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Review: Black Fleet

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boxA pirate walks into a bar and sits down. The bartender notices that he has a peg leg, a hook for a hand, and a patch over one eye. The pirate orders a beer, and while he’s pouring it the bartender asks, “So what’s the story with the leg?””Well it were many a year ago,” says the pirate. “I were walkin on the deck a me ship and a rogue wave swept me overboard, and a shark swum up and bit me leg clean off! I swum ashore and were fitted fer a peg leg that very night.”

“That’s terrible,” says the bartender. “What about the hand?”

“Well it were the very next day,” says the pirate. “I were walkin on the deck a me ship and a rogue wave swept me overboard again, and a whale came up and bit me hand clean off! I swum ashore and were fitted fer a hook that very night.”

“Wow,” says the bartender. “So what about the eye?”

“Well it were the very next day,” says the pirate. “I were walkin on the deck a me ship, and I were lookin out fer rogue waves, and a seagull flew over and pooped right in me eye!”

“Oh man,” says the bartender. “And that blinded you?”

“Well no,” says the pirate. “But it were me first day with the hook.”

That should about set the tone for Black Fleet…

How it Plays

In Black Fleet, players command a private flotilla of both honorable and dishonest mercantile methods, earning and plundering money to ransom the governor’s daughter.  Your merchant sloop will ship goods from port to port, while your pirate ship attempts to seize cargo from your competitors.  Don’t worry.  The end justifies the means in this case – there is a lady to be bought.

Sail the non-descript sea, playing the trade routes for business and plunder!
Sail the nondescript sea, plying the trade lanes for business and plunder!

While at its heart, Black Fleet is a pick-up and deliver game, this is no ho-hum, business-as-usual cruise.  It injects healthy doses of direct player interaction and uses card play to introduce variable powers that keep the winds shifting every turn.

The game’s title is a tad misleading.  Only half of your fleet sails beneath the brave, black flag.  In addition to your pirate ship, you’ll also command a hardy merchantman nobly plying the sea lanes, conducting respectable, if less exciting, trade.  Each turn, you’ll give orders to both of these vessels.  There are also two non-descript and sort-of-neutral naval ships.  Most turns, you’ll get to command one of these frigates, in addition to your own two-boat squadron.

At the start of the game, you receive four random development cards.  These are sort of upgrades to your ships that provide unique rules-breaking abilities once you’re able to afford them.  Laying them all out face-down to begin (although you are allowed to peak at them), they cost 5, 8, 11, and 14 doubloons, respectively, to flip over.  At the end of this line, you’ll place your governor’s daughter card.  She costs 10 doubloons – or 20 for a longer session – to ransom.  You must buy all four of your development cards before you can woo mademoiselle, although you can acquire those in any order you wish.

The panorama of your development cards at the start of the game. You need to pay them to flip them over and benefit from their bonuses.
The panorama of your development cards at the start of the game. You need to buy them to flip them over and benefit from their bonuses.

Of course, to buy all these upgrades and ransom the governor’s daughter, you need some coin.  As an enterprising nautical entrepreneur, you will deal in business both legitimate and seedy to secure a steady stream in pieces of eight.  There is your merchant vessel, stout but vulnerable.  She’ll pick up goods from one colony and carry it to another, earning 2-3 doubloons for each load delivered.  You own a pirate ship, opportunistic but with a fat target on her mainsail.  She’ll prey upon rival merchantmen, earning 2 doubloons for each good stolen and more if she’s able to bury it successfully.  Finally, you may command one of His Majesty’s ships-of-the-line, powerful but lumbering.  If you can manage to sink an opponent’s privateer, you’ll earn 2 doubloons.

To sail around Black Fleet’s unidentified sea, you play movement cards, picking one of two from your hand every turn.  These list the three crews you command – merchant, pirate, and whichever of the two naval ships you may control if choosing that card – and assigns a movement allowance for each one.  After picking a card, you then proceed to move each of yours ships, in any order you wish, a number of spaces up to her allowance.  Before, during, or after her move, a ship may also take one action – delivering goods, attacking, or burying treasure.  Your movement card also stipulates whether or not you may draw one or more fortune cards, or maybe even have to discard one.

