A review copy of this game was provided by the publisher; however, my opinions are my own
Prepare to sail the
seas skies in Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest! You will play as the admiral of an airship in command of a diverse crew of anthropomorphic animal pirates looking for islands to plunder. You’re not the only scallywags in the skies, so prepare to deal with some underhanded tactics when competing for treasure. After all, what pirate is afraid of a little skullduggery? Do you have what it takes to become the wealthiest buccaneer on the high skies, or are you destined for the pirate poorhouse?
The game is structured into three rounds (or voyages). Every round the island is populated with new loot, then six cards are drawn. The chosen characters are random but every player will add identical crewmates to their hands. Everybody selects one character card to play each day, and their choices are revealed simultaneously. The cards are placed on the island according to rank, and abilities begin to activate in order. The surviving crew gets to select a loot token (if available) and head back to the ship. Finally, the night abilities are activated, and a new day begins.
After all the islands are plundered, there are end-of-round abilities to activate. Players gained or lose doubloons based on acquired loot tokens and character abilities. All doubloons are stored in the players’ treasure chest, then are discarded and a new voyage may begin. Whoever has the most doubloons at the end of the 3rd voyage is the winner!
Note: this is a re-implementation and re-imagining of the 2012 game, Libertalia. For the purposes of this review, I will not spend much time comparing and contrasting the titles as I have limited experience with the original.
Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest offers a battle-of-wits for up to six players. The card abilities drive the strategy, and the game is rich in that department.
Most of the action happens on the island track where players will be jockeying for position. The highest-ranked cards will have the first choice of loot tokens when it’s dusk; however, the lower-ranked cards’ daytime abilities will activate first and they might affect those cards’ ability to get any loot at all. There is an interesting balance between the card ranks where players rarely feel completely comfortable with their choice. There are pros and cons to each card, and oftentimes the strength of a card depends on what else makes it to the island. The card-choosing periods of the game can be rife with tension as players try to determine who their opponents are sending to the island and how it could affect their plans. Not all loot is beneficial, so players have to be very careful not to end up with something that set them back.
Players receive identical cards, so the game is very well-balanced in that regard. There is only unknown information in certain situations – for the most part, players will have access to everything they need to know to make an educated guess on who to send. New cards are added each round, so anticipating which may come into play becomes increasingly difficult as players’ crew rosters diversify. By the third round, it’s unlikely that any two players will be left with an identical set of characters, despite everybody initially having access to the same thing.
The game scales well, but different player counts give different experiences. The two-player variant introduces the Midshipman as a permanent resident on the island who may throw a wrench into your loot-selection plans. This variant is an intense duel of wits. At low player counts it is a little easier to remember which cards your opponents are saving for later and that creates the potential for a lot of fun mind-games. And at higher player counts the game can be a bit wild and chaotic – but in the best way. I like Libertalia with a full table because of that, but I enjoy the lower counts a lot. Because of the simultaneous actions, adding additional players doesn’t add significant time to the sessions, either.
The reputation track is a great addition to this version of Libertalia. It is a wonderful way to visualize tiebreakers, and I think the small boost of doubloons provided to those low on reputation is a nice attempt at delivering some equity. It also facilitates card abilities and decisions that were not present before.
The game is mechanically simple – choose a card, reveal it, complete abilities, repeat. The heaviness arrives in the form of the decision-making process that occurs from the card abilities and trying to figure out how to optimally time when to play them. This game is accessible to less-experienced gamers, but there is plenty of strategic “meat” here to keep heavier game players satisfied.
Learning the game was not difficult for me. The rulebook layout was simple and effective, and I find it to be pretty easy to teach to others. With the included functional insert, setup is a breeze as well.
Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest is highly replayable. There are 40 cards in the game and less than half of the deck will come into play. This ensures many different interactions, both on the island and on each player’s personal “ship.” Every time I’ve played I’ve discovered new combinations that keep the game feeling exciting and fresh.
In addition, there is a double-sided board and token ability tiles. Players can choose to play with the calm abilities which are a bit more friendly, or make it more complex and mean with the stormy side. Players may choose to randomize the ability tiles, as well.
