Playing 4 (9 hours).
Blackbeard is an anti-game, it is not a game that will be won by capturing Moscow or adding up the exact odds ratio in every combat. The game is for 1 to 4 players and they had better all accept this before setting up. The players are competing with the game system as much as with each other, possibly more so, hence it is a good solo game. If played solo 2 dummy pirates are used that take their turns when called for by the system. The actions they can take are governed by the rules, they are not going to do anything surprising but do force the player to not only fight against the game but also take care that neither of the dummys beat him to victory.
Even playing solo quite some time can elapse between either the active player doing anything or having anything done unto him but then again you can get several goes on the trot. It follows that the greater the number of players the greater the amount of thumb twiddling. If you must play with 4 make sure that everyone knows what they are in for before you begin. Blackbeard is a game that is worth playing but also an easy game to hate.
Players start by picking a pirate, who has a number of ratings, from the useful- in- combat ability to the near worthless duel. Pirates then begin with 1 of 2 ship types, one being a little faster the other heavier. There is some possibility of getting a better ship in the game but same will be slower so it is harder to outrun the law. Blackbeard is won by accumulating 100 notoriety points, either by earning points faster than the other players or by fixing things so that the opposition suffer unfortunate accidents. It is played on 3 maps separated by the ever popular transit boxes. Pirates can start in any area, the Caribbean and Atlantic coast is the biggest area and hence has best scope for running away (a popular tactic). The 2nd largest area is the east coast of Africa and Madagascar, booty is richest from the ships here and the ports weaker than in the Americas. Lastly we have the Gold Coast (W. Africa), this has nothing to recommend it, being small, short on regular shipping and on ports. It is not often visited but must be entered and moved through on the way between the other areas. Pirates are not likely to leave the area that they start in, the sole time I had the urge was when things were getting too hot in east Africa and I tried some serious running away (but got caught).
The heart of the game is the pack of cards, 1 is picked to determine whose turn it is, so player 1 could have an unlimited number of turns in a row or player 3 spend a long time doing not a lot (becalmed says Cap'n Berg).Card counting is out, the same cards are used for a variety of reasons depending what part of the card is read. A card may be turned giving player 2 an action, he may use same to attack a merchant (a very common gambit), if successful a 2nd card is picked to show the booty, if there is a hostage a 3rd shows his home port. That is 3 cards turned in the 1 turn, only the 1st gave the order of movement, details on the other cards that are not relevant to the matter in hand are ignored but the cards have been used and are discarded. Certain variables that you are hoping to turn up can be passed over in this fashion, just to confuse you even more the pack and discards are shuffled back together after every random event.
The $64,000 question here is how to get those notoriety points. Capturing merchants and sacking ports is the answer, there are points to be gained for these actions plus more points when the loot and any hostages are cashed in. Notoriety can be gained by surviving combat with a warship but the small gain is outweighed by the risks. In brief, pirates spend most of the game finding merchants to capture and attacking ports and thats about it, definitely a minus on the freedom of action front. To some degree a greater risk will bring greater rewards (in cash anyway), ports are the real money spinners yielding 100 X the port value in cash. 1/10th of the cash taken to a friendly port is converted to notoriety but ports are real tough, a high port value usually meaning a strong garrison. Campeche is a 3-7 (PV/garr), our pirate sails up and weighs anchor (about 4 cwt) outside the port. Next turn the port rolls 2d6 + 7 (its garr), our pirate rolls 1D6 + ability (up to 5 depending on the pirate) + ship's combat factor (6 for a fast ship, more for a slow one). Our pirate has to roll greater to get in, taking damage of 1 less than the lowest DR of the port. If he fails he will take damage equal to the difference in totals, also if his ship is damaged there is a chance the pirate will be wounded (ability lowered). Having tried it, I can say that port assaulting is a risky business, if you have a hostage from a merchant and his port is nearby it is worthwhile torturing the chap (a high cruelty rated pirate helps here) to gain inside information and an extra D6 in the assault.
