Richard Berg's pirate game design has been hanging around for a long time. I seem to remember seeing it as a proposal some years ago, before it re-surfaced recently as Seahawks under Avalon Hill's wing. The development work has now apparently been completed, it has been given the usual lavish AH production job and the name has been changed to Blackbeard. In fact, what has emerged from this generally reliable source is a deeply flawed game which, I submit, should never have been published in this condition.
The game comes in a bookcase box which has some stirring, if rather stylised, George Parrish artwork. The mounted map is very reminiscent of the recent 5th Fleet 'satellite picture' effect and comes off very well. It is divided into three areas; a main map of the Caribbean and two smaller maps showing the Indian Ocean and the Gold Coast. These are hex gridded and connected by transit boxes for strategic movement. All the major ports of the time are clearly named and marked, as are locations for randomly appearing merchantmen and warships. Other components include a range of ship data cards, pirate character cards, the inevitable fast action/event cards and a large selection of ship, money and various other markers. The pirate cards depict historical characters, have a write-up of their often gruesome life stories and are rated variously for Ability, Cruelty, Leadership, Cunning, Duelling and Endurance. The cards are decorated with the appropriate skull & crossbones flag and a nice artist's impression of what the crusty old seadog looked like. Once chosen randomly, the pirate's only initial decision is whether to sail a sloop (better guns) or a schooner (useful for the shallows around the Laxative Islands and for working off the many coasts). Once the initial deployments are made, he also gets to choose which sea area he will start in. To win, a pirate must gain notoriety (from treasure, winning fights and being thoroughly nasty) or be the richest pirate at game end.
The first game problem encountered is with setting up and sorting the many counters into their various cups (for blind drawing) and onto locations on the map and data cards. Ziploc storage is essential for later games, otherwise this takes a good fifteen minutes. Either way, it involves using numbered chits to mark hold contents, notoriety, duelling factors and so on, which is a painful method of bookeeping as they are constantly changing. The game starts with half a dozen face down Merchantmen of varying size on the boards (more appear later through events and searching) and the same number of governors installed in random ports.
The next problem, and possibly the worst individual bodge in the game, is the turn sequence. Basically, it goes like this. Player one takes a turn. An action card is turned which then gives the next turn randomly to any one of the players, counting round from player one, but possibly giving the player who has just moved another turn. The player selected becomes (or remains) player one. The process is repeated. You will quickly spot that unlike a traditional chit draw where you know you'll get a turn eventually, using this method you might not get a turn for ages or, unless I'm mistaken, at all! OK, so the latter is pretty unlikely, but a possibility nevertheless.
In the games we played, admittedly with four players which is clearly the worst possible number, some players sat for up to forty minutes before getting a turn and it could easily have been longer. I concede that three or two players would have been correspondingly less problematical but this takes Blackbeard firmly away from the multi-player game it appears to be. The whole fiasco is justified by Berg saying that large sections of a pirate's life were uneventful - fine, but we don't want to simulate that to the detriment of the game. As you might imagine, snoring rapidly ensues, so where were the playtesters on this one? Were they a tad uncritical or did they just plain miss it? I have to believe this rule is not written as intended as it is so daft, but six different people have read it carefully and agreed with me exactly. To rectify it, I would suggest reverting to a normal chit draw. Once you eventually get a turn, you can only do one thing at a time. You can move (sometimes only one hex if you are in trouble or have a slow ship) and search for merchantmen or you can make an attack, you can ransom a hostage, you can sell booty, you can refit, you can scrape the barnacles off the ship (I kid you not) or one of several other minor actions. Waiting ten minutes to perform one basic, often unexciting action strikes me as ridiculous. Can I suggest that you should at least roll a d6 to determine number of actions you can have in an effort to speed things up?
The early game is very slow to get going and not just because of the movement and turn system. Basically, ships have little else to do but move around and try to find and attack merchantmen. As the pirate players are piloting small ships, they have little chance in a gun battle against the larger ships (if they turn up in the first place) or in attacking a port. This means running the risk of costly damage to your ship or alternatively, tackling only the smaller merchants (though see below for the gambler's option). The drawback is that these small ships, even in the rich hunting grounds of the Indian Ocean, mainly carry small stores of treasure. The early game thus often becomes a drawnout procession of filling both your holds with small or middling treasure hauls, returning with it to port to sell and refit, and heading out again. Bear in mind again that you can do just one action so this takes far longer to get going than even Merchant of Venus.
At the other end of the scale, if you riskily decide to take on the large ships and are fortunate enough to make a lucky roll, you can collect a large or massive haul that makes the other players instantly despair of winning. Or, just as good, you can roll a double and capture the prize intact. This might give one player a powerful, but slow, Square Rigger early on which enables that player to rule the roost by shooting up any merchantmen and, better, looting those lucrative ports. At one end of the spectrum we have plodding near-boredom, at the other end, that of pure luck, a player can get an unearned healthy leg up. There is a middle ground, but luck still plays a part with the randomly determined cargoes. To an extent, you are carried along by the game system and only make decisions likely to guide you in the general direction of a win - fortune does the rest.
A player can have up to two pirates activated (but can only move one per turn) and, when any of the pirates in play becomes suitably notorious, each player can request a King's Commissioner (KC) to try and hunt down his opponents. On receiving one of these characters, the player may also move or intercept with the KC as well as taking his pirate action - in this way you get a bit more activity in your turn. Unfortunately, until the KCs arrive, there is next to no interaction between the players. Unless they meet in the same port (very unlikely) and have a duel, you might as well be playing on your own. From here on in, the game runs along slowly with players gradually building up money (well 'net worth' actually, but are we corporate financiers or pirates?), moving up to bigger ships and gaining notoriety while being chased around by randomly generated warships and the other player's KCs. The trouble is, all these upright agents of law and order are woefully slow and the chances of catching one of the nippy pirates is fairly slim. Sad to say, one almost loses the desire to move the KCs at all.
