Black Fleet Review
Time: ~45-60 minutes
Times Played: 6
Have you ever wanted to sail the seven seas but could never decide on which profession to do so? Then Black Fleet might be the game for you. You get to play as the Navy, the merchant trader ship and as a looting pirate each and every turn.
The goal of the game is to buy five development cards, ranging in value from five doubloons to fourteen. Once you have purchased those cards, you can buy the end game card, which is either ten or twenty doubloons, depending on how long you want the game to last. When the final card is purchased, each player has one turn remaining before the game ends.
But how do you make money to buy these cards? With your merchant ships, you travel from port to port and try to deliver goods. The further you travel, the more worthwhile the rewards. Each merchant ship automatically loads and unloads when it reaches a port. Each merchant ship can move three cubes, which fit neatly onto the ship.
That’s is easier said than done. The waters are littered with pirate ships. Pirates are rewarded doubloons for looting and possibly sinking merchant ships. A merchant ship cannot be sunk until all three items of cargo are removed from the ship. Once a pirate ship loots a merchant ship, they need to unload their new wares before pillaging again. With the looted goods, pirates can bury them at several island locations on the board for extra gold. They however cannot loot a ship and bury their treasure in the same turn.
The pirates don’t just have run of the board however. Two strong naval vessels start their patrol at the center of the board and are strictly used to hunt pirates. For each they sink, the controlling player receives a doubloon reward for their hunting prowess.
Speaking of sinking ships, Black Fleet does not keep your fleet out of the game long if they do end up resting at the bottom of Davy Jones’ Locker. Once any of your ships are sunk, they are returned to the board via three waterway entrances located in the corners on your next turn. So you are never truly out of the game if something is sunk.
With so many ships, who controls which? Everyone! Each turn you will play one of your two movement cards which allows you to move one of the naval ships, your pirate ship and your merchant ship the listed amount of spaces on the board. There are additional conditions that can be granted via Fortune cards. They have a temporary ability or change to the rules that players can use when needed.
Once all the ships are moved, you replenish your hand with your new movement card and anything else that you might possibly receive for your turn. You can then pay for a development card, if you wish, paying the doubloons and flipping the card over for use. Each development card has a special ability that you will unlock for the rest of the game once purchased.
This continues until one player purchases their victory card and the game enters the final turn. If more than one player is able to buy that card, the player with the most doubloons wins.
So what do I think?
For the price, the components are absolutely gorgeous. The insert is shaped like a skull and crossbones and while not exactly the most practical storage solution, it does work and it just looks neat. The art is colorful and vibrant. Everything is clear and easy to read. The mini ships are incredibly detailed and sturdy. They even hold the cubes that are cargo in the game. And the money! The doubloons are actual metal coins and are a great addition to the game.
Black Fleet is incredibly light, like a step below Ticket to Ride or Settlers of Catan. The game is simple and while not marketed as such, this game would be an excellent starting game for playing with kids and introducing them to the wide world of tabletop gaming. You are looking at your cards and moving your ships to correspond to what your cards say. That’s all.
The game plays three to four players and while it works fine at three, I prefer a four player game as the board is far busier and there are more hazards to avoid. That being said, when it is not your turn, there is really nothing for you to do. You can watch everyone move their ships and plan for where you would like to move yours, but that’s it. You don’t know where ships will end up or if yours will be sunk at all. Depending on how long each player takes for them to take their turn will dictate how long you sit. With the lightness of this game, it was only a problem that we encountered on the initial play through, but still something I wanted to note however group dependent that might be.
I’m not a big fan of the end game condition for victory either, so let me explain. You have your cards that you buy for values of 5, 7, 11 and 14 doubloons. Once those are bought, they only thing left for the player to claim victory is to purchase their 10 (or 20) doubloon card. Once that happens, the remaining players have one turn remaining to “catch up.” Several times we realized that there was no point in playing the final turn as the victory conditions could not be met. So why even bother making the game last longer? Everything is public knowledge so the players know exactly who is in the lead.
I also think the powers of the cards that you buy to trigger the end game are unbalanced. Some are incredibly helpful and can put a player in position to run the table. Others are downright pitiful and will rarely be utilized.
Playing as all three ship types is also something, thematically, that I needed to get over. This is a pirate game and I wanted to just be a pirate but that was not an option. I know there are other games that allow that but this is my review and I will nitpick what I want to nitpick.
Lastly, another common critique that I hear about regarding Black Fleet is the backstabbing element. I am in the other boat here though as I honestly have no issue with the attacks. Everyone knows you’ll be gunning for them so there is little to no surprise. You can see the board and see where the pirate ships are and can do what you can to plan accordingly to avoid them. It’s very cat-and-mouse honestly. Move a naval ship towards the pirates, move your merchant ships away from the pirate ships and move your pirate ships near the other player’s merchant ships, rinse, repeat. I feel like Ticket to Ride (with someone laying a route where you are obviously going) and Catan (with the robber) are much more cutthroat than anything Black Fleet has to offer. But that could just be me. We like to play direct conflict games.
So where does Black Fleet fit in a collection? Will it ever see the table with other pirate games out there? Honestly? I think it has a place, which is surprising considering what I said above. Not every game night needs to be a heavy engine builder. Sometimes a light game where you can play, chat and not miss anything is needed. The game moves quickly once the first few turns have been completed. Every turn is the same as you play cards, move pieces and collect rewards. Players are really only consulting the changing board for information regarding what they should do on their turn. The game can run a little long for how light it is. With the option of adding a victory card that costs twenty doubloons to pursue, I could only really see that if it was a parent handicapping themselves against their young child. Adding that much more time to the gameplay would really draw out the mechanics and might even sour people on the experience.