A slower steadier stream of notoriety comes from taking merchants that spring up and disappear according to the cards or can be searched for by the pirates (take care you may find a warship instead). To take the ship we need the total of the combat, speed and ability ratings of our pirate + ship, minus the rating of the merchant (say 13 + 4 - 8 on average). This total must be rolled less than or = on 2D6 to take the ship, 1 or 2 greater results in that much damage to the pirate, any higher and the merchant gets away. I have deliberately included mechanisms for combats to show that there is a fair bit of die rolling against various formulae in this game. Most are printed round the map but the rules themselves are poorly laid out (but not as badly as this zine).
Injury, for example, is cunningly positioned under Kings Commissioners. The General 27 no' 6 contains notes, errata and a play through, it is strongly recommended that you buy this at the same time as the game, I kept the copy open beside it during my games. The replay is a big help because 1 action may have repercussions elsewhere and it is easy to forget some of these. In capturing a merchant, if the pirates ship is damaged we need to check if the pirate is hurt, which will in turn affect the ship (again). The pirate has to keep the crew happy, monitoring the crew unrest track, a value of 0 means mutiny and possibly the plank. This track goes up for attacking things and torture attempts and down for taking damage to the ship and self, backing out of fights, being blockaded in port and cutting the rum ration. A pirate is unlikely to die due to 1 single cause, if the action is taken with a healthy captain and sound ship, a setback usually means a damaged ship or minor wounds. This factor leads to the "Blackbeard the Chartered Accountant" gambit, do the deed then sneak back to port to cash in the loot and repair the damage. All fixed up (this can take a while because turns can be far apart), off we go to find a suitably weak merchant or port, unless the ship is damaged (warships or storms), when its back to port again. Our boys tend to pass up some ships and ports so that there are some countries left to run off to (all ships and ports are flagged, attack them and that nation closes its doors to you).
A cumulation of bad luck just as you are sneaking off for a refit is the common most cause of pirate death. Close second is assaulting obviously strong ports because you need to catch up on notoriety fast. All is not lost, pirates have a limited cunning ability, use of same allows 1 die roll to be retaken. This ability is lowered 1 with each use and will only go up as a result of a random event. Players cannot use cunning twice in a row (there is a cunning last use marker), think about this if you are playing a 2 player game.
So far only the actions of pirates and the game have been mentioned. Players also have some ability to use the game for their own ends against another pirate. A card may allow a player to move a warship, either away from self or towards an opponent. Warships will try to find and attack pirates in the same hex but being slow they are unlikely to catch a full strength pirate. They can blockade a pirate in port causing a steady drop in crew status until he comes out (which of course requires the player to get a turn). Slightly beefier are Kings Commissioners, a player can petition to get 1 and if he has 1 (or more) can move them instead of his pirate, handy if same is under repairs again. These ships are no better at catching pirates than warships but can move every turn you get, if your pirate does not. Warships and Commissioners can cause a lot of trouble for a damaged pirate trying to find a safe port. At least it will stop him gaining further notoriety if he is busy running away.
Pirates were a rough bunch and you do get to do some unsavoury things, torture, pillage and (surprise) piracy. Judging by the notes from El Berg you could do a lot more before TAHGC inc. got their hands on the game, fancy throwing out the rape rule. Maybe not, still there could be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. Some stuff had to go to shorten the game (2 to 3 hours for a Berg game, shock!), there are also certain areas that are best left out of mainstream simulation gaming. I have yet to see an East Front game with little Einsatzgruppen counters running around behind the front lines earning VP's for mass murder but I would not be surprised if is a game with them in out there.
Having tidied things up and made certain that TAHGC is not going to end up in court for lowering public morals, we are left with pirates not having much to do, except take ships and assault ports. I read through "The Pyrates" by G. M. Fraser to get some ideas of what pirates can do. The book is a spoof but has some good (and bad) jokes, most importantly it was available. Much of the book was taken up with rescues of maidens, no reason why we cant have that in Blackbeard. Every pirate has a duel rating but it is very unlikely to get used, probably originally intended for rules long gone. Pirates can duel in Blackbeard but will very rarely be in the same place let alone duel.
