Released in 2015 and designed by Alexander Cobian (his first published game), Booty is a pirate-themed “I split, you choose” set collection game, which introduces elements of area majority with a minimalistic stock market mechanic. In this game, players aren’t pirates in the midst of plundering the Caribbean, as we might expect. Instead, the game is set after the plundering, as the pirates seek to divide the titular booty and plan their next round of raids. Players take turns in the Quartermaster role, strategically dividing the booty for others to choose, but secretly hoping to be in position to collect the best share for themselves. So does this game keep its sea legs?
What’s in the Box?
Booty is, at its heart, a card set collecting game that also contains modular boards with area control elements and a small, adjustable stock market that affects the value of some of the cards you’ll be collecting. In the box, you’ll find:
- 1 Rule book
- 1 Rank Board
- 6 Octagon shaped Player Rank tiles (one in each color)
- 6 Rank coins (numbered 1 through 6)
- 1 Commodities Market Board
- 4 Commodity tiles (Sugar, Cotton, Indigo, and Tobacco)
- 5 Island tiles
- 90 Might flags (15 in each color)
- 1 Quartermaster tile
- 12 Legacy tiles
- 108 Booty cards
There are additional tiles that came with my version of the game – an additional Quartermaster tile, and duplicate Monk and Jeweler Legacy tiles. According to the publisher, these are superfluous and should be discarded as they are not a part of the game and are simply a result of the manufacturing process. I’ve seen extra components in games before, but generally they aren’t glaring duplicates, which can lead to some confusion.
How to Play
To begin the game, the players create the game board by taking the modular Island tiles, the Rank Board, and the Commodities Market and placing them on the table in a large circle. Then the players should place the appropriate Commodity tiles in their marked spaces on the Commodities Market board. Each player then chooses a color and collects all of the Might flag tiles for their color. The Legacy tiles are randomly shuffled and two of each are dealt face down to each players. In most games, the colored Player Rank tiles are randomized and placed on the Rank Board. The rule book does allow for you to place more inexperienced players higher on the Rank Board if you’d like as this gives them the advantage of accepting earlier Shares of the Spoils, as we will see. After setting up the Rank Board, the numbered Rank Coins are taken out of the box and placed in the center of the play area. The numbers on these coins should correspond to the number of players in the game, so in a three player game the coins would be numbered 1-3 while in a five player game, they would be numbered 1-5.
Now the players must prepare the Booty deck. In most games, this simply means shuffling the deck and placing it in the center of the table; however, in a five player game this is slightly different. With this count, players must remove two “Doubloons” cards and one “Incan Silver” card from the game, placing them back into the box. This alteration for five players is presumably necessary for balance, but still slightly inconveniencing in a setup process that already seems fiddly. Additionally, in every game, a “Trade Route” card is taken from the deck before shuffling. The deck is then shuffled and the removed “Trade Route” card is then placed on the bottom. The rule book states that this is only done for five player games, but the official errata and clarifications (not included in the box) says that it is to be done for all games. The prepared deck is then placed in the center of the table, and the game is ready to begin.
Each round of the game begins by creating the Spoils. These are the cards from which the Quartermaster will create Shares. To create the Spoils, one player will count out a number of cards equal to three times the number of players (9-18 cards total). I have found that it is generally best to let the Quartermaster handle this task. She will take one card from this pile, look at it, and place it face down in the center (this is important as only the Quartermaster will know what this card is), and all other cards are placed face up in the center of the circular area created by the board. The rule book suggests sorting these cards by color, and that is generally helpful for the first few times you play the game.
If you want to let the Quartermaster set up the Spoils, it is important to know how to decide which player will take that role first. Using the Rank Board, the first player (at the top of the board) has the opportunity to claim the role. If they do not want to be Quartermaster, that role passes down until someone accepts or you have reached the bottom of the board. If it falls to the lowest ranked player on the board, they are required to become the Quartermaster. The Player Rank tile for the player who becomes Quartermaster is removed from the Rank Board and placed on the silver Quartermaster tile. This ritual plays out each round, making it possible for someone to be the Quartermaster for several rounds in a row. This role is central to the game as the Quartermaster is responsible for divvying up the Spoils into Shares that are claimed by the players – generally the importance of this position increases as the game continues, so it is relatively undesirable early-game and can be very powerful in the late-game.
