Yaarrrr! I hope you’ve hoisted your sails and prepped your pirate speak (setting your Facebook language to pirate might be a good first step), because LIbertalia is a thoroughly entertaining experience that will make you feel like one of Captain Blackbeard’s finest. Libertalia, designed by Paolo Mori and brought to us by Asmodee in 2012, is a pirate-centric card game that puts you in command of your own scurvy crew, the goal being to play your best pirates and to outwit your opponents to get the lion’s share of that precious booty. Will you play your higher ranking pirates to get that sweet, sweet treasure chest, or will you compete for the sword that will kill off one of your enemies? There are plenty of fun decisions to make in Libertalia, and only the most devious, most scurviest sea dogs will be the ones to take home the gold.
How do you play the game? Is it a fun experience? How much interaction is there between the players? Is there very much luck involved? Will it take forever to to learn and teach?
During “sunrise,” each player will play one of the cards from their hand, each one representing a character, ranging from beggar to captain, from the French Commander to the Spanish Governor (and his daughter), from parrot to monkey. Each card has its own ranking in the pirate hierarchy, and whoever plays the card with the highest ranking each turn will have the first choice in collecting the “booty,” which we’ll return to in a moment. It’s also important to note that each player has the same cards in their hand.
However, each card also comes with an action or two, each one unique to its card. Whether you play a dirty scalawag or the pretty waitress, each card will have some sort of effect. The effects are diverse and various, such as giving you more doubloons or bringing back a discarded character, and they will play a heavy hand in your strategy. In addition, each action corresponds to a time of day. As a result, the actions will play out throughout the round, as opposed to right when they’re played.
“Daytime” is when most of the actions occur, and it plays out right after the cards have been dealt. Actions are resolved in order of the cards’ ranking, and then the game moves on to “dusk.” During dusk, the booty tokens are collected. As mentioned before, the selection process goes from highest to lowest, so whoever played the highest ranking card will get first choice. After the booty has been divided, the game moves onto “night” and the played characters move to the “pirate den,” where they will sit until the end of the phase. Any actions that correspond to night will occur at this point, simultaneously across all players.
Finally, after six “days,” or turns of looting, there will be a “day of rest,” which also has its own actions. If there are any cards in the dens at this point that have day of rest actions, they will be played. This is where things get interesting, because certain cards and booty tokens have the capability of killing off cards while, or before they make it into the den. As a result, you have to be wise in making sure which pirates get axed, and which ones don’t. After everything is resolved, booty tokens are added up (the ones that give doubloons), as are points, and the round resets. More cards are drawn (still the same across for all players), and the fun begins anew.
This process repeats itself twice more, until three “weeks” have passed and the game ends. The scurvy crew that amassed the most precious doubloons at the end wins the game.
Boy, was I wrong.
Libertalia starts off as something incredibly simple, but it quickly unravels into something far more interesting. You start to realize that it might just be a good idea to kill your own pirate before he gets to your own den, or that scary cursed booty tile nobody wants to touch? Maybe you’ll just play your monkey (that’s right, there’s a monkey) and send it over to your neighbor next turn. Should you play your highest ranking card to get the best booty tile, or is it extremely likely that your opponent will do the same thing? There’s a lot of fun tension in Libertalia, and it’s made all the better due to the fact that you know which cards your opponent is capable of playing. What starts off as something simple ends up being a devious game of two pirates trying to outwit each other for the greatest gain. With all of the plotting, competing for the best treasure, and tactically deciding who to kill and who to keep, the game ends up being a strategic affair that, in the end, will have you talking and laughing like a pirate in no time.
The theme also adds a lot to the fun factor here. I love Libertalia because it doesn’t demand itself to be taken seriously. It doesn’t present itself as something deep and serious, and the games are so short that it’s hard to ever find a reason to get frustrated. On the contrary, the thematic ridiculousness of some of the plays is likely to give both players a good laugh (which, again, will be all the better if done like a pirate). If the available booty is valuable, and you play your mighty Captain, anticipating your neighbor to play a high card, it’s a shock when your opponent plays the lowly beggar, not only outwitting you but stealing coins from you in the process (an action specific to the beggar), you’ll realize that you’ve been had, and that a beggar with a pom-pom on his head somehow just cajoled your captain into giving him his treasure. You may have gotten away with the better booty, but the beggar play ultimately robs you of coins AND ensures that you no longer have a high-ranking Captain to play later when it might be important. It doesn’t matter though, because it’s fun, it’s silly, and it doesn’t feel unpleasant when things don’t work out for you. There’s a lot more examples of the absurdity that can occur, but they will quickly reveal themselves if you give the game a try.
