Ruthless, from Alley Cat Games is very much like a firework. Not the type of firework that goes off randomly at 11:36pm on a Thursday night in March, waking the dog up, and thus you. No, Ruthless is like a firework in that despite the fact you’ve played many other deck builders, this one will make you go “Ooohhh”, like you do when watching fireworks, despite having seen many fireworks go off before.
I mean yes, it is very, very, very pretty to look at and let’s face it, the incredible box art is one of the reasons you picked it from the shelf, it’s the reason you had a look for a review to help validate your choice in-game purchase. Rest assured the Ooohhing only starts with the artwork.
Simply put, you’ll win if you have the most notoriety after a number of rounds. You’ll claim these Notoriety Points after each round if you have the strongest crew, the strongest crew being the best poker-style hand of cards.
You’ll play doubloons from your hand to trade them in for coins, use the coins to hire pirates from the Tavern to add to your play area and then your deck (or if you want to be thematic to your Deck and your deck). You can use your Powder Monkeys (part of your starting hand) to bury those cards you don’t want anymore or use them to explore for Treasure, or even just send them to have a punch-up in the Tavern and get rid of the card you know your opponent wants. So far, so deck builder.
Once all players have used their hand of cards, the pirates are mustered. The new ones that have now been fully initiated into your crew, and those that you played throughout your turn, are now all arranged to be the meanest bunch of salty sea dogs to ever take to the waves…and by this, I mean arranged neatly into pairs, or straights or flushes, because pirates always look scarier when they are colour coordinated with the one another #TrueStory
From the outset, it all seems so simple, so straightforward, but each pirate card is not only going to be part of a rank system, nor part of a suit, but the pirates, when played or recruited will spring into action. These actions make the main body of the game, adding both an internal conflict and to the player interaction: you’ll be able to attack your opponent, forcing them to lose cards; you’ll be able to retrieve cards lost to your discard; pick up extra coins or treasure; basically, loads of stuff. It is this combination of rank, suit, and ability that makes Ruthless so enjoyable.
With every card played you’ll have to think about the long and short-term tactics, and in a slightly uncharacteristic fashion, these pirates are ushering you to think that way each time they are played. Their worth is only realised in the company they keep, their individual ability, although very “powerful” can only become a strategy if you have others of the same suit or rank, as ultimately it is the scoring that matters.
The final scoring naturally matters most, but noteworthy here that it isn’t necessarily the round winners that win the game. You know that saying about losing a battle to win the war? Each game can be littered with winners. In the end, you can lose, but not feel robbed, remembering that round where you scored 25 points with that mega flush. With this comes a sense of achievement, of knowing that for at least one round your deck worked! Just not often enough.
With any deck builder, there is the opportunity for optimisation, for finding the combinations of cards that just work well together, so if that is your cup of tea then Ruthless certainly won’t disappoint. But as cards of the same rank don’t all have the same ability, you’ll realise quickly that your plans need to be able to pivot, twist and parry like any good swashbuckler. There is no card that is universally better than another, sure the higher ranking cards often offer some more powerful actions, and the Captain and Quartermaster also come with their own Notoriety Points, but—just as with poker—ace high is a rubbish hand.
I rarely find myself hunting and hoping for that one elusive card, Ruthless gives you options hand over hook, which cards to play and in which order, how to best use the pirate cards in your hand and how quickly can you buy that one you need. Each round is made up of these tiny little choices, tiny little costs and that’s how this game will get under your skin. From the outset, the plan is simple, but each step along that path is paved with seemingly innocuous choices. Even the flipping treasure cards have a choice! This all contributes to an overarching structure of action for the game, which despite all these little decisions you’ll be making, the pace never slows, the drama of the game builds turn by turn.
There’s a pseudo-narrative here, with the first two rounds being all set-up as players need to recruit quickly and heavily, and as you move into the middle of the game, the action and interaction heats up. Now your recruiting, treasure hunting and blocking is more focused, more deliberate. This all builds (hopefully) for the final act, as all those loose strands are pulled together, tightly bound in fortune and planning to create a concrete tactic and well-balanced deck, but it’s one that has grown naturally with you in the game.
Ruthless manages to feel familiar and new all at once, deftly dodging that games-ja-vu feeling and instead hits that sweet spot of familiarity without drowning in its theme or core mechanic. It has an exciting and engaging arc as you turn a bunch of Powder Monkeys and a few doubloons into a dynamic and rollicking band of pirates with enough variety to grant a multitude of options for any play style. The familiarity makes the game very easy to teach, the artwork makes it look great on the table and the mix of mechanics will convince you that next game your deck will be that little bit better.
Ruthless is available to pre-order now through the publisher’s website (or designer’s for non-English versions of the game as well as some extra bling for your copy of it) and will be available at Essen in October.
This review is based on a prototype copy of the game provided by the publisher, as such the final contents may vary – in fact they certainly will.
This review was first seen on Polyhedron Collider