The goal in Booty is to be the person who finishes with the most Victory Points, earned by collecting sets of cards throughout the course of the game. The Quartermaster’s job is to divide the Spoils into Shares that are then offered to the other players who can accept or reject the Share in rank order. A Share is created with exactly one Rank Coin and any number of cards from the Spoils. The face down card can be offered, but it is not revealed in this process. The rules say that when a Share is completed, the cards and coins should be separated from the other Spoils, and the Quartermaster should knock on the table – each of my playgroups found the knocking a bit tedious and it was usually quickly forgotten.
After the Quartermaster has created the Share, it must be claimed by an active player. The players whose token remains on the “This Turn” column of the Rank board (remember, the Quartermaster’s token has been removed) are eligible to claim the Share. Beginning with the highest ranking player on the board, the active players, in turn, offer to claim or reject the Share. Once a Share is claimed by one of the players, they must perform a few actions. If the Share included a face down card, they examine it in secret. If it is a Might (red) card or a “Trade Route” (a specific type of green card), they must reveal it to the other players, otherwise they keep it face down in their score pile. Speaking of Might and “Trade Route” cards, after collecting a claimed Share, the player immediately plays all Might cards and “Trade Route” cards.
Might cards allow you to place as many of your Might Flag tokens on the board as you have total might. So if you claimed one “Cutlass” card (one might) and one “Pistol” card (two might), you would have a total of three Might and could play three of your flags anywhere on the Island tiles. They need not be place one the same Island tile and they do not have to be in any order, though generally higher number spaces are more desirable. At the end of the game, players score Victory Points equivalent to the areas they control on completed Islands. A completed Island is one what has all of it’s available spaces filled. There are 25 open spaces on the Island, but only 24 total Might in the deck, so in every game one Island will not score. This is a pretty straight forward process, and unfortunately does not involve much player interaction. Thematically, my play groups thought of this as planning the next set of raids around the Caribbean, and that made it a little easier to stomach.
Like your Might cards, “Trade Route” cards must also be played immediately. These cards are relatively simple. They instruct the player who claimed the card in their Share to adjust the Commodities Market, moving one commodity’s value up and another’s value down. This overly simple process is much stronger in the late-game, as players have more of an idea of what commodities they and their opponents have collected. Sometimes it may even be best to hurt yourself by lowering the value of a commodity you have if it hurts another player even more.
After a player has claimed a Share and played their Might and “Trade Route” cards, they place the rest of their cards in front of them, face up, in their score pile. When laid in front of you, all of the titles of the cards in your score pile must be visible. We’ve tried playing with a hidden information variant, where the cards are kept secret. It’s more thematic, but less strategic. After placing cards on the table, the player who claimed the Share then takes their Rank token from the “This Round” column on the Rank Board and place it in the “Next Round” column in the position that corresponds to the Rank coin they collected in their Share. In the example Share pictured above , the Yellow player claimed a “Pistol, a “Portuguese Letter of Marque,” a “French Flag,” and the #3 Rank coin. This player was previously first on the Rank board, so they would pick up their tile and move it to the third position in the “Next Round” column. After a player has collected a Share, they are finished for the round and may no longer attempt to claim Shares.
But what happens if all of the players choose not to accept a Share? And how does the Quartermaster get her Share of the Spoils? If the first player on the Rank board passes on a Share, the opportunity to claim it moves to the next player, and so on. If all active players pass, the Quartermaster has an opportunity to claim the Share. If they claim the Share, they then lose their position as Quartermaster and a new one must be chosen to complete the round. This new Quartermaster compiles the next share and play continues as normal – however, the new Quartermaster does not have the opportunity to look at any face down Spoils if they have already been claimed.
If the all of the players on the Rank Board decline to claim the Share, and the Quartermaster also declines, then what happens? The rules do not address this situation, and in our early play tests, it wasn’t clear whether the Quartermaster had an opportunity to claim the Share or a responsibility to claim the share. We played as though it were a choice, and if the Quartermaster declined to accept the share, they were required augment the Share by adding additional cards until someone claimed it. This occasionally resulted in the Quartermaster ultimately receiving very little or even nothing. However, the official clarification is that the Quartermaster must take an offered Share if no other player accepts it, and that you then follow the rules for choosing a new Quartermaster. Frankly, I like our house rule better, but feel free to follow the publishers clarification.
