Friday, December 30, 2016

GJJ Games Reviews - Francis Drake by Eagle-Gryphon Games

Francis Drake
Designer: Peter Hawes
Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games
3-5p | 90-120m | 14+
GJJ Games Reviews - Francis Drake by Eagle-Gryphon Games

Game Overview:
Who doesn't love a good pirate game?  Swashbuckling crews, plundering ports, sea battles, and lots of action are what make pirates so enthralling.  But how about a great privateer game?  It doesn't sound quite as exciting, but one right, a game about managing resources, trading goods, and sailing the high seas could be quite interesting.  Well, just like Sir Francis Drake blurred the line between honest privateer and opportunistic pirate, the game Francis Drake a!so straddles the same line.  Does it work out as well for the game as it did for the famous captain?  Read on to find out.

Francis Drake is a large box game for three to five players (there is a variant for two players) that takes about 90 to 120 minutes.

Components & Packaging:
There's only one thing I can say about the components and packaging for Francis Drake.  Wow!  When I received the game I was impressed by the size and weight of the box.  When I took off the shrink wrap and opened the box I was impressed again.  The components are all top notch.  

Francis Drake features a large game board, printed on both ides, a smaller board to store the resources and other bits during the game, player boards for up to five players, and a whole slew of cardboard, plastic, wood, and glass components.  
Tons and tons of absolutely gorgeous components!
Everything is absolutely top notch as far as quality.  The player boards, tokens, and tiles are all nice and thick.  The ship miniatures are nice sculpts, and they even give you an extra one for keeping track of rounds when a simple token would have sufficed.  The silver, gold, and jewels are glass droplets.  The supplies are little barrels.  There are even little treasure chests for each player to keep their plunder in.  A whole bunch of wooden cubes, disks, and captain meeples round out the components.  Plus, everything is double sided with German content on the obverse.  The only game I own with nicer components is Scythe and that's only because I splurged on the metal coins and realistic resources.  If you only look at standard components, Francis Drake has the nicest, by far.
All the printed components are double sided, so you can play in English or German.
Even the huge main game board has an English side and a German side.
There's only one thing that may be nicer than the components, and that's the packaging.  Usually games have a box that is nothing special.  As long as it fits everything securely and isn't piece of junk, it'll be good enough.  Inserts, too, usually do their job, but aren't all that impressive.  Francis Drake, however, has one of the best inserts I've seen in a super nice box.  The insert has a spot for everything, but on top of that, the entire insert has a clear plastic cover with indentations that fit snugly in each compartment of the insert.  This ensures that, not only is it super easy to sort and store the game, but it stays sorted, too!  
Everything has its own little spot, and it's all kept in place with a clear plastic cover.
On top of the great insert you'll keep the main game board, resource board, player boards, and rules.  This makes quite a stack, but there is a notch cut into the side of the box to make removing these boards a breeze.  It's little details like that which set the game's components, packaging, and presentation ahead of most other games.
No more bending boxes to get at the game board, or dumping it unceremoniously onto the table with all the components.
Francis Drake has this nice little detail for easily removing the boards!
Score: 10/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
Setting up Francis Drake takes a few minutes, simply because of the number of components.  However, setup is pretty simple and straightforward.  Each type of component has its very own spot on the boards.  Crew, guns, supplies, and trade goods all have designated areas on the resource board.  So do silver, gold, and jewels.  Each character also has a spot, along with the other cardboard tokens used in the game.  All that needs to be done for setup is to place everything in its spot and then give the players their pieces.

Players each get a pile of wooden bits in their chosen color, a player board with a ship depicted of the same color, both a frigate and galleon in their color, an Investor token, and a treasure chest.  Most of the wooden bits are small disks that will be used during the provisioning phase or larger disks that will be used during the journey phase.  A few cubes are used as markers for tracking battle types each round, and one cube is used to indicate how far each player can sail each round.  Finally, a captain shaped meeple is placed on the score track at the four point spot and the frigates are placed in a random order in the home port section of the board.
You will need a good sized table.  It does take up quite a bit of real estate.
For such a big game, the rules are a lot simpler than I expected.  The game plays out over three rounds and each round has two phases, a provisioning phase and a journey phase.  During the provisioning phase, players will travel through the town of Plymouth, England, visiting different buildings and collecting crew, guns, supplies, and trade goods.  You'll also be able to upgrade your ship and enlist the help of various characters, like the Governor, Informant, Queen, and more.  These will all help you out on the second phase, the setting sail.  The sailing phase is where your ship sets out, visiting various locations throughout the Caribbean and Central America, trading for local goods like a good privateer, or attacking and pillaging Spanish towns, forts, and galleons like a dread pirate!

