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Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest

Substituting a fantasy setting for the more conventional pirate theme of the original, this new edition of Paolo Mori's Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest from Stonemaier Games is a revamped reimplementation of the game that first appeared in 2012, published by Marabunta, Asterion Press and Asmodee. Lamaro Smith has replaced Ben Carre and Stéphane Gantiez, who were the artists on the 2012 original: the cover of which looked for all the world like Geoffrey Rush had posed for it while filming Pirates of the Caribbean! For this new edition, blood-thirsty 18th Century pirates have been replaced with less threatening anthropomorphic animal constructs, and they've been redesignated as 'sky pirates' sailing flying galleons.

Don't worry. You don't need to buy into the theme to enjoy this game. Suffice to say that the new edition has a brighter, cleaner look, with card text that's easier to read. At its heart, Libertalia is a cleverly-designed hand management strategy game where you know what cards your opponents hold - initially the same cards as you - and you'll be second-guessing each other over the optimal time to play those cards. Throughout the game you'll be trying to amass doubloons because they get translated into victory points at the end of each round, marked in this edition on each player's treasure chest-shaped pair of dials.

This new Stonemaier edition incorporates a solitaire version and a thoughtfully devised two-player game, but the standard game is for 3-6 players. Each player has their own individual deck representing crew members numbered from 1-40 (another improvement on the original, which only used decks of 30). The game is played over three rounds, representing three voyages of 4-6 'days' (ie: turns). One player shuffles their deck and draws six crew cards. Other players then take the same numbered cards from their decks. That represents players' starting hands. There'll be text on each card setting out any special actions that that character gives rise to. Some may involve manipulating other cards in your hand but typically there will be actions that are taken in one or more of the phases, either of the 'day' the card is played or of the 'voyage' (end of round) if the card hasn't otherwise made its way to your discard pile.

When setting up each voyage, players draw loot tiles from a bag so that the number of tiles for each 'day' is equal to the number of players. In this new edition, the tiles are satisfyingly chunky plastic pieces - reminiscent of the tiles in the original edition of Azul (Next Move). This is another huge improvement on the cardboard chits in the original game. Some of the tiles are worth doubloons, some are worth doubloons only when held in multiple versions, some give special actions during certain phases and some can impose negative points. The game comes with overlays that allow you to vary the effect of each loot type, adding to replayability.

At the start of each 'day'/turn, players simultaneously choose and reveal one of the cards in their hand to 'send to the island'. These are placed out from left to right according to their ascending numerical value. If two or more players play the same cards, the 'ties' are broken according to players' relative 'reputation'. This is yet another refinement introduced with this new edition. Players have tokens on a reputation track. Various character and/or loot powers can increase or decrease your reputation. The reputation track also doubles as a catch up mechanic because the lower your reputation is at the start of a voyage (round), the more doubloons you start with.

The order in which cards are laid out for each 'day' matters because that determines the order in which powers are activated. The 'daytime' phase runs from left to right, so activating first on cards with the lowest number. If your card has a 'daytime' icon on it, you must do what the text instructs. Some 'daytime' powers may give you an immediate individual benefit but this may be conditional. For example, the Cabin Boy [5] lets you immediately gain 3 doubloons but this only applies if it the leftmost card. Some 'daytime' powers impose 'take that' actions on other players: for example, the Thief [23] lets you steal a loot token from an adjacent player, albeit at the cost of lost reputation. Some can even eliminate other cards before they can be activated; for example, the Brute [17] discards the rightmost character...

After all 'daytime' actions have been taken, players then proceed to the 'dusk' phase. This runs from right to left - so starts with the highest number. You choose a loot token and if your card and/or the loot indicates any dusk actions, you take that action. So, for example the Cook [26] gets to take two loot tiles - which is likely to mean another player going empty-handed. Unless their actions indicate the character card is discarded, it is then returned to your ship (ie: placed in a tableau in front of you). It is still in play for the rest of the voyage/round; particularly important if it has a 'night' action (for example, the Barkeep [8], who gains a doubloon for every night phase on which she is in your tableau) or an 'anchor' icon, which scores only at the end of each round. At the end of each voyage, crew on your ship (in your tableau) are discarded but any cards left unplayed in your hand are carried forward to the next voyage. Again, players will each draw the same six cards but for the second and third rounds, they are likely to have different hands because they probably won't have carried forward exactly the same cards from the previous round.

The delight of Libertalia is that it's a game played with perfect information. Players each start out with identical hands and over the course of the game they will only ever have the same cards as all the other players. They know what loot treasures are available on which 'days' of the voyage. The conceit then is in the choice you make of when to play a character, knowing that others have the identical choices open to them... And knowing what cards other players have available to them can also affect your play. If I know players all have the option of playing the Brute, which discards the rightmost character, I may be reluctant to play a higher numbered card...

Stonemaier Games have done another excellent job in the production of this game, and it's great that Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest delivers as a bonus well-devised solo and two-player variants. However, it's at the higher player counts that this game really comes into its own. We've especially enjoyed Libertalia with 4-6 players. It's undeniably a game with a strong 'take that' element, but it's light enough for everyone to nonetheless all leave the table in good spirits. What more could you ask?

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I wouldn't ordinarily be attracted to a pirate-themed game, but the addition of animal characters and the high quality of Stonemaier components makes me want to get my hands on a copy.

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