In my experience, people enjoy their first experience with this game, and successive plays are even more fun. Experienced opponents are able to make faster decisions as they become accustomed to the cards and token abilities. As people are able to anticipate each other’s moves the game opens up even more.
Theme / Aesthetics
The game is about deception, trickery, and looting. A pirate theme fits the mechanics well. Animal pirates on airships are an unusual choice, but it all seems to fit seamlessly into the Stonemaier Universe. Despite having some “take that,” the game still has a lighthearted tone, and the bright, crisp colors and cartoon artwork help to sell that mood.
In addition, the graphic design here is good. I appreciate the clear instructions printed on the board, and the symbology was easy to see and understand. I’ve noticed my friends mixing up the hook and anchor terminology. If one of these symbols had a different color palette that issue would have resolved itself, but fortunately, it hasn’t had any negative repercussions on gameplay.
Stonemaier Games never seems to cut corners on component quality, and this is no exception. The thick cardboard tokens, premium linen rulebooks, and treasure-chest-shaped score dials feel premium. But the star of the show is the bag full of acrylic loot tokens. These should hold up well over time and are a joy to play with. Everything comes packaged with a functional insert that makes setup and cleanup a breeze.
Interaction / Fun
Libertalia accommodates a wide range of players – from one to six. I am always eager to find games that accommodate six players without falling apart or delving into party game territory. This game delivers a wonderful, medium-light six-player game experience that manages to not overstay its welcome and also provides a lot of thinky decisions. The simultaneous actions provide tension and speed up gameplay by cutting out downtime – something crucial in a game with six people in the seats.
The game is extremely interactive on the table, but less so in a direct social manner. There is an advantage to knowing your opponent’s play styles, as it can help you to anticipate their moves, but ultimately it comes down to educated guesses. A thick “will they or won’t they” tension builds in the silence during card selection as players struggle to remember what cards their opponents have yet to play, and how to best counter them.
After all the quiet side-eyeing, you get the card reveal – an exciting moment where the tension is relieved. Players find out where they stand on the lineup, and whether they will make it back to their ship with good loot (or make it back at all). So many different interactions are possible on the island and things rarely go as planned – this is a lot of fun despite being a bit brutal at times. Even when a player’s plans go awry and their character is discarded, it’s hard not to find joy in the clever card interactions that got them to that point.
I don’t have enough personal experience with the original Libertalia to do a full comparison, but I believe that Winds of Galecrest honors and improves upon the design in nearly every way. More characters and multiple token abilities increase replayability and in-game combo potential, and the reputation track adds a clever tie-breaking system. The original version had a dark, gritty look with realistic pirates, and the updated game has a bright aesthetic rooted in fantasy. Some will prefer the former design, but I have zero complaints about the new look.
One of the things that really stands out to me in Winds of Galecrest is how well it holds up at all player counts (I can’t speak to the solo mode). I was genuinely surprised at how good the two-player variant was. The Midshipman tile is brilliant – it emulates the 3 player game and eliminates the need for a bot. All player counts have been enjoyable, but personally, I love this game best with a full table – it’s chaotic, dramatic, and such a fun experience to share with friends.
So is a pirate’s life for everyone? Actually… maybe. I am struggling to narrow down the best audience on this one because of its seemingly wide appeal. I have tried it with people who prefer heavy, Euro-style games and those who prefer more interactive, thematic experiences. I have played with people newer to the hobby and with my 10-year-old. Every single time, people have been enthusiastic and willing to give it another go. Even though the game has a healthy dose of “take that” I have yet to find a person who walks away from a game of Libertalia unhappy. I think that is due to a sense of “fairness” in the game design, due to the open information and equal starting hands. This is a great choice for a game night with a large group, and it’s pretty good for a quick weeknight game with your partner as well.
There is something special going on here, which should come as no surprise to those who have loved Libertalia since its original printing. This is easily towards the top of my list of games I tried this year. Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest is a wonderful addition to my game shelf and I don’t plan on letting it sail away anytime soon.