Sailing the Seven Skies
If there’s any one thing I’ve learned about pirates, it’s that they’re no good at getting along. Paolo Mori channeled that not-getting-alongness into Libertalia. To celebrate its decade anniversary, it’s now getting a spruced-up version from Stonemaier Games, complete with nicer tokens, new cards, and a move to the skies that’s riled up a few fans of the original.
But while the change in setting might be a lateral one, Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest is otherwise a perfect remake. The original game was worthy of appreciation; this one has the waxed timbers of a modern classic.
Like the original, Winds of Galecrest utilizes that simplest and most piratical of openings: plunder in need of splitting. Across three voyages of varying lengths, you’re to amass a fortune in ill-gotten doubloons. Since you’re a pirate, the only goal is to squirrel away more plunder than everybody else. Since you’re (still) a pirate, that means everybody else is also a pirate, likely with a shared interest in taking the lion’s share of the treasure. Cue a whole lot of backstabbing, stolen booty, and hearty laughter.
The play itself is one of those rare and wonderful things that’s neither too complex nor too shallow. With today’s spoils on display — indeed, with the entire voyage’s pickings laid out for all to see — everybody reveals a member of their crew. If you’re looking for treasure itself, rank wins: the captain claims treasure earlier than the merchant, who in turn wets his beak before the carpenter, all the way down the line to the apprentices and cabin boys at the bottom of the pecking order. Since some items are treasure chests or maps with a red X at the end while others are cursed relics or common pirate prosthetics with an extra portion of tetanus worked into their tips, it behooves you to play high ranks on days with good offerings.
But there’s so much more to it than that. It’s the lower ranks who activate their abilities first. That apprentice way down at the bottom? He gets to activate a character you played previously. The beggar? He pesters two doubloons straight out of the pocket of whichever character is currently highest ranked. The brute? He doesn’t care for rank. As far as he’s concerned, the captain can make sure the anchor is secure at the bottom of the sea. Others might not be so interested in today’s loot anyway. The topman gains doubloons every night only to lose them back if she’s too distracted, while the priest just wants to survive till the end of the voyage. Or maybe they care about loot, but not the choice offerings. The barkeep and collector have specific needs, after all.
There are forty such characters in all, duplicated for each player. What spices Libertalia’s rum is how they’re doled out. Every voyage begins with six new characters drawn at random. Everybody gets those exact characters. For the first voyage, that means everybody is playing from an identical hand. Over subsequent outings, you keep the crew you didn’t expend. Bit by bit, all those hands pull apart. Every character who appears on the table is somebody you had a chance to play. Maybe you burned your governor early on and now you’re regretting it. Maybe you’re holding your gunner so you can assassinate a rival character at the last crucial moment. Has everyone played their smuggler? In the heat of the moment, you lost count.
What could have been a luckfest is instead elevated to a series of reveals. Which characters were selected. How any ties were broken. Which loot was plundered. Which rival crewman was run through with a saber. The hands are compact enough to make informed guesses about what your rivals will play, while remaining open enough that the table becomes jubilant with surprise and disappointment when they’re flipped over, and again when abilities are triggered, and then again when loot is claimed. Very few games revel so wholly in making you feel like you’ve gotten one over on your friends. Libertalia shoots for two or three emotional highs per round. It usually gets them.
Because everybody is playing with identical hands, there needs to be some way to break ties, right? Tiebreakers in the original Libertalia were functional, but also suffered from a dose of determinism. The idea is that each character had two numbers: a rank for usual placement and a tiebreaker number in case two or three captains appeared at the same time. These were spread out across each deck, so you might be holding a good tiebreaker on one card but a bad tiebreaker on another.
Or every single tiebreaker could be rotten. Or you might be holding a great tiebreaker for a character whose tie wouldn’t matter very much, but a terrible tiebreaker on a character whose ability needed to trigger at an absolutely precise moment. Even in the event that you were holding the best possible tiebreakers given the cards that were drawn that round, winning thanks to automatic tiebreakers could feel cheap, especially in a game that otherwise prioritized out-thinking your opposition.
This is where Winds of Galecrest most improves on the original game. Instead of an automatic tiebreaker value, each player is given a position on the board’s reputation track. The higher you are on the track, the better your position when one of your characters happens to have the exact same rank as somebody else’s. Unless, of course, you want to trigger your character’s ability first. Then it might behoove you to play as a loathsome scoundrel with terrible reputation. This even has its own reward, since each voyage’s starting doubloons are doled out according to reputation. Sterling cred means you’re more likely to bring home the best loot tokens, but it also means starting with fewer coins.
Even better, there’s now a range of abilities specifically designed for massaging your reputation. To increase one’s standing, the governor can throw out all your deployed characters for a huge bump, while the preacher eschews worldly things — hopefully cursed relics — to appear pious. On the other side of the coin, the bandit tanks your reputation to zero, but earns coins for every step you fall. Pair that with a couple of amulets and you might turn a tough voyage into a real trove.
Point is, Libertalia was always about trying to take advantage of where you stood in relation to your friends. By placing the onus of its tiebreakers directly on your shoulders, Winds of Galecrest escalates that tension — and the accompanying relief upon its release. There are still disappointments, moments when a rival character or misclaimed loot token dashes your chances of success. Except now those moments are organic, entirely determined by the social interactions happening at the table, rather than by dint of a number that’s largely extrinsic to that jostling. The effect is transformative. The original game screwed you. Here, the only people doing any screwing are you and your friends. Failures are therefore funny, not the result of chance. In becoming more direct, more player-driven, Libertalia’s razor edges become both sharper and more comedic.
In other words, Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest does far more than most anniversary reissues. It takes an already lively game and further enlivens the proceedings. It takes a game that was always funny and makes it hilarious. In so doing, Paolo Mori shows why game design is so often iterative. One improvement at a time, he’s crafted a modern classic.
A complimentary copy was provided.