Sunday, November 2, 2008

Loot Review: An Overlooked Gem

There's a nifty little card game I picked up a couple of years ago, and I've gotten around to writing a review of it, originally posted here:

The full review is below, but if you have a profile over at bgg, then head over there and give my review a thumb-up, and if you don't have a profile at bgg... ...well then I just don't know what to say.

(By the way, Loot is a card game where you attack merchant ships with pirates and yell "ARRR!" a lot. Perfect for Talk Like a Pirate Day or for teaching your child one part of the alphabet.)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This game is great, and I’m sort of surprised that it hasn’t garnered more attention as a fantastic gateway game. I think the problem may lie with the fact that as a 2-player game, it is absolutely abysmal. Advertising it on the box as a 2-player game has, I imagine, probably hurt its popularity quite a bit because if anyone bought this on a whim (I got mine for $8) and then tried to play it for the first time with a single opponent, they would probably be inclined to deposit it promptly into the nearest trash bin and dismiss it as poor non-gamer fare. Indeed it was probably only The Good Doctor’s name on the box that encouraged me to try this sucker out with more than two players, and I am very glad I did because it is now probably my favorite gateway game, and a game I wouldn’t hesitate to pull out as a filler with gamers either.

Part of the beauty of Loot is its incredibly simple rules, which are as follows:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Deal each player 6 cards and choose a starting player to begin. Play passes clockwise.

On a turn, you may:
1) Draw a card.
2) Play a merchant in front of you.
3) Play a pirate on any merchant on the table (with the bottom of the card facing you to show that the pirate is yours). If you had played pirates on this merchant on a previous turn, the card you play must be of the same suite (color), and other players cannot play pirates of this suite on this merchant. You may play pirates on merchants that are in front of you.
4) Play a pirate captain or the admiral on a merchant on the table. To play the admiral, the merchant must be yours. To play a pirate captain, you must have pirates of the same suite as the captain (there is one captain of each suite).

(You discard a card on your turn if the deck is depleted and you have nothing else to do.)

At the START of your turn, if you have more strength (skulls) worth of pirates on a merchant than any other player, or if you have a merchant in front of you that nobody played any pirates on, you claim that merchant into your face-down score pile for the number of gold (VPs) indicated on the card.

Pirate captains and the admiral are worth infinite strength; the player who played the last pirate captain or admiral on a particular merchant is considered to have more strength.

The game ends when the deck runs out AND a player has no cards in hand. Your score is the gold in your score pile minus the gold on any merchants still in our hand. The player with the most points wins.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

That’s it! This is not a summary; I’ve basically transcribed the entire rulebook (or rules pamphlet). It is exceedingly easy to teach because nobody whines about not understanding the rules. You play a merchant in front of you, you play a pirate on a merchant, or you draw a card. As soon as you can get over the hurdle of players claiming merchants only at the START of their turn and not, say, whenever they feel like it (this is apparently harder to grasp than it sounds), and as soon as they understand how pirate captains and the admiral work, it’s smooth sailing. Oh, you also have to make sure you mention and make known the rule that a player loses points for merchants still in hand at the end or you may wind up being keelhauled.

That’s all well and good, but is the game actually fun? Yes, it is very fun, and nearly everyone I’ve taught it to agrees, which is why I’m surprised that it has not gained more of a reputation, and has only achieved a score of 6.38 as of this writing (which is still quite admirable, or admiral-ble if you will).

There aren’t that many games that I can play with total non-gamers and have them immediately ask to play again, and a large part of this game’s appeal lies in its extremely reasonable playing time (roughly 20 minutes). You can easily play a few games in a row, develop some metagaming if that’s your thing, and you won’t really care when you lose, even if it was due to extremely bad luck.

And yes, this game certainly has a noticeable luck element. You can draw nothing but one-skull pirates of different suites while your opponents seem to get all of the captains and four-skull ships. But this is at its heart a trick taking game, and you simply have to figure out how far you can stretch the resources you are dealt.

I’m also impressed that drawing a large or small number of merchants simply means you have to adopt different tactics, you have to plan when to play which ones. If I have the hefty eight-gold merchant in my hand, I have to decide whether to play it at a time when other players are occupied and try to secure it for myself, or whether to use it as bait to distract players while I cheaply claim smaller prizes.

This game has luck, it has skill, and it has fun. Because the rules are so dead-simple, and because there is just one deck to worry about, the gameplay itself is extremely smooth and not at all fiddly. This allows players to hurl threats, belt out sea shanties, and generally act like idiots without even slowing the game down. And a large part of this game is the social aspect, even in a tactical sense. A lot of the skill is in reading people and guessing what other players will and can do, and also in convincing them to do or not do things. If you are about to attack my three-gold merchant, I can whine that the player to your left is about to get a five-gold merchant unless you do something. And when I attack a merchant, I might say, in a piratey growl of course, that there’s plenty more in my hand to back that up (though I may be lying through my silver-plated teeth).

And there is hardly anything in any game I have ever played to match the thrill of throwing down a captain after another player has already played a captain on that merchant. They are so sure that they have won, and then, with a triumphant “ARRR!”, you prove them wrong and claim the prize… unless someone else plays a THIRD captain! I have never seen four (or more) captains played on a single ship, but the resultant laughter would probably cause some sort of tear in space-time, resulting in Henry Morgan himself stepping into the room and asking if he could play too.

I have only played the team version once, and I didn’t really care for it because everything moved quite a bit slower, though this would be improved through familiarity and it certainly wasn’t as bad as the two-player version. Personally I’d say you want three to five players, and five is optimal; with three players, the game can be a bit simplistic (though still fun). I’d like to try the team play variant again with more experienced players though, as it seemed like it had potential.

Another thing to mention is that in the edition I have (Gamewright), a couple of the colors are a bit hard to distinguish (apparently this is better in other editions). It hasn’t really been a problem, but you might not want to play in low lighting, and you might take this into consideration if your group has trouble with this sort of thing, or if one of your players is colorblind, though you could probably get away with marking the fronts of some of the cards in some way. And did I mention I bought the game for eight dollars!

If you want a pirate game that is non-gamer friendly, plays in twenty minutes, and provides a lot of fun and pirate talk, as well as some genuine tactics and strategy, you won’t go wrong with Loot. I give it an 8/10.

Now cue bad pirate puns! :arrrh:

1 comment:

  1. Strategy is the name of the game. You got to have a sharp mind to defeat your opponent. Never underestimate your foe otherwise it's game over. Plot your tactics just like HEROBIT's Power-Up|Attack|Resist|Damage|Draw Phase game play (a new card game soon to be released on June 21, 2009.) Play with the deception but never let it dupe you.