Movement cards for navigation. Do you want to sail far and lose a fortune card? Or give up some movement to grab a couple cards?
Movement cards for navigation. Do you want to sail far and lose a fortune card? Or give up some movement to grab a couple cards?

Fortune cards are another source of rules-breaking abilities that can really billow your sails with a fair wind.  You can have a maximum of three in your hand, but may play as many as applicable in a given turn.  They provide some nifty boosts like extra movement for your entire squadron or just a specific ship.  Some fortune cards provide a bonus for particular income earning actions.  Some award you doubloons for inaction.  Still a few others grant some crazy benefits like hopping over islands.

The first scurvy sea dog to ransom the maiden triggers the endgame.  Each player up to the start player gets his final turn.  The captain with the most money, who has also paid the captive maiden’s ransom, wins.  Whether or not you settle down and live life ever after as a respectable merchant is up to you.  But we all know the seductive siren call of the Lady of the Sea is just too sonorous to resist.

Loading up in port, ready to set sail.
Loading up in port, ready to set sail.

Shiver me Timbers or Walk the Plank?

I’m not a big fan of musicals, but I admit I’m a sucker for Gilbert and Sullivan comedies.  My favorite is the haplessly hilarious Pirates of Penzance.  When first playing Black Fleet, I was immediately reminded of the Pirate King’s song admonishing that, despite the disreputable nature of his trade, there are still, “many a king on a first-class throne/If he wants to call his crown his own/Must manage somehow to get through/More dirty work than ever I do!”

That’s how you should approach Black Fleet thematically.  Piracy is only half the equation.  And it doesn’t really compare to other popular designs of piratical nature – either mechanically or strategy-wise – such as Pirate’s Cove, Martinique, Cartagena, or Merchants & Marauders…oh, my, definitely nothing like Merchants & Marauders!  In spite of some recent comparisons.  Instead of embodying a true buccaneer in the likes of Blackbeard or Captain Kidd, you’re more akin to Elizabeth or Phillip II commissioning the famous Sea Dogs, or other privateers, with letters of marque, conducting trade and warfare on the high seas both legitimate and subversive.  Although there are no real historical references here, either politically or geographically.  In other words, you’re the symbolic “well-bred monarch” sinking more ships than you ought to do, in the words of the Pirate King of Penzance!

It's a glorious thing to be a Pirate King!
It’s a glorious thing to be a Pirate King!

Black Fleet is not a strategy game.  It is a solid, light-weight, family-friendly design that not only encourages interaction, but thrives within it.  While there may be little opportunity for planning, it’s not entirely devoid of decisions.  Just know going into it, though, that the choices you make are tactical and based on cards, which you acquire randomly.

It’s nearly impossible to plan even 1 turn ahead.  After you’ve finished a move, you really have no clue what the board will look like upon the resumption of your next.  Your competitors could be sitting on movement cards with high values and sail a quarter of the way across the sea.  Or they might be stuck with low allowances, barely able to row a couple spaces.  And fortune cards can really stir the pot by increasing a ship’s range or totally messing with ship locations.

Fortune cards can really put the wind in your sails!
Fortune cards can really put the wind in your sails!

That said, game play doesn’t require any deep planning, so the lack of foresight should not be a problem.  You have three ships, they each do three distinct things, and their “targets” are plainly identifiable.  While there are lots of islands in the way creating a fun, little navigable maze, it’s generally clear where you need to go and how to get there.  However, you will often find yourself deviating from a chartered course to avoid pirates or naval ships as the situation necessitates.  Still, no matter how many hard-to-ports you execute, there are too many unknowns and surprises to avoid attacks completely.