After a Share is claimed, the current Quartermaster creates a new Share and the process begins again until there is only one player left who hasn’t claimed anything. That player receives all remaining Spoils and the last remaining Rank Coin. If the Booty deck still has cards remaining, the tiles on the Rank Board are shifted to “This Turn,” a new quartermaster is chosen, and new Spoils are dealt to the board. This process continues until the Booty deck is empty.
As previously mentioned, the goal of Booty is to be the one who finishes with the most Victory Points. By and large, this is accomplished through collecting the cards doled out in the Shares organized by the Quartermaster. However, each card type scores slightly differently. The yellow Treasure cards are one of the simpler ones. These cards are “Doubloons,” “Aztec Silver,” and “Aztec Gold” and are worth 1, 2, or 3 Victory Points respectively. Flags, one of the two types of white colored cards, represent ships of the various nations that your pirate armada has plundered (Dutch, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese), and score similarly the Treasurer cards being worth exactly 1 Victory Point each. The blue colored Relics earn players 3 Victory Points; however, only the first of each Relic type (“Ivory,” “Monkey,” “Parrot,” “Totem,” “Spices,” “Vase”) is worth points – duplicates are worth zero points at the end of the game. The purple colored Way of Life cards (“Bible” and “Rum”) are worth 2 Victory Points each, but a player may only score one or the other – not both.
The Commodity cards are colored green (“Cotton,” “Indigo,” “Sugar,” and “Tobacco”), and are worth a variable amount of points, ranging from 0 to 4. Their final value is determined by their going rate on the Commodities Market board at the end of the game, so they fluctuate throughout the course of the game when green “Trade Route” cards are played. Letters of Marque, the other type of white colored card, represent your official license from colonial governments to raid the ships of their enemies, and these are the most complex cards to score. Each letter gives -4 Victory Points for each Flag you have collected of the matching nation; however, these cards also score one point for every non-matching flag you’ve collected. For instance, if at the end of the game you have a “Spanish Letter of Marque” in your score pile, it would be worth -4 for each “Spanish Flag” you have collected, but every “Dutch Flag,” “English Flag,” “French Flag,” and “Portuguese Flag” in your scoring pile would increase the value of the Letter of Marque by one. Finally, the previously mentioned Might cards allow you to plan your future raids and place your Flag token on the Islands. As discussed above, these do not score on their own, but score you the value of the ports you control on all completed Island tiles at the end of the game. However, there is a small caveat to the Might cards. During the end game scoring, whoever has the most points in Might (after accounting for Legacy tiles) also scores an additional 4 Victory Points, with ties being split evenly between players.
Wait… What About Those Legacy Tiles?
Yeah. I mentioned these during the setup, and then they mysteriously disappeared until I casually dropped them in a sentence a moment ago. Legacy tiles represent the thinnest bit of narrative for the pirate character whose role you inhabit – adding some sense that you have a history or persona or identity. As previously mentioned, each character is secretly dealt two of these at the beginning of the game, and each tile allows the players to violate one of the scoring rules at the end of the game in some way. Since you have two, you can adjust your strategy depending on how the Spoils are divvied throughout the game, however during the final scoring you must chose only one of your two Legacy tiles to apply.
So if you were dealt “The Collector” and “The Traveler” at the beginning of the game (both Relic based Legacy tiles), you would probably have pursued a Relic based strategy throughout the game and would have to choose which tile to apply during scoring. If you had multiple redundant Relic cards, “The Collector” might be better. If you had several types of Relics, “The Traveler” would be superior. These roles alter your strategy for the game and allow you the try to build a method for which Shares you create as Quartermaster or which you want to claim or pass on when you’re not dividing up the loot. Functionally, these tiles are s variable driver of the game and they can be the difference between winning and losing. However, they are uneven. I have see the Legacy tiles completely alter the outcome of games, yet I have also seen them account for only two or three additional points at the end of the game. In the grand scheme of things, some are clearly better than others and it seems to create an obvious imbalance.
A Pirate’s Life for Me… Kinda?
