Saturday, May 03, 2008

Blackbeard - Out Of The Box

Blackbeard arrived yesterday, and boy does he have some hygiene issues. 

Certainly one of the more compelling wargame box covers of the early 90's, the old AH edition of Blackbeard was a game that I really wanted to like. Combine Berg's love of chrome, Don Greenwood's rules style, and a game sequence that, while almost certainly very evocative of the pirate life, wasn't exactly what anyone would call "brisk". My last game, in fact, played between myself, Dave, and Josh at one of the very first Sunriver retreats 10 years ago, started with a bang (revelry and debauchery, why must you be so much fun?) but then quickly devolved into the longest hangover ever, with my ship suffering from too much rum the night before for about six months. During that time (about 90 minutes in real time), my ship never moved, I was attacked by four warships, all of which I somehow fought off, but I never had a single game decision in all of that time. Part of the problem was the deck pulling the other player's turns consistently, so that I only had five or six turns the entire game. 

I think I may have tried to solo the game later on, only to be completely confounded by the KC and warship rules being intertwined in each other's rules sections. I like to think I'm a pretty smart guy, and few good rulesets leave me confused, but this one just lost me completely. 

Fast forward ten years, and the new Blackbeard, now with fiber, arrives on my doorstep. While I haven't had the chance to do more than clip the number counters and read the developer's notes, here's a quick out of the box description of the components and what I know of the game.

Map: Very attractive. No hexes, just sea zones that are fairly large. Ports look quite a bit like in the old game, with a rating for defense and wealth, plus Berg's patented "roll 2 d6 with one as the "ten's" dice" system, which he calls D66 (don't know that Euclid ever came up with one of those polyhedrons, certainly not a regular one, but then d10s aren't regular) port ID number. Nice heraldry to identify nationality. The fonts are all a very nice piratey but readable style, and there's even a Davy Jones' Locker space for your pirates when they run out of luck after being becalmed for 90 minutes with a hangover. The areas on the map are more or less the same. Stock is the "deluxe" GMT version, meaning it's like Europe Engulfed, Twilight Struggle - heavy cardstock rather than paper. 

Play Aids: Apparently these caused a near riot at GMT when they figured out that they would need 10 of the Pirate Ship cards in each game, which are very nice 8.5"x5" heavy card with a smooth finish. I expect those cost about a buck each to put in the game, which is a lot of money at that end. Apparently they tried to get as much info onto the card as possible to avoid having to require pencil and paper, and they almost did it - the rules include sheets to track pirate havens and raided ports that you can photocopy or get off the web somewhere. Also, the developer mentions that they had quite a bit of dice to roll in this game, and lots of tables/processes, so there are two 11"x17" folded sheets to cover not only the tables, but also most procedures and action summaries. While these look more or less like well done Excel sheets or Word tables opposed to the map and ship cards, I for one appreciate their inclusion in the game (and two copies is above and beyond). I cannot speak for how effective they are, however, but there are a lot of them.

Counters: One full sheet of 1/2" and one of 5/8" counters. I've just started trimming the counters, and I notice that where GMT didn't have a lot of "flash" on the counters (requiring only trimming of the corners), these have a lot of "slivers" on the sides that require a certain amount of massaging to remove completely. I really hate having this dusty stuff everywhere when you dump out a baggie of counters, so it's taking longer to punch/clip than usual. However, the counters seem very nice if the fonts are getting smaller and smaller and harder and harder for me to read. The pirate banner counters are actually about 1.2" wide, but use a script that can be difficult to parse across a table.

Cards: Two decks, one big one for events and one small one for the actual pirates. Events seem to refer to the rulebook more than I'd like to see, although a reference is always nice so long as it doesn't require your attention the first 30 times you play the card. I'm hoping the player aids take care of this issue. Artwork is of the woodcut or watercolor variety in a sepia tone (as is pretty much everything in this game). The stock is not casino card deck quality, but is very glossy and a passably heavy weight. The cards shuffle easily out of the box. The pirate deck includes semi-cartoony pen and ink drawings of the pirates, along with a set of characteristics that are reinforced with both color and geometric shapes (something I appreciate even though I'm not color challenged). Certainly a step up from the artwork in the original all around, although I did like the board in the first ed. 

Rulebook: Colorful, glossy, and quite a few pages long, although a good half of the book is devoted to history and developer's notes. Strangely, most of the notes justify the changes from the first edition, leading me to conclude that GMT figures that everyone who buys this game had the AH version, which is 15 years old. That's very nice, but I'd rather have gotten that information from the web and had notes on the design choices instead. The layout seems quite nice in the rules section, with lots of graphics and examples.

I should note here that the development team tried to get rid of complexity to make a game rather than a simulation (as was apparently the design goal in the earlier game). As such, the rules start out saying that if you played the original, you should forget pretty much everything you knew about it as almost no rule has gone untouched. Clearly a lot of the basic mechanisms are there (although now other players act as "anti-pirates" to keep them involved, worth the price of admission in itself), but they've been streamlined and tweaked. There in a full page of solitaire rules in relatively small type, and the game apparently handles up to five players (although I have no idea if that's a good idea or not). 

Dice: I'm noticing a trend toward dice that are so cheap...

They're so cheap, that they are unusable. Barbarossa to Berlin came with a German die that was clearly weighted toward '6'. Red Storm over the Reich seems to have a similar problem, although I've only rolled those dice about 40 times with about 3/4's of the Axis rolls coming up 5 or 6. These dice seem very light to me, although nowhere near as light as, say, the Command and Colors Ancients dice. Blackbeard comes with two black and one white standard d6's, although there is something about them that reminds me of the Mac interface. They have rounded corners and edges, and are of a good size, and don't appear to be cheaply made. There's a strangely modern look to them that I can't quite pin down. It's probably just me, but I want to like these dice. I still intend to purchase a nice set of balanced polyhedrals at some point just to have, although I know they tend to be on the order of $10-$15 per die. It may be worth it to see if Mike really *does* have a Die Roll Distortion Field around him. 

Box: The box is the nice heavy stock that came with Manoeuvre and Combat Commander, with very glossy artwork. I really like the way these look, it will be interesting to see how they look after a few years of being pulled off the shelf. Like Manoeuvre, there is a cardboard insert that I'm assuming they used for shipping - I can't imagine the game will fit in the box once the counters are punched. I'll probably put a counter tray in this game anyway, they tend to work well with marker-heavy games, and this game is all about markers. 

So there it is, a quick assessment of the game's components and a bit about the changes that were made. I'm looking forward to giving this a try, although now I'm sorry that I've got a mini-monster on the main table that I may need to take down. More about that in the next post...

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