In the provisioning phase each player will take turns visiting locations in Plymouth by placing small wooden disks at the locations.  Each location will give certain resources that will be needed in the setting sail phase.  The first to visit each location will get a bigger benefit and not every location can be visited by all players.  There are limited spaces at each location.  Furthermore, once you have passed by a location you can't backtrack.  This means you have to plan carefully to make sure you get what you need.  Some locations give you more than just resources though.  Some let you upgrade your frigate to a galleon, which you'll need if you plan to track a Spanish galleon.  The tavern is a game of chance where you may gain some crew or the benefit of the ghost ship, which let you bluff during phase two.  You can also seize the opportunity to use the Golden Hinde (Drake's own ship) which let's you visit one location before anyone else has even set sail.  Other locations give you the abilities of the Governor, Admiral, or Informant, which will give you critical knowledge for your journey.
Heading through Plymouth gathering provisions.
Once all players have proceeded through Plymouth and is ready to sail, phase two begins.  Turn order for phase two is determined by whoever has their ship in the docks first.  Players then take turns placing one of their larger tokens face-down at one of the locations on the map section of the board.  These disks are numbered one through four, plus a player may have the use of the ghost ship and/or the Golden Hinde.  The map of the Caribbean is divided into four regions.  In order to sail to each region players must have enough supplies (barrels) to get there.  

There are four different types of locations to visit.  Trade ports let you exchange a trade good (purple cube) for one of the commodities at the location (coffee, tobacco, sugar, or the rare indigo).  Towns can be attacked by expending one crew (gray cube) and will earn you one or two points.  Forts can be attacked by expending crew and guns required for each town.  Guns can be avoided if you acquired a panache in Plymouth, but crew must be used.  However, until someone attacks a fort the exact number of crew needed is only known to the Governor.  Successfully attack a fort and you'll collect several points, plus, if you are the first to attack the fort this round you'll pillage a gold or silver piece, which can get stored in your treasure chest.  Galleons require guns (and a galleon of your own) and the Admiral will be the only one who knows the exact number of guns required.  Galleons will earn you points, plus a jewel for your treasure chest if you are the first successful attacker.
The Spanish Main has towns, forts, and galleons, just waiting for you to attack.
After all players have placed all of their tokens the Informant may peek at one set of pieces and then move one of his own if he likes.  Then all of the tokens are flipped and arranged at each location in numerical order (ties are determined in turn order).  The Golden Hinde may sail and resolve that location first.  Then everyone sails to their number one location, resolving them in turn order.  Then everyone sails to, then resolve location two.  And so on until everyone has sailed to each of their locations.  You may opt to end your voyage early and head back to Plymouth to get a couple of points and have an earlier turn order for the next provisioning phase.

After each phase there are some bonus points awarded for how many different types of locations you attacked.  Then all remaining resources are returned, galleons are downgraded back to frigates, and all other benefits are returned.  The only thing you get to keep between rounds is the crops you traded for.  The order of the locations in Plymouth get shuffled around and the Spanish galleons change locations.  After three rounds final scores are tallied, with bonuses for silver, gold, and jewels as well as how many sets of commodities you've obtained.
If you attack multiple types of locations each round you can gain bonus points.
You also gain points from all the gold, silver, and jewels you've stashed in your treasure chest by the end of the game.
There are a few more rules than that, but that's the main idea.  It takes between five and ten minutes to explain, and for a game of this size and depth, that's pretty good.  We didn't have any situations come up that weren't covered in the rules and everything made sense.

Score: 8/10 x2

I had a blast playing Francis Drake and so did everyone I played with.  Despite the generally simple rules, there is a real depth to the game.  The decisions are meaningful and at times difficult.  The game is full of player interaction, but without any direct conflict.  

