In Black Fleet, you command a fleet of ships amidst a lawless archipelago. There, you must send your merchant ship to collect and trade goods at various ports, while driving your pirate ships to raid opposing merchants for their cargo. All the while, you must guide the Royal Navy ships to thwart the efforts of the enemy pirates as you work towards being the first to have enough doubloons to win the baron’s daughter in marriage.
At first, it felt a bit odd controlling a lawful merchant ship, as well as a lawless pirate ship. On top of that, controlling two navy ships simultaneously with other players seemed like maybe this game was trying to do too much at once. As the ball got rolling, this threeway rock-paper-scissor mechanic really began to shine.
The businesslike merchant ships travel from port to port buying and selling goods. The further the port, the higher the reward for the goods, but also the greater the risk of encountering an opposing pirate ship. Pirate ships patrol the water looking for merchant ships to raid, stealing a crate of cargo from the besieged vessel. The navy ships are controlled communally, which means each player is able to move it on their turn. Early in our game, the navy ships would not get very far, but when a clear winner began to emerge, most of us worked together to guide the navy ships to their pirate ships.
While merchants generate doubloons by selling goods, pirates do so by burying them on sandy beaches. This did not make complete sense, considering the player would get doubloons by essentially burying the treasure, but it worked quite well thematically. The naval ships would award the attacking player for guiding them toward pirate ships and destroying them. All in all, each ship played a part in the system, and it quickly turned into a dance of the good, the bad, and the navy.
As players would accumulate doubloons, they would spend them on progress cards that drove them toward victory. Each progress card would provide them with a permanent bonus that altered their playstyle in various ways. For example: one progress card rewarded the player with additional doubloons for destroying a pirate ship with a navy ship, where others would reward more for trading certain goods. This mechanic made each player’s play-style change a little as the game progressed, which was rather refreshing for a game that has a pretty simple core mechanic.
One of the most notable things about this game is its components. The while a bit saturated at times, the art is simply stunning, especially on the cards. The ships themselves are made of a hard plastic that even has space for you to place the cargo cubes. The map was nicely sized to really give the impression of cruising around a vast archipelago, and the pacing held really well.
Black Fleet did not take long to figure out how to play, and as soon as we had each taken a turn, we were ready to begin developing strategies. Our first game was pretty friendly, but as we figured things out, it got a lot more interesting; blocking other player’s routes, hunting those that wronged you, and lots and lots of nautical puns. Fairly accessible for all types and ages, Black Fleet has a lot of strategic depth and even replayability with its random progress cards. I look forward to playing it again soon.