Get on Board in Catalina

This post is a brief review of a board game I got recently.

I backed the campaign for the board game Privateer, on Kickstarter, back in December 2013. After a 3 year wait, it finally arrived, and had some chances to play it over the holidays. In my opinion it was worth the wait: it's an enjoyable, well-balanced game.

Playing Privateer

The board is a grid map of the western Caribbean, showing the ports of Catalina, Havana*, Cartagena, Tortuga*, Caracas, and San Juan. Each player has a ship token that they move around the map, trading between ports or getting into battles. The ships have a captain, selected from randomly-dealt cards at the start of the game, and can receive upgrades in four categories. The four categories are sails (movement speed), crew (odds of success on bounty card draws), cannons (combat strength), and hull (cargo capacity). Each upgrade grants a point towards winning the game; they cost progressively more at higher levels.

*These ports should be shown on the north sides of their respective islands if my geography is correct (but that would slow down the game with greater distances, so I think some artistic license is allowed).

Each player's turn starts with drawing a bounty card, which can yield an artifact or curse, or a chance to steal from or trade with other players. Next comes moving on the map (the prevailing wind direction which can be set by certain cards or abilities affects your speed). Finally, depending on the square you end on, there may be a battle or the chance to transact trades at a port.

Here is a view of the board:

Privateer Board

The colourful spaces at the bottom are for cards that state the prices of various trade goods for each port. Different decks to draw from are placed along the left hand side of the board; the right hand side has a ladder to track victory points ("Infamy"). At the top of the photo I've included one of the cards that each player has to track upgrades to their ship.

Here are some examples of the different types of cards in the game:

Some Privateer Cards

Going from left to right, starting from the top row, these cards are examples of:

  • A captain card, listing the starting upgrades (1 point in each category in this case) and a special ability.
  • A ship card that can be drawn if you land on a space to plunder a merchant vessel (depending on your tier on the victory point ladder, its combat strength and amount of trade goods carried will increase).
  • A price card, listing buy/sell prices for the six trade goods in the game (sugar, cinnamon, fruit, spices, tobacco, rum).
  • A relic (one of the possibilities to get when drawing a bounty card).
  • A fortune (one of the possibilities to get when drawing a bounty card).

The optimal strategy in playing this game will vary depending on your captain's strengths and the upgrades you prioritize (e.g. if you spend a lot on upgrading cargo capacity early in the game, you'll probably be better off avoiding combat). However, a typical game might look like this:

  1. Early game – complete a trade run or two and buy some upgrades
  2. Mid-game – try to plunder some merchant vessels (or keep trading if you're using an avoid-combat strategy)
  3. Late game – interfere with other players (by getting into combat with them, or by using relics or other special cards) to keep them from getting the required number of victory points before you do

Some features I like about this game are:

  • Every time someone trades at a port, a new pricing card is drawn. The dynamic pricing (and the rule against immediately returning and trading at the port you just visited) keeps players moving around the board.
  • One of the interesting bounty cards takes a relic from each player that everyone then has the chance to attempt to win in a blind bid; this and other mechanisms can shake up the game so that it isn't over until it's over.
  • It's quite replayable because you draw a different captain card every game (actually, you draw two and choose one) and their different abilities can lead to favouring different strategies.

You can see more about this game here.