So now you know how to play the game (sorta). But… should you? Below, I’ll give you my thoughts, but full disclosure: I love pirates and pirate-themed things. I don’t know why, but I do and it almost certainly colors my view of this game. That being said, I am not about to give it a glowing review simply because, “OMG, PIRATES!” I do have some pretty serious issues with Booty overall. First and foremost, I’d like to address the components. Broadly speaking, they’re fine. The cards have a nice linen finish and the tiles and tokens are a decent pressed cardboard. However, I do not, for the life of me, understand why this game features a modular board. I simply cannot fathom a mechanical reason for this decision. It would have been far simpler, cleaner, and more attractive to have a standard folding game board with the Islands, Commodities Market, and Rank boards on a singular component. The board pieces, as they are, are very bland and washed out because they’re pretty tiny and everything is Very Beige. While a closer inspection reveals beautifully incorporated map elements on the Island tiles, it would’ve been far more aesthetically pleasing to have a whole board that folds out like a real Caribbean map, with places for the other tracks built on the sides in a thematic, perhaps even hand-scrawled way. Perhaps this decision had to do with the making the Islands scale well together visually or with restricting the cost of materials. I can’t speak to the why of it, but as it is, the board pieces all feel fiddly, are easily knocked around, are displeasing to the eye, and require more setup time than is strictly necessary. Further, a beautiful, full size pirate map would have been really evocative for this theme – but what we’re given is ultimately pretty disappointing.
Speaking of theme, it’s time to nerd out a little (as if writing a board game review wasn’t nerdy enough). There are lots of little details that were paid attention to in this game, but implementation of these details, which could’ve drawn gamers into a more narrative experience, is pretty disappointing. The individualized Jolly Roger of many infamous members of the “Flying Gang” from the Republic of Pirates (c. 1700) are featured in the game. Each of the Player Rank tokens and their matching Might flags utilize the real banners of such recognizable names as Edward “Blackbeard” Teach (red), Henry “Long Ben” Every (yellow), Stede Bonnet, “The Gentleman Pirate” (green), Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts (blue), John “Calico Jack” Rackham (purple), and Richard Worley, “The Broadside Buccaneer” (grey). It’s fairly impressive that Mayfair worked these into the game, though in fairness, they could’ve just been the first images that appeared after Googling “pirate flag.” However, even if we give the benefit of intentionality to this design choice, it doesn’t do much to add to the flavor or narrative appeal of the game other than to act as a marginal nod toward pirate history geeks. Players don’t feel like they’re inhabiting the character of their respective pirates. They don’t even necessarily know that their player symbol suggests they’re playing a real pirate – it certainly isn’t mentioned in the rule book. The theme, which I was really hoping would come thorough, unfortunately seems pasted on top of the game. Narratively, this could have been re-themed as a D&D group splitting up treasure after a dungeon dive and planning their next adventure, and it would have lost nothing. It doesn’t really matter that it’s a pirate themed game, and that’s pretty sad.
I’ve gone on long enough about the theme. Let’s talk mechanics. The “I split, you choose” card drafting mechanic works fine in this game, and is perhaps more functional than seen in other games, such as San Marco, which is generally considered one of the best games in this genre. However, it is merely fine because the decisions are either too obvious or too overwhelming. In a six player game, there are 18 cards (17 visible to everyone) that need to be evaluated and split into Shares – it works, but it is merely fine. But is “fine” good enough when it’s the central mechanic? I’m not sure. Particularly because it this “meh”-ness stems from the fact that the choices sometimes seem to feel random. Or I should say the game almost forces a degree of randomness. When playing with new players, especially more casual gamers, decisions for accepting a Share usually came down to a shrugging, “Sure, I guess I’ll take it.” The same is true for divvying up the Spoils – I’ve seen many a Quartermaster shrug and say, “Sure, I guess this is a good Share.” With more experienced gamers, this randomness either persists for the sake of moving the game along or results in severe cases of analysis paralysis (both on the part of the Quartermaster and everyone evaluating the Share and the rest of the Spoils). This AP slows the game down to a crawl. And this isn’t purely a function of group size – the problem seems to persist with virtually all player counts, though less so with three.
