those cards have been able to play their own powers!) which switches up the order for activating remaining powers on the island. And of course this then affects their effects as card orders change in response! I would say the key here (like that other storming fast playing Stonemaier hand management game, Red Rising), is familiarity with the characters – what they do, who they do it to, and when best to let them do it!
Same goes for the Loot Tokens. On the Calm side of the board, the bonuses are generous and friendly. When you hit Stormy waters, however, they take on more of a sneaky tone, and you’ll need to keep a serious eye on what other players are collecting. On that basis, the importance of the synergies between your characters and the tokens ramp up yet another notch.
A Motley Crew!
I couldn’t do a review of a Stonemaier game without mentioning the components or the theme. Although it seems almost unnecessary to analyse the quality of the board, treasure chest scoring dials, cards, tokens, and overall attention to detail put into Libertalia. Jamey and his team always give 100% to the look and feel of their games, and this one is no different. Granted the coins could have been a little easier to read, but they’re fine, and I’m pretty sure any coins you choose will work well. In fact, I have a metal set that are super Doubloon-y so I’m going to start using those for added pirateyness!
The loot tokens are lovely chunky little acrylic cubes, and I won’t pretend I don’t keep my hand in the bag longer than necessary just because I like the feel of them! The board and tiles are also thick, and the character cards are a nice, glossy affair. The artwork on the cards themselves might be an acquired taste. They are a curious mix of anthropomorphic animals and some appear more human than beastie. But I like them, and their appearance and their abilities are linked (e.g. the Brute discards a card and doesn’t care whether it’s your own or someone else’s), which really helps to build fast familiarity with the characters.
Automa Factory Flying High!
The Automa Factory AI is straightforward to operate and imitates a 3 player game well. It has its own 40 card deck, and at the start of each voyage you randomly draw 6 character cards from it, picking out the same 6 from your hand. One further card is picked from the AI deck and spun round 180 degrees so that the Pilferer with its designated numeric value is readable. This is a character who has no powers per se. Rather, its sole task is to take a token at dusk and mess with player rank order on the Island.
The character card the AI chooses for each day is selected according to the order printed on the next face down card on the AI deck. It is based on which loot tokens are shown on the relevant day on the board.
Once the 3 cards are on the Island in rank order, play continues as per the multiplayer mode. On the way through dusk, the Pilferer and AI pick Loot tokens according to the priority order card, but the Pilferer’s is always returned to the bag.
Morten Monrad Pederson has designed a solo AI which is very smooth and easy to operate, but is a beastie to beat! It really does feel like I am playing against an opponent making conscious choices in response to the card I have just played as it is uncanny the number of times it smashes a hole in my strategy!
Ay Ay Captain!
And that is Libertalia at its core. You strategise. You recover. You go again. It is easy to learn and simple to play but there is definitely a big think going on every day of every voyage. Sometimes a plan will play out over the three rounds, with crew being saved for the final flourish. A lot of the time, however, keeping things fast and flexible works well. I really like the fact that you won’t get what you want each day simply by playing the highest ranking Character in your hand or picking the Treasure Chest Tokens. In effect you start keeping some of your powder dry!
To me, the daily reveal has an element of the gamble about it. A streak of push your luck and take that which I really like. And as player count goes up, this gets even more frantic and flip-reverses fortunes all around the table. A crew member that would have been perfect suddenly becomes useless, and my teeth gnash and synapses flash trying to work out damage control. Or the choice of Loot tokens becomes suddenly more critical because of what another player is now going to be able to do on the Island. Because of that, (unless you’re the House) nobody wins every time, and the excitement and fun of Libertalia flow through each day of each voyage like water off a, well, ship’s deck!
[Please note that a copy of this game was kindly provided by the publishers for review. I am not paid for my comments, however, and all opinions are my own]. I am also not affiliated to or sponsored by any retail store.