But that’s not all bad.  The great thing about Black Fleet’s interaction is that it’s not terribly crippling.  Pirate attacks can only steal one goods cube from a ship.  Then you have to sail off to the nearest beach – and avoid the King’s men – to bury it while downing a celebratory round of daiquiris before you sally forth for further prey.  If your merchantman is a frequent target and rarely reaches port fully-loaded, well then that could be a tad frustrating.  But your own piratical reprisals can often recoup such losses.  Furthermore, whenever a merchant or pirate vessel sinks, it simply reenters the game on your next turn.

Sail ahoy! Set course to intercept, Mr. Crusher!
Sail ahoy! Set course to intercept, Mr. Crusher!

With that in consideration, Black Fleet is actually a good game to introduce new gamers – especially kids – to spite and interaction.  I’m going to have to make room for it on my list.  All of the elements for teaching spite are here.  It’s not a serious or intense game, but actually a little light-hearted.  Players can overcome or compensate for many losses.  And the game’s randomness creates opportunities for everyone to hit the enemy.  If the chaos and collisions are still too much, you can always try playing with just 2, which opens up the board quite a bit.

Speaking of, there has been a good deal of discussion within the hobby’s circles about a 2-player variant and/or the design’s ability to accommodate just a couple of people.  The printed compliment is 3-4, which was a good decision.  Again, since the design shines with interaction, more boats floating around the sea leads to more chaos and action. If you really wanted, there is an unofficial 2-player variant.  While a nice option, I’m not convinced it’s really needed.  A more casual 2-player affair would certainly be less chaotic and spiteful, if that’s what floats your boat.

As you purchase them, ships' developments provide some pretty helpful abilities.
As you purchase them, ships’ developments provide some pretty helpful abilities.

Generally, the game clocks in under an hour, probably at an average of 40 minutes with experienced players.  Turns and choices should not produce analysis paralysis.  If a player is so inflicted by indecision, he’s playing the wrong game.  You only have three ships to move each round, and possibly conduct three actions.  Even if you play a fortune card or apply a development, it only modifies a regular move or action.  It doesn’t add to it.  So turns are pretty quick with little downtime.  However, those turns can get repetitive after 20-30 minutes, an ailment not uncommon to pick-up and deliver designs.  Thankfully, the fortune and development cards help to alleviate that repetition, as they inject some fun powers and other ways to spice up your turn.  Yes, some of the development cards are better than others.  But isn’t that always the case…?

The final elements that really stand out with Black Fleet are the components and production quality.  I really hesitated to mention these last, simply because they are so extremely impressive and have already generated some great buzz.  The ships are amazing.  They’re just plastic, but each type is unique and finely detailed with exaggerated features.  The fabulous artwork is similarly caricatured and comical with vibrant colors that really pop out of the cards and off the game board.  The cards themselves are of strong stock and slick.  The doubloons are actually nice, hefty metal coins – a pure joy to fondle and fitting for the theme.  Alas, the goods cubes are just plain old cubes.  Oh well, you can’t knock ‘em all out of the park.  Finally, there is a custom, skull-and-crossbones vacuum injected box insert.  It is super cool looking!  Unfortunately, it’s just as useless in a practical sense as any other box insert.

The aesthetically awesome, but practically worthless, box insert. Oh, why do this companies still try???
The aesthetically awesome, but practically worthless, box insert. Oh, why do publishers still try???

Black Fleet is a really great family-weight design of simple trade and piracy.  Of course, the piracy part means there is sure to be direct player interaction, but it’s not overly harsh or crippling if you’re on the receiving end.  That makes it fun and engaging.  More than that, it’s even a nice option to acclimate kids to interaction and spite.  Generally quick, action-packed, and not a little chaotic, this title will not be a staple for strategy gamers, nor is it meant to be.  Rather, it’s a light-hearted romp on the high seas with its share of both calm waters and stormy squalls.

 

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee USA for providing a review copy of Black Fleet.

Summary

  • Rating 7.5
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Summary

Pros

  • Simple and accessible
  • Good interaction for its weight
  • Nice array of variability
  • Fantastic components

Cons:

  • Difficult to plan ahead
  • Can get repetitive
  • High price point
7.5 Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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