Updated: Aug 12, 2021
Category: Card game
Designer: Jason Bulmahn
Publisher: Kickstarter (Minotaur Games)
Year Published: 2015
Playing Time: 60 mins
To Play or Not To Play: Don't Play
We're back with another product from Kickstarter's eternal cornucopia of games. But today we're going back in time to 2014, when the Kickstarter explosion was just beginning. One day, I saw an ad for a new game on a webcomic's home page. "Betray your friends and steal their loot!" Well, I was still just discovering the hobby when those words caught my attention. My favorite board game at the time was Betrayal at House on the Hill, and stealing loot is always a good time! I bit the bullet, and backed Pirate Loot.
Roughly a year later, the finished product arrived at my door along with a set of promo cards and the 5-6 player expansion. And, like so many other games, it sat on my shelf. For a year.
But eventually I did play it. Here's how the base game works. The goal of the game is to claim the most valuable loot. Each round, the players will amass crews of pirates aboard their ship. The player with the strongest crew will get first pick of the loot, then the second player, and so on. The player with the weakest crew gets nothing. Then the deck gets reshuffled and a new round begins with new loot cards to divvy up.
The loot cards are face-down, so the players don't know what they're playing for until the round is over. Some loot is even worth negative points, so on occasion losing a round is actually better than coming in third place! Once a player reaches the loot threshold (7 for 4 players, 8 for 3, and 9 for 2), they reveal their loot cards and everyone totals their scores. Highest loot value wins. Realistically, that's going to be the player who reached the target first, but sometimes more than one player crosses that threshold at once.
Each player needs to amass a mighty crew of pirates to claim their share of the booty. In Pirate Loot, the pirates come from one of four factions: Brutal, Clever, Greedy, and Lazy. Each faction has a sort of core mechanical theme. Brutal pirates kill efficiently kill other pirates. Clever pirates draw extra cards and can reveal hidden information. Greedy pirates can steal loot from other players. And Lazy pirates rely on random chance. At the beginning of the game, the players will select a number of factions equal to the number of players and return the others to the box. So in a four player game, all four factions are used.
On a player's turn, they must "Recruit" a pirate from their hand. In other words, they play a card to the table. Most pirates get played to your own ship, but a few exceptions are added to your opponent's ship. If your pirate has a "Recruit" effect, you resolve it immediately. Then you cards from the Draw deck until you are back to five cards. Shuffled into the bottom half of the deck is the "Set Sail" card. When it is drawn, each player gets one more turn before the round ends and loot gets divided.
Each pirate card has 1-4 faction icons along the right side, which represent that card's strength. At the end of the round, each player will total up the strength of each faction on their ship. So if you have one Greedy pirate with four icons, and 3 Brutal pirates with one icon each, your Greedy faction is actually stronger than the Brutal faction. Then each player compares their strongest faction to each other player. The strongest one gets first pick of the loot. In case of a tie, there are special "Rank" cards belonging to each faction. These are shuffled and revealed at the beginning of each round to show the relative hierarchy of each faction. If one player has 3 strength of Greedy pirates, and the other has 3 strength of Clever pirates, they just have to consult the rank cards to see which faction is dominant this round.
And that's the entire game. The rule book is a slim four pages, and one of those is just a list of all the card effects in the game. The game really is that simple. And, if you get tired of these four factions, all you need is the 5-6 player expansion to shake things up! That expansion adds two new pirate factions: Sneaky pirates and Undead pirates. Many Sneaky pirates can hide, which means they join your crew face-down. Then on a later turn you can discard a card from your hand to turn them face-up, or you can leave them face-down for an exciting surprise at the end of the round. Undead pirates can "animate" pirate cards by sliding them face-down underneath other cards. These animated cards contribute an extra 1/2 point of strength per face-down card to the pirate card in question. With these two extra factions, you can play a 5 or 6 player game, or you can mix and match the factions to add more variety to games with fewer players.
So there you have it! A quick and easy card game that can accommodate a wide number of players, complete with simple rules and options to vary setup. Sounds great on paper, but . . . .
Despite all appearances to the contrary, Pirate Loot is a drag to play. The game relies heavily upon "take-that" mechanisms on its cards. If you play a good card early in the game, it will definitely get killed in the next couple turns. But if you wait too long to play your good cards, your crew might be too week to claim any of the loot if the Set Sail card shows up. This could create some exciting tension, but it mostly just feels bad.
For example, one interesting card is the Lazy Captain. It is a 4-strength Lazy card. Its ability is if you have the weakest faction, you get to add an extra loot card to the haul and you get first pick, instead of the player with the strongest faction. That's really cool! But in every game that is has shown up, it either dies immediately or ends up pushing that player's Lazy faction to be the strongest on the table.
But the real problem with this game is length. You'll be playing at least five or six rounds, and probably more, as you try and reach the loot threshold. But each faction only has 11 unique cards (13 with the promo Kickstarter cards), which means you're going to see the same cards over and over and over again. It just feels too repetitive. Maybe the rounds should be shorter. Or maybe the loot cards should be played face-up to make things more strategic. But I think the biggest improvement would be to lower the loot threshold. Yes, this is a super high-variance game, and lowering the loot threshold would allow a lucky player to snatch victory in just a few rounds. But I think ending the game too quickly is a better flaw than dragging it out for too long.
I got Pirate Loot to the table twice in 2016. The first game used just the base and Kickstarter cards, and it was fine, but long. The second game incorporated one of the 5-6 player factions, and it was deeply unfun. After 30 minutes, the other players demanded that we stop playing and switch to something else. And then the game sat on my shelf for five years.
Finally, a few weeks ago I convinced two good friends to give it a shot. We added both the 5-6 player expansion factions to see if that improved things, but it did not. After an hour, no one was close to winning and no one was having fun. We decided to stop playing and move on to something better. I have had games interrupted before, usually because of an emergency or because we were just killing time while more players arrived. But this is the only game I own where the players have said "No more, we're done here."
It's really a shame, the card art is fantastic and funny, and the cards themselves feel quite good. The production values are as high quality as any other successful Kickstarter venture. Sadly, designer Jason Bulmahn has completely disappeared from game design since 2015. His website has not updated, nor have any new games or Kickstarters reached the market. While the game did not land for me, I applaud his decision to take an idea and carry it to fruition. It's not easy to publish a game, and he made it happen.
"But wait, Chris, I still want to betray my friends and steal their loot!" I've got just the game: Libertalia, published in 2012 by Marabunta (a studio affiliated with Asmodee). Libertalia shares the same conceit: players have a hand of cards depicting different pirates, and they are trying to use these pirates to help them divvy up loot. Libertalia reduces the variance by giving each player an identical set of pirates in hand, so it becomes more of a game about second-guessing your opponents than simply playing cards and creating chaos. With snappier, more strategic gameplay and equivalent play time, Libertalia is just a better experience. Physical copies of the game are hard to find, but it is available online at boardgamearena.com. So should you play Pirate Loot? No.
Thanks for reading! Have you played Pirate Loot or Libertalia? Share your thoughts in the comments below. And don't forget to follow me on Instagram @ToPlayOrNot, or on Twitter @OrNotToPlay to stay up-to-date. Until next time!