How much strategy is involved? Is there a sense of variety and balance? Does the game play well no matter how many players there are? How long does it take to play?
The cards being played in the image above are competing for the four booty tokens in the first section of the board. The treasure chest is the most valuable – five doubloons. The barrels are each worth one doubloon, and the Spanish Officer doesn’t give you anything, in fact, he kills your character before they can make it to the den! A dead character won’t be able to use their “night” (not pictured) and “end of day” (the green anchor) actions. The white player, aiming for the chest, played one of the highest cards in his hand, Governer’s Daughter, just barely beating out the Gambler. Sorry sucker, but it looks like the house won this time. But wait! Green played a parrot, which allows him to play another character after they’ve all been revealed. Green decides he really wants that treasure chest, and bam, decides to play the Spanish Governer, who supercedes his pesky gold-diggin’ daughter (he also happens to be the highest card in the game), taking that precious booty for himself. Now that the order has been arranged, the “daytime” actions are played (the sun icons), and then players collect their booty in order (this being the “dusk” phase), from highest rank to lowest. The Governer takes the chest, while the daughter and gambler make off with barrels, leaving the Voodoo Witch to get diced by the Officer. Fortunately for him, he doesn’t have any nighttime or end-of-day actions, so it doesn’t matter a whole lot if he dies. However, the Gambler and Daughter would have something to worry about since they both cash out at the end of the round. If they get killed, their end-of-day bonuses are null.But, what about when bad booty is a good thing? Certain cards incentivize taking “bad” booty for a myriad of reasons. Take the Quartermaster, for example. This bloke gives you some booty on your turn, but at the end of the day, demands payment for his services. It’s profitable, then, to do what any good pirate would do, and send him to ol’ Davy Jones’ locker before the payment date. Losing eight doubloons at the end of the round hurts. Therefore, you may want to tactically aim for the Spanish Officer booty token, which will allow you to collect the booty during daytime, and you’ll tactically kill off your Quartermaster before he ends up costing you money. Likewise, killing off other players’ characters might ultimately benefit you more than the treasure would. Perhaps instead of aiming for the treasure chest or gems, you pick up the sword token, which allows you to kill any character in another player’s den. That way, if somebody has their Gambler sitting there, waiting to cash out at the end of the round, you can take him out of the game and watch your opponent experience the sorrow of a robbed pirate.
There are countless things I could say about the strategy. See those voodoo mask tokens? Those each cost you three doubloons at the end of the round. But wait! You’ve got a preacher. So, how about letting the other players fight for the good stuff, and deliberately choosing those bad tokens, so you can get rid of them all at the end and just save yourself a headache? Or maybe you can play a monkey and transfer the bad luck to another player. There are tons of possibilities, and each round will demand its own tactics.
Strategy-wise, though, I’ve said nothing about the fact that everybody has the same hand. This makes it extra fun, because in addition for scheming for the best token, you know that everybody else has the potential of playing the same thing. It turns into a brilliant game of reading your opponents, and calculating which cards are more likely to be played. Also, you have nine cards in your hand at the beginning of each round, but only six of them end up being played. When the next round occurs, six more cards are drawn (the same ones for everybody), but people’s leftover cards may be different at this point. So, if everyone but Red uses their Governer card the first time, then they’ll know that, at any point in the next round, Red can bust out his Governer at any time to guarantee himself the best booty for one turn. Since the Governer is the highest card, everyone will have to take this into account. It’s a blast trying to determine who will play what, and it functions as a built-in design mechanic to prevent predictability and repetitiveness. If the obvious play is to play a certain character, well, the play isn’t going to work so well anymore if everybody does it. This requires constant re-evaluation of your tactics, and forces you to think outside the box.Overall, Libertalia is one of the best examples I’ve seen of a game that is so fundamentally simple and easy to play, but that really digs deep with its depth of strategy. It’s a game of outwitting your opponents, calling their bluffs, and playing your own impeccable strategy all the while. It can be cutthroat, and what could be more fitting for a pirate game than that?
