Publisher: Façade Games
Designer: Travis Hancock
Artist: Sarah Keele
Players: 2 – 7
Run Time: 20 – 40 mins
“A dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly. It’s the honest ones you want to watch out for, because you can never predict when they’re going to do something incredibly… stupid.” – Jack Sparrow, on the issue of hidden role board games.
You’re right, sorry; Captain Jack Sparrow.
There is little doubt or argument that Walt Disney and Johnny Depp made Pirates cool[er] again…a least for a little while, until the whole Mermaid thing – anyway.
Pirates = awesome.
Boardgames = awesome.
Boardgames that look like books = erm…
So, what else could a triple-decker awesome sandwich be, other than timber shiveringly awesome? Ladies and gentlemen, polish your brass monkeys, as I present to you a review of Tortuga 1667 from Facade Games.
You’ll play as a dubiously real pirate, in and around the island of Tortuga in, well 1667. You’ll hop back and forth between the Flying Dutchman, the isle itself and the Jolly Roger all in an attempt to horde as much of the treasure in the hold belonging to you and your countrymen. However, you don’t know who your countrymen are. Also, the whole hoarding thing is a little bit tricky, as it depends where you are, who you are and, who is with you.
This game has a smattering of worker placement, area control, variable player powers, bidding, and hidden roles to label just a few of the core mechanics. If that sounds like jumble ingredients doomed to failure then you are in for a pleasant and sweet surprise because it is the blending of these that makes this game worthy of your gaming table and shelf.
Picture this, you’re on a ship in the bay of Tortuga, across the halcyon blue waters are two other ships. One with loads of gold, the other bustling with another group or unruly pirates. Now, if you’re the captain (taking the number one spot on the ship) you can order an attack against it to try and get some of that treasure. If you’re the first Mate (number two spot), you can try and mutiny against your captain and dispatch him to the Island. If you are the very last in the line on the ship, you’re the Cabin Boy (Roger!), and you can shift one of the treasure chests from the French hold to the British hold or vice versa. With the exception of the cabin boy, everything comes down to a vote (I know, I know, these must be the most democratic bunch of pirates in the history of Piracy) where everyone (except the captain during a mutiny) on the ship gets to cast their vote, plus the top card of the Vote Deck. Failures don’t do any harm, except potentially reveal whose side you’re on. Successes result in capturing a treasure chest- and then placing it in a hold (careful now), or you get promoted. But may also reveal whose side you’re on.
About this voting business, it’s not quite as clear-cut as saying “yay” or “nay”, your hand of just three Vote cards dictate how you’re going to vote on any one of the three viable actions: Attacking, Brawling (vying for control of the island) and Mutinying. An attack needs at least one cannon and one torch – where each bucket of water nullifies a torch. The brawl action is either British or French flags, suggesting who piles into the fight to half-inch the treasure, and Mutinying boils down to a steering wheel or skull and crossbones (obviously). What makes this interesting is that depending on the action, your allegiance and perhaps, more importantly, the allegiance you are trying to present, you can only vote with the cards you have in hand. And you have to vote (hand management, there’s another mechanic for you). This creates an interesting mix, as there are cards you really want to keep for your actions, your plan, but you have to vote when called upon, and that can mean giving up a card you want for a result that might favour you, use a card you don’t want to hang on to, but in doing so you’re either sending the “right” message about your allegiance, or the “wrong” one.
If that wasn’t interesting enough, you’ve also got the Event Cards, a whole deck of them, and these set the pace for the game. The game-ending card – the Spanish Armada – hidden at the bottom. Until that card turns up though, there is a whole deck of shenanigans to get through, and most of these are varying degrees of bad, from the innocently named albatross to the ominous Black Spot. How you get these cards is one of my favourite parts of this game, in your turn, regardless of where on the board you are, you can interact with these cards in a couple of interesting ways. You can look at any two of these cards, you can demand that another player chooses between any two cards, or you can reveal one yourself. Knowing, and keeping track of these cards is almost like a metagame that goes on throughout, this part of Tortuga is about memory, manipulation and backstabbing.
On top of all of this, you’re trying to figure out who everyone is.
Being a hidden roles game, there is the potential downfall of it being very easy to suss out who is on which side, but, I’ve found that to be hugely player dependant. How good you are at lying, bluffing, and how much of a risk you are prepared to take as that deck whittles down. The deck acts not only as a countdown to the end of the game but to a player’s plans. Remaining hidden is of the utmost importance in this game, but you want to strike that delicate balance of also finding out who is on your side. When its crunch time, you need to ensure that you can shift that treasure quickly, you need to know who you can rely on, and who you throw overboard. Be wary of the honest ones!
There is, however, an elephant on the boat, and I think a much-needed caveat when it comes to playing this game: the player count. Technically, it plays two to seven people. Technically. But at two players it is kind of a drag, your actions are pretty prescribed. Three players is much the same. At four you get a big ol’ chunk of flavour. At five it is like you’re playing a different game, but at seven (I know I missed six, get over it), at seven this game is rollicking good fun!
Tortuga 1667 relies on, and flat out requires player and social interaction, so with more players, there is more of that, thus more fun. Further to this, the game becomes more volatile, swaying a vote becomes harder, and more involved. The odd player is Dutch, winning if the English and French draw, it is a brilliant twist on a hidden roles game that I’ve not seen before and Tortuga pulls it off with style. The variability and independence of the Dutch player can have massive consequences, and if played right can hold the tide of the battle in their hands.
And talking of style, I hope that my photos of this game do it justice. The game, the box, the board, art, components everything is flat-out gorgeous. And yet, manages to never feel over produced. It is tight, succinct and comes in at around £25. The neoprene playing ‘board’ juxtaposed by the simple, almost old-fashioned pawns is quite simply delightful.
Tortuga 1667 is one of my favourite games of 2017; it does everything a really good game needs to do. It gets you thinking, gets you interacting and playing. You never feel like you don’t have a choice of actions, and whatever you do you’ll be moving towards your ever approaching the goal. Ultimately the game comes down to being able to carefully balance subterfuge with careful, planned strikes against those players you think/hope are your enemy. Played at the higher player count this game will not fail to entertain and enthral, and oh my, doesn’t it look very pretty on your shelf.
This review was based on a full priced Kickstarter campaign at the Early Bird pledge level.