Arr matey that be a fine deckbuilder that you have there. Be a real shame if some plucky young game set sails on the choppy seas of game releases and blew a hole in your bloated side, making off with all the best loot and leaving you with naught but an accordion playing parrot and a memory of how good you used to have it. Ruthless folk would do that to you and those scurvy dogs from Alley Cat Games might be the crew to carry it off. Now get up in that crow’s nest and see if we can’t tell which way the wind is blowing.
Batten down the hatches!
Deckbuilding has become a rather overused mechanic in the last few years, being forced into every genre under the sun. I’ll admit that it does lend a sense of replayability to a lot of games but I often feel it is turning up because it is such an easy go to mechanic, with a ready made army of loyal fans. For myself and my regular crew it often falls into the category of lonely fun, with individual players barely interacting over the course of play. Not so in Ruthless.
This was one of my only appointments during the con and I was really glad I made it. The whole thing took an hour tops and we were lucky enough to be taught by game designer and artist Roland MacDonald. What immediately caught my eye about Ruthless was that I had a thinning mechanic built into my starter deck. You have cards called Powder Monkeys which can be used in two ways, one of which is to permanently remove cards. I honestly can’t recall the other. I really liked that you could start deck thinning right from the off, giving you a choice to make without even having added a single new card to your deck.
My next surprise came when we bought our first card from the central river. Not only will these cards make their way into your hand, but when you buy them they join your crew, more on that shortly, and you can use their ability. This was very often a choice between two different actions, giving you significant decisions with every buy. It also meant the game felt very dynamic: there were things happening all the time that demanded a response. Many of the abilities even allowed you to attack the other players or mess with the river, spoiling their plans.
To add a wrinkle into the buying of crew, there’s a poker-based set collection mechanic. The aim of the game is to get victory points and the primary way you can do that is making sure you have the best scurvy dogs aboard your fine vessel. Only the best crew will be able to help you raid the biggest ships and as you buy from the central reserve and play crew out of your hand you will build up poker style combinations on the table: straights, three of a kind etc. These combinations contribute to the overall strength of your crew and the person with the strongest bunch of miscreants gets to raid the most valuable ships. This provides another really interesting point of choice: do you go for a powerful action with immediate benefits, or is it better to take a weaker card that will give you better poker combos this round, knowing they may not be as useful later on.
Of course no game about pirates would be complete without some plunder, and Ruthless is no exception. When you dive into the treasure deck you, once again, get a card that gives you an interesting choice: money now, or a card in your deck that will give you money over and over. On top of this we had an end game condition that gave victory points to the person with the most plunder cards in their deck, adding an extra wrinkle to the decision.
It’s a pirate life for me
Ruthless really feels like the deck builder refined: pacey, short playing, lots of decisions to make every turn, and a dynamic use of cards. It’s a gorgeous looking game, with evocative art, excellent graphic design, and a strong reflection of its theme throughout. Its short playtime encourages you to experiment with different strategies. By the end of my game I could see different paths and I immediately wanted to play again. A good game should do this: be just long enough and good enough to leave you wanting to crack out another game straight away, not outstay its welcome past the point of maximum fun.
Now, pass me that parrot, I’ve got some pirating to do.
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