After that, it all gets rather silly. In my view, the game goes under in a welter of minor rules covering such things as mutinies, debauchery and revelry, scurvy, blockades, barter, hostages (including ransom and torture thereof), earthquakes, plague, refitting ships, barnacle scraping, individual duels, port governors (both pro and anti pirate, of course), letters of marque, war & peace in Europe and, believe it or not, hooks and wooden legs. Without doubt, this is sumptuous chrome worthy of Berg and all very atmospheric but this little lot has a major stifling effect on the game through having to remember what happens when and why and whether you really care. Many of these details make very little material difference to the outcome of the game and frequently contribute damn all to the excitement. The weird thing is that everything is there, but it doesn't gel. It has all the elements of the age of piracy, but provides none of the drama and excitement that Mr Berg alludes to in his designer's notes and bibliography.
A lot of this minutiae derives from the usual Berg random events which crop up during the game from the cards. You know such topics all have a place in the pirate novels and histories, but in the game the effort involved to monitor everything varies from easy (placing a new governor or a random merchantman) to downright excessive (hostages can be ransomed at their home port (randomly determined) or tortured to provide port information for future raiding; all pirate ships have to note any nationality of ship they attack so that they become fugitives of that country which then can link-in to the letters of marque rules etc, etc). I am not suggesting that all this should be left out, simply that some savage rationalisation should have taken place in development to make a game of it because it certainly fails as an interesting simulation. Ironically, one of the easier and most flavour enhancing pieces of chrome to my mind - the identification of captured cargo - has been shunted into the optional rules!
Some of the design features feel rather like those in Republic of Rome (the unwieldy crew unrest table in particular) and in theory, Blackbeard should offer the same play depth and richness, but it somehow fails. It just doesn't hang together in the same way as Republic, despite the similar scale and complexity. For instance, the crew table carries sixteen different modifiers alone and Notoriety earnings, the central statistic in the game, are based on five or more different factors that are tough to remember. This is really my main complaint with the mechanisms - there are no simple ones (even combat varies depending on type of target), any one action will impact on two or three other areas and everything seems to require a non-intuitive modifier or use of a chart. It doesn't flow, it isn't logical, this is not a clean design. For instance, if you do something as simple as selling your booty, you have to check what discount or premium on prices you get depending on what type of port you're in, you have to amend your crew unrest level on two counts or more and adjust your net worth, all the time mucking around with those fiddly marker counters. This isn't good enough and it isn't fun. I know I have been recently influenced by clean German designs, but Blackbeard isn't even on a atmospheric or systematic par with Hartland's Spanish Main.
So, what we end up with is a difficult, often boring and almost totally unrewarding game. My main worry is how such a game can emerge after so long a gestation period in such poor shape; exactly how can it get past Don Greenwood and the dozen or so presumably experienced playtesters without any of these flaws being picked up? Sure, they will undoubtedly disagree with me on some points (or all!), but the turn sequence alone is a dead giveaway and the game is very, very flat. Even if the playtesters suffered through the first few games to get familiar with the system and then found some reward in later games, that is simply not good enough - blind playtesters could not have been employed in their proper role. Time is short and in an age where you play a game twice if you are lucky, surely you have to offer games that deliver near instant gratification and that work straight out of the box. There are, after all, plenty of others waiting in the wings. Believe me, I really wanted to see this one through, but four games in (thirty man-hours or more including a final solo playthrough because everyone else had given up), I had completely lost inspiration. It will now stay on the shelf until I or someone else can find a use for the attractive bits.
Still moaning, and I hate to use this observation when writing specifically about a boardgame, but this is exactly the sort of design that feels like it would only work on a computer. Those of you who suffered through S&Ts dire Rush for Glory will know exactly what I mean. Blackbeard's playspeed would be improved, the weight of chrome could be carried off, the hard work of modifier counting and record keeping would be done for you in microseconds and the whole affair could be jazzed up a bit graphically to offer some excitement from combats, which is totally lacking at present. It would also work well as a solitaire PC game. If that development were to happen, it could be passable and perhaps a long-term rival to the well-established Pirates from Microprose. As a boardgame, it is going nowhere.
As for good points to add balance to this tirade, I come down to very few candidates. The components are excellent, but that hardly makes for a good game. The rulebook is clear and comprehensive which makes me worry all the more about the systems. For this reason, this won't be another Magic Realm where there is a game in there but the rules don't let you at it. There are also some decent ideas in among the obvious stuff; the Cunning rule is good by which you can use a point of cunning to re-roll a dodgy dice total and while the idea of King's Commissioners is a sound one, it simply doesn't come off.
So Blackbeard, as it stands, is something of a disaster. The turn sequence doesn't work, player interaction and speed of play is too low in the early stages and not great later on, it is hard work, the game lacks that spark and excitement and it goes on too long (3hrs plus) for what you are going to get from it. I would suggest that the game contains far too much superfluous detail and that its systems are clumsy and difficult to commit to memory. In my view, large chunks of the game should have been removed or streamlined rather than apparently throwing everything in for 'maximum' effect. This is all doubly sad as I really wanted to like Blackbeard - I am a fan of the subject matter, I have enjoyed many of Richard Berg's games and in truth expected far more of Avalon Hill. At £25 plus it is a waste of money unless you are prepared to do a lot of work on it; but then for a £25 Avalon Hill game you really shouldn't have to. Avoid.
Back to the Introduction or on to The Great Kahn Game.
Sumo - Mike Siggins - Legal Notices and Other Information