The area control aspects on the Island tiles and the shifting Commodities Market are interesting, but feel almost tacked on. Controlling areas on the map is rarely a function of good play and is essentially a matter of whether you had the opportunity to claim Might cards in the early-game. There is no interactivity on the maps and nothing you can actively do to improve your position. The Commodities Market, in most cases, tends towards the board’s beginning state. Since all “Trade Route” cards are of the identical “move one commodity up and another down” variety, the tendency is for them to change rapidly in the early-game followed by a trending towards the average in the mid- and late-game. Since commodities only score at the end of the game, they tend to all have a value of between 1 and 3, rarely fluctuating to the 0 and 4 marks. I admit I might need more plays to truly judge this, but in 17 games of Booty, the Commodity Market has finished as near as possible to its neutral starting position (one commodity valued 1, two valued 2, and one valued 3) far more often than not. It’s just not variable enough to be truly interesting.
The Legacy tiles add some variety and replayability to the game, though there seems to be an odd tendency for these goals to encourage people into creating “bundled” shares when they’re in the Quartermaster role. That is to say, players start either putting like cards together to synergize with or explicitly run counter to the Legacy tiles. Moreover, they are wildly unbalanced. Using “The Veteran” allows you to score your unscored Might flags, and could be worth more than 10 Victory points with virtually no opportunity cost. Using “The Monk,” however, is worth a maximum of 6 Victory points but means you gave up all opportunities to collect Treasure cards throughout the game. And because of the nature of the Commodity Market, “The Cooper” often leads to very few if any Victory Points. It’s a great mechanic that just isn’t balanced well enough. In the games I played with various playgroups, the final scores typically ranged from the low 40s to the high 50s, so the Legacy tiles could cause a huge swing… or have no impact at all. As a catch-up mechanic, that could be interesting, but the way that the Legacy tiles are randomly distributed means that someone with who has a healthy lead generally only gets healthier, while someone who is in a bad position rarely gains any advantage.
Finally, the way the Quartermaster is decided and what that means for the distribution of Spoils is problematic to me. It is possible that a player who is randomly slotted in the top spot on the board in the first round could be Quartermaster for the entire game – and it’s not even a particularly large disadvantage to try to pursue this strategy. Twice in six player games I attempted to do just this to see what would happen, and in both cases I was able to pull it off. I didn’t win in either game, but I finished second in one and third in the other – and while that’s not inherently broken, it seems to remove a large part of the game for most of the players. It wasn’t particularly fun for anyone when I was Quartermaster every turn, and while that generally won’t be the way people play the game, it is possible. Comparatively, I love how turn order works though the Rank Board, but it seems held back by the choosing of the Quartermaster. Some players openly hated the rule book’s way of choosing the Quartermaster because they never had the opportunity to claim Shares with high Rank Coins, and so never had the chance to be the Quartermaster. In truth, using a random starting Quartermaster and just moving the Quartermaster tile clockwise through the group works just as well as the Rank Board slotting system. It removes a bit of strategy in the late-game, but really improves the overall flow. However, this is yet another house rule that I’ve mentioned in this review, and that’s not entirely a good thing. I generally avoid mentioning house rules, but for Booty if feels almost necessary.
So those were some of the issues that I have with this game. But now it’s time for the most important question: is it fun? I can imagine you sitting there, having read my critiques and thinking that this game is just a raging dumpster fire. But it really isn’t. It’s actually kind of fun. Not a “let’s play every night and learn all the strategies” type of fun, but depending on your play group, this game can get pretty interesting. Unfortunately, I don’t think it has any real staying power, and no one I’ve played it with immediately asked to play again. But about half of the people I played wither were pretty willing to give it another shot when I offered. It’s unfortunate, but I don’t think it will hit the table all that often. Most of my very casual gamer friends found it unnecessarily complex, tedious, fiddly, and worst of all – some found it boring. Most of my heavy gamer friends found it sort of interesting, but still sort of random if you were attempting to play in a timely fashion and I heard fiddly from them more than once too. So I’m not really sure who the target audience is here. Is it a medium-weight game and I just don’t play with gamers who prefer the particular heft of those games? I’m not sure. What it is, though, is a fine game. Perfectly ordinary and playable and enjoyable, particularly considering that it was designer Alexander Cobain’s first game. Booty could use some improvements – it’s rule book definitely needs to be tweaked and it has some very obvious flaws – but it’s a fine game nonetheless and I’d recommend giving it a play if you have the opportunity. It’s definitely not an our-of-this-world, must-buy game. But, for now, I’ll keep it on my shelf and crack it out when I’m looking for a pirate-ish themed game that is heavier than Jamaica and lighter than Merchants and Marauders.