John D. Clair is one of my favourite designers, and I find the “card-crafting” game mechanic to be very neat.
For that reason, one of my best experiences at Dice Tower West last week was a sit-down meeting and play with Alderac Entertainment Group CEO John Zinser and Clair (along with developer Mark Wooton) to play Clair’s new pirate game coming to Kickstarter in May, Dead Reckoning.
It was an amazing experience, really making me feel like part of the boardgame media. Wow, an actual individual demonstration! An appointment that was on my calendar and everything!
It helps that the game seems great too.
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of the game, though, let me say that the Ian O’Toole artwork is wonderful in this game (but then, isn’t it always with him?).
Also, please note that while everything is near final, changes could be made to the game and we played an (almost finished) prototype so the bits and pieces may change after this post too (like stabilizing the middle mast of each ship, which kept popping out when it was grabbed).
Also, I didn’t actually get pictures of everything (whoops!).
Let’s take a look.
Dead Reckoning is another card-crafting game where you are pirates exploring the ocean, attacking other ships for booty and also trying to spread influence on the various islands that you find in your travels.
Like any good pirate, you start with a ship.
The ship has four areas on it, with two of them to store cargo and gold taken from the various islands on the map. You can upgrade your ship and fill in those four spots with something even better.
See those sails and that track at the bottom?
That’s how you move around the map. You will always have at least two sails unless you fill up the space with cargo (it has to be empty to use the sail). Your played cards may give you more sails.
Your sail rating is how many movement points you have that turn and you note that on the track.
During the game, it might look like this at times.
Yes, silly me never upgraded my ship.
Anyway, there is a safe harbour where your ship starts and which is where any cargo you produce shows up (for the most part, there are exceptions).
In the harbour, you’re relatively safe from attack (you get a lot of extra guns). You can also pick up cargo to take out to the other islands that are in the game, mostly to buy card improvements but you may find other uses for it as well.
You will also have a deck of 12 basic crew cards that you will eventually be buying advancements to improve (like in all of Clair’s other card-crafting games).
The basic crew may let you acquire cargo, spread influence, maybe even attack, but they’re pretty…well, basic.
Improvements can be added to them, however, which will give them even more abilities.
You can also level them up. Between turns, you can level up one of the cards in your hand. Each card has four levels which increased their abilities to do things.
A big part of the game will be exploring the ocean, discovering islands, and trying to spread your influence to them. You might even build some buildings there to defend your rights to it or to help produce more goods that you can take.
Each island will also have a card improvement that you can add to one of the cards you played this turn (or you can hold one improvement in storage until you play the card you want to add it to). You have to buy it with cargo, though, which is why you have to bring stuff from the harbour.
In addition, if you have cards that let you do it, you can spread influence on the island your ship is at. If you gain control of it (have more cubes there than anybody else, which includes empty spaces), then you get to put down a permanent cube on the island.
This cube will never go away (your temporary influence cubes can be replaced by other players) and will count towards end game scoring. If you lose control and regain it, you will get more permanent cubes.
As the game goes along, islands will start looking like this.
What about the combat? This is a pirate game, so you know there’s going to be combat.
Some card improvements are Merchant Ships which you can either buy for their front effects or you can attack. If you attack them, you’ll flip them over and see how hard they are to defeat. If you win the battle, you’ll get the improvement that’s on the back (much better than the front). If you lose, you’ll still most likely get to level up at least one of your cards.
Or you could be like Clair and have a Merchant Ship sink you with 5 hits in one battle.
However, most of the combat is against other players. If you play a card with a Jolly Roger flag on it, or if you want to attack one of their islands with a fort on it, then combat begins.
You total up all the cannons on your ship and played cards, and that’s how many cubes you get. If you attacked another player’s ship, they can play their cannons and combat abilities from their current hand as well to see how many cubes they get.
Yes, Dead Reckoning uses a modified cube tower that looks like a pirate ship to resolve combat.
You drop all the cubes through the opening and wherever they land determines who wins.
Some of the areas have a crown (or even two crowns) on them. Whoever gets the most crowns wins the battle.
However, your cubes could land on “hit” spaces, which means you do a point of damage to the other player’s ship. Or it could land on plunder which you will get regardless of whether you win or lose (unless you’re sunk, in which case you may not get it. I don’t remember).
The loser of the battle takes one point of damage (I think, it might be two but I think it’s one) as well as any hits that they took due to where cubes landed.
If your ship has five damage on it, then it’s sunk. The attacking player gets to take five coins from you (coins are just victory points, basically) and your ship goes back to the harbour.
This led to a hilarious situation where Mark attacked me. We both had damaged ships (I believe we had two damage each). He dropped the cubes, and did three hits to me. However, I did two hits to him and I ended up winning the battle, doing a third hit.
How does the game end?
There are seven objectives at the top of the board. Each one will give you victory points at the end of the game. However, they are also the game-end determination.
Once somebody completes their fourth objective, that triggers the end. The other players get one more turn and anybody who is already finished is harder to attack and/or to replace their influence cubes on islands.
Then you total up the victory points (gold coins, objectives, island influence cubes) and whoever has the most points is the winner!
Thoughts about the game
I really enjoyed my first play of Dead Reckoning. It’s a great combination of card-crafting as well as other mechanics like area control and exploration.
I wish I had taken a picture of my final cards just to show you how they can look when you’ve built them up. I like how you can make them stronger not just through the improvements that Clair is known for but also just by leveling them up.
A level 4 captain along with some good improvements is really hard to beat just by himself!
One mechanic I didn’t mention was that on your turn, you don’t have to play all of your cards.
You have a hand size limit of 6 cards but you only draw 4 at the end of your turn. So if you keep one or two back, you could have a huge play in your next turn because of that. Especially later in the game when you’ve strengthened them a great deal.
There is a lot to keep track of, which may throw off some gamers. You’re building up your crew with improvements, you’re spreading influence on islands, you’re getting into combat situations. Most cargo is produced in your harbour but some can be produced on islands, etc.
I didn’t have any trouble with it, but for some gamers it may be hard.
Also, being pirates, you will definitely be attacking other players. If you don’t like “take that,” then that will be a problem too.
That being said, the only thing sinking your ship actually does is make you lose 5 points to the winning player. It’s not like they’re destroying your engine or removing your ship upgrades or something like that.
The rules are pretty straightforward and if you’ve played any of Clair’s other card-crafting games, that mechanic will feel right at home for you. The only real difference (regarding this mechanic, I mean) between Dead Reckoning and Mystic Vale is how you get the improvements and the fact that you can level up the base cards in addition to the improvements.
I love the cube tower (though hopefully it will become a little more stable once it’s no longer a prototype). I’ve never used one before (I still haven’t had the chance to play Edge of Darkness yet) so it was a neat way to resolve combat.
Overall, I didn’t see any huge negatives in my one play. You do have to keep in mind that you have to level up your Bosun, because it’s the only way I could see (unless there are improvements that give you the ability that never came out) to build ship upgrades is to get him up to a high level.
A little more variety for that might be nice, but again I may have missed something.
The game took us about 2 hours to play, but it may be shorter once players are used to it (though maybe not, as 3 of the 4 players in our game were definitely used to it!). That could also be an issue for some players. Not for me after my first play, but I’d have to play it more to see if it would be an issue.
I’ll definitely be taking a look at this one when it hits Kickstarter in May.
Have you played it? Clair has been bringing it to conventions for almost a year now, so maybe you have? What did you think?
Or how do you think it sounds?
Let me know in the comments.