There are a couple very, very minor exceptions. One example would be the Spanish Spy card. This allows you to discard any Officer tokens, and to draw new booty tokens in their stead. The tokens are randomly drawn from a bag, so you may end up cashing out, but you’re just as likely to draw cursed tokens that will make you lose points. Even this, however, is a built in caveat of the card itself, and by playing it, you’re acknowledging the fact that it could either help or hurt you. The odds of somebody drawing tokens that puts them at a significant advantage (for example, multiple treasure chests) are extremely low.One small criticism I’ve heard from others about the game is the tiebreaker mechanic. Indeed, everybody has the same cards, and thus it’s likely in many situations for people to play the same card. The game deals with this by giving each character a secondary ranking on the bottom of their card, measured from 1 – 6. This determines their ranking in the event of a tie, given that their “main” ranking will be tied. The character with a higher tiebreaker rank will take precedence when determining the order. A critic of the game might say that it’s unfair when they play their level 2 Spanish Officer, only to be ousted by another player’s level 5. This is an invalid complaint in my opinion, given that it should be accounted for when you’re deciding which card to play. If you see a hand where it’s likely that other players will play the same card, then it’s up to you to determine if your card is valuable enough to play. A low ranked card is likely to lose, whereas a higher one is safer. If you’re expecting a tie, then the odds are right in front of you, so it’s hard for me to call this a broken mechanic.
Fear not though, the game is still a blast with multiple players. It’s certainly more of a challenge, because it’s much harder to get the exact booty tokens you want. It’s not hard to play the highest pirate in two players, but in a five player game where you might need a token that’s less desirable, it’s an interesting challenge finding the pirate that won’t be a waste to play (i.e. a high value pirate that you want to save for a more important moment) but that will also put you in a good enough spot to get the token you want.The game is also more challenging due to the fact that there’s four of every pirate. There’s some nasty cards in there, such as the brute, which kills the highest pirate on board before they collect booty. When there’s four brutes in a game, it’s much harder to deal with than just two, because until they’ve all been played, you always have to keep on your toes. There are many examples of similar cards, and it makes playing with more players a much more nail-biting experience.
Analysis paralysis can take a toll in games with a higher player count. The game doesn’t play in turn order, but everybody does have to have their card played for the round to proceed. If you have a player that’s prone to excessive analysis, this game won’t be immune from them. The higher the player count, the greater the potential for this to happen.
Overall, the game works well at all player counts. It is a fun game at every level, and increases in scale as much as one would expect with each count, and it has the added benefit of working well as a two player game.
Look and Feel
Is the game aesthetically pleasing? Are the components made out of quality material, or do they feel cheap? Is the rulebook well-designed and easy to read? How well is theme integrated into the game?
Aside from the artwork, everything is just aesthetically pleasing. The text on the cards is well placed with appealing typefaces, the score board is cut like a rugged piece of parchment, even the game’s logo is fun to look at instead of being overly busy or clumsy. It’s just a gorgeous game, and it absolutely does justice to its pirate theme.
Some of these connections are immediately visible simply from the identity of the character. The Gambler, for example has you pay money outright, with the possibility of gaining a lot more later. That’s pretty self explanatory. Other cards form thematic links with their flavor text, which is well written and entertaining across the board. The Waitress’s night action has you discard a treasure map to gain 3 doubloons. What does that have to do with a waitress? “I dunno how t’ read,” she says, “it’s jes t’ look nice in me lil’ room.” The implication is that you’re selling the map to her, which is appropriate, given that you need three treasure maps for them to be worth anything. If you just have one useless incomplete treasure map, why not just pawn it to the waitress who doesn’t know any better?
The game is clearly inspired by traditional pirate tropes, but generally avoids being cliché and generic. While being so wouldn’t be the biggest crime in a light pirate board game, it’s nice that the pirates here feel like their own brand instead of just being the product of worn out clichés. All the same, the game has clever nods to pirates in pop culture, notably Pirates of the Caribbean. Who, in this day and age can talk about pirates and not think about at least one thing from those films? For starters, the “Captain” here looks suspiciously like a certain skeleton pirate captain we all know, and he even happens to fear the “gold of the Incas.” Huh. Are you sure you aren’t thinking of Aztec gold, Cap’n? Furthermore, the monkey’s ability to ferry cursed treasure to other players is reminiscent of the scene in the first Pirates where Barbossa’s monkey retrieves the cursed medallion from a sinking ship. And speaking of that medallion, it looks oddly similar to the one on Libertalia’s score board! There are clearly inspirations here from these movies, but they mostly end there, and to me they feel more like homages rather than ripoffs.