If a random event is pulled that has already been drawn during the game, replace the event by one of the following, picked at random.
N; Damsel captured. The sweetheart of the playing pirate, be she Lady Vanity or the barmaid of the Rose and Crown (or even Tom the Cabin boy), has been thrown into jail. Randomly pick a port on the same map section that the pirate occupies to find the position. The prisoner can be reclaimed by storming into the port and capturing it or by guile. The pirate can sail to the port and weigh anchor outside. Next turn the pirate sneaks in by the secret tunnel and duels the head gaoler to release his love, the gaoler has duel ratings D6/D6, and must be defeated. If the pirate backs off he suffers the usual crew unrest penalties and cannot attempt to release the prisoner again. If a 2nd random event is drawn before the prisoner can be released, the captive is seduced by the evil governor or hung.
If a pirate is captured by a warship in battle, plays a Letter of Marque but is still held, he is assumed to be in the nearest friendly port of that power until the next random event (trial or execution). Up until then any pirate may attempt to rescue him as above. The notoriety gain for rescuing anyone is 2D6, except for rescuing a protestant from a Spanish jail (3D6). Any pirate that is rescued gains 1D6 notoriety.
O; Pirate stash stolen. The net loot stashed by the pirate has been stolen by some low life or confiscated by some goody goody. All net worth stashed is lost unless the pirate travels to the port of stashing and duels the offender to reclaim his stash. The offender has ratings D6/D6 and must be defeated, if the pirate backs off the money may not be recovered. This idea comes partly from "The Pyrates and partly from "Peter Pan", the only other pirate book lying around. Pirates can stash net worth at a friendly port but there is not a lot of point unless the pirate is going to lose his ship but survive, unlikely. To give some incentive to stash loot, I offer;
Investments, when a player draws any random event card, the value of his (but no-one else's) stashed net worth is increased by 10%. Notoriety is gained as usual for increase in net worth. This may show astute investment in offshore funds (Calico Jack in Pyrates) or investing the funds in local gambling dens, protection rackets and so forth. The usurper is some local hood who has muscled in or a Peter Pan figure who is just out to right wrongs. The duel will sort out who is wrong in a gentlemanly way and get those dueling rules working again.
Blackbeard scores highly by being different, if you have shelves full of WW2 games and cannot face another exact odds to win game, it offers a useful alternative. The big drawback is the limited options available, merchants or ports. Sticking to merchants can make the game seem to go very slowly so ports may be chosen to push things forwards as opposed to being a sound strategic move. Players can start a new pirate either as well as the 1st or after same has died, so high risk actions near the beginning of the game can be worthwhile. If you screw up then it is not far to catch up to where you were with a new pirate, only in the solo option are you stuck with only 1 pirate. The leader is hindered by the "warship attacks most notorious pirate" card, he will be slowed by this and the actions of the other players so the pack will tend to catch up on the leader.
The big decision with any game is whether it gives a feel for what it is about. In Blackbeard are the players merry pirates doing daring deeds on the high seas or are they rolling a lot of dice and shuffling decks of cards. Oddly in this case, rolling lots of (weighted) dice and shuffling (marked) cards is a pretty good simulation of pirate life. Still there is no thrill of combat or screams from the tortured captives, gaming has not got to this technology level yet. In credit there is a sense of worry as a pirate, close to the magic 100 mark, flees for a safe port to repair damage, while pursued by a warship and Commissioner. A low notoriety pirate will not cause the same fears (of having to start at 0 again) in the player. The game cries out for an expansion, perhaps some of the chrome that TAHGC cut, more event cards, an option allowing a player to win as a Kings Commissioner even. How about allowing 1 player to only run KC's, he could win by capturing 2 pirates for every other player in the game (3 players = 4 total). Blackbeard is a step forward in design and good for a few plays, its sheer difference is refreshing but this means that it takes a while to get the hang of. The big minus, too much die rolling and card pulling and not enough pirating.