The provisioning phase requires you to carefully consider both your plan for the sailing phase and your opponents' plans.  You'll be faced with the decision to visit an earlier location for a benefit you may need, or jump ahead and visit the location you absolutely require before someone else snags that benefit from you.  There are also plenty of opportunities to play mean and take a location you know someone else needs.  The sailing phase is full of bluffing and deduction, especially if the Golden Hinde or any ghost ships are in play.  
There's a lot going on and a lot to think about while playing Francis Drake.
There definitely seems to be an ideal strategy, but the challenge comes with trying to execute that strategy better than your opponents.  This is definitely a game that should see the table more often in my group.

Score: 9/10 x3

As I said above, there really does seem to be a dominant strategy, but there is just enough randomization in the game that your approach to that strategy will change every time.  The people you are playing against will also be going for the same, or a very similar strategy, so the game becomes a combination of puzzle and outmaneuvering your opponents as you try to figure the best way to complete that strategy.

As a slightly heavier game that plays in about two hours this won't see a ton of table time, but I can be assured that the time spent with the game will be enjoyable.  I could see the game getting slightly repetitive if it's played a whole lot, but as an occasional foray into a slightly meatier pirate game, Francis Drake is definitely going to be a great choice.
An outstanding second round left me with a whopping 119 points at the end of the game!
Score: 7/10 x1

General Fun:
Francis Drake is quite fun to play if you want something a bit puzzly and thinky.  I really like the two distinct phases and how the second phase really depends on what you manage to get in the first phase.  It takes an interesting combination of both planning for the future as well as reacting to the changes in the current game state.  There's also quite a bit of player interaction for such a Euroey (yes, that's a word now, at least in this blog) feeling game about privateers.

However, for a pirate game, there's not much excitement.  Combat is very bland, either you have the crew and guns or you don't.  This is combat through resource management, not through the excitement of battle.  There's no tension or anguish in the combat, no real feeling that you're stealing treasure from an enemy, and no sense of adventure. That's fine, but it really doesn't bring across the feeling of piracy. Francis Drake is much more of a privateer game than a pirate game.
The most piratey you'll feel is when trying to snag that ideal location from an opponent.
Score: 7/10 x2

Overall Value:
The MSRP for Francis Drake is a hefty $80. The components are definitely top notch and the gameplay is solid and fun, especially if you like Euro style resource management with a healthy dose of non-combat player interaction, but I'm not sure I'd recommended the game for $80.  There's good news though!  Since the game is a bit older, it's readily available for $50 to $60.  That's a much more reasonable price, and even a bargain for what you get in the box.  At $60 or less, this is a pretty good value for the money.
Did I mention the gorgeous components?
Score: 8/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
Well, the real Sir Francis Drake skirted the line between privateer and pirate, becoming legendary and a British hero.  I'm not sure Francis Drake the game manages to walk the same line.  It's much more of a privateer's game than a pirate's game.  If you're looking for swashbuckling excitement then you must look elsewhere.  However, if you love a good cube pusher, but want more interaction with your fellow gamers, then Francis Drake is an excellent choice.

I really had a lot of fun trying to maximize my strategy while anticipating my opponents' actions.  Every game I played was enjoyed by all players and they are all enthusiastic about playing again.  The outstanding components and gorgeous artwork really make the game stand out, too.  
If you like worker placement, resource management, and player interaction then definitely set sail with Francis Drake.
As far as audience, I'd recommend Francis Drake to gamers who have advanced beyond gateway games already, but haven't made it on to heavy Euros yet, although it's great for even advanced gamers as well.  This is a great gateway to heavier games.  It has a depth to the gameplay that is beyond your typical gateway game, but the straightforward mechanics bring a simplicity and elegance to what may at first appear complex and overwhelming.  The fact that there is a fairly obvious optimum strategy makes it pretty easy for players to figure out what they should try to do, at least after a game or two.  Then the challenge of figuring out how to execute that strategy, and execute it better than your opponents becomes the real game.  Experienced gamers will really enjoy this aspect of trying to out think, outmaneuver, and outperform their opponents.

If Francis Drake sounds like a game for you, be sure to check it out at Eagle-Gryphon Games, your favorite online game store, or ask for it at your FLGS.

Overall Score: 82/100

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.

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