Overall, the theme here is implemented to max potential, and I legitimately found the game to be more enjoyable as a result. I can think of other themes that could likely be pasted over it, but in the end of the day none of them would be quite as effective, and the game truly feels designed around the idea that it was going to be a pirate game.
However, while the game offers a plethora of tactical decisions to make every game, the game doesn’t feel deep. In other words, it doesn’t take long to fully “experience” Libertalia. Some games are replayable because of the multitude of strategies they provide and it takes a while before you feel like you’ve truly experienced everything that the game has to offer; Libertalia isn’t one of those games. It is much more tactical than it is strategic, meaning that you’re generally making decisions based on what is placed in front of you in the moment, rather than analyzing the game as a whole and developing long term strategies that can be expanded upon in future games. A strategy that is used in one game of Libertalia probably won’t apply in the next game, given that each game is very different. The game will always be a tactically rich experience, but you won’t have to dig deep to really “get” it.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Like I said, the game will challenge you tactically every game due to its clever design, and it will always demand its own form of strategy. If you’re the type of person that doesn’t mind playing something over and over because it’s just fundamentally good, this game will deliver. However, if you’re the type that really likes to “discover” your games and figure them out from head to toe, you might feel the urge to move on to something new and more challenging after you’ve played this one enough.
The game can be found for $30-35 online. At this price, the game is absolutely worth buying. There’s a lot worse you can do with $30, and this game is well worth it at that price, plain and simple. If you’re on the fence about this one, it is a great deal online and you won’t regret your purchase.
That being said, not every game needs an expansion, and Libertalia, fortunately, is well designed to the point where it all works well on its own. Expansions, in fact, could disrupt the basic gameplay premise, given that the game is completely designed around the 30 cards it shipped with. Adding ranks above 30 would conflict with the natural design, meaning the only reasonable cards that could be added would be “alternate” cards for existing ranks. The game could certainly have more booty tokens, and that would be an easy implement, but the game also works really well with the current amount. There’s a perfect distribution of good and bad booty tokens, and adding more to the pool might dilute the game instead of enhance it.
Sometimes, less is more, and Libertalia does fantastic with what it has. Could it benefit from expansions? Sure, but the designers were kind enough to give us a game that doesn’t need extra content to be good.
Libertalia is a veritable diamond in the rough, a wonderful piece of board game booty that is enjoyable to play and beautiful to look at. The gameplay is simple to learn but rich with tactical possibility, with antics that capture the essence of being a scurvy, conniving scalawag. The game is easy to learn, easy to teach, and packaged with quality components that won’t wear out easily. It encourages interaction with your fellow pirate players, and is a delightful two player experience.
The game, despite being ripe with tactical potential and strategic decisions, isn’t incredibly deep and you’ll discover most of what it has to offer relatively quickly, but what it does offer has sticking power and promotes high replayability. If you’re itching for a quick, fun card game that will satisfy your inner pirate, find yourself a treasure map to your nearest game store (or website) and add this buried treasure to your collection.
Check it out
YOU WILL LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- You like games that can be played in 45 minutes or less
- You like talking like a pirate
- You like games with minimal luck
- You like an even playing field
- You like having to read your opponents
- You want an enjoyable 2 player experience
- You like games that have strong aesthetics
- You want a game under $50
YOU WON’T LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- Your players are prone to analysis paralysis
- If you don’t like mindreading games
- You like some randomness in your games
- You prefer strategy to tactics
- You want a game with expansionary content
- You don’t like attacking or affecting other players
About the Author
Zach is an avid tabletop gamer, and he created Board Game Resource out of his love for the hobby, and his desire to see more people come into it. When he's not writing for or managing BGR, Zach might be hanging out with cats, hiking a mountain, spending time with his lovely wife, or writing about video game stuff for Insert Gamer. Zach has also enjoys creating digital character art. You can check out his (long neglected) gallery here, or follow him on Instagram at @artworkbyzach!