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Francis Drake

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Eagle Games/Kayal Games, 3 to 5 players, ages 14 and up, 120 minutes; $79.99)

francisdrakeboxSailing the Spanish Main, trading for goods but also trolling for treasure while attacking forts, raiding towns and grappling with Spanish Galleons is the stuff that movies and historical novels are made of. And also, it seems games. For, in the new game from Peter Hawes, sea dogs prowl the Caribbean Sea to do that and more on the way to victory in Francis Drake.

There are actually two segments of play in Francis Drake. The first is outfitting your ship for its adventures in Caribbean waters. The second is conducting those adventures. The thick heavy mounted board is divided into two basic areas: the top being Plymouth Street where sea dogs will prepare for their voyages and the bottom being the Caribbean Sea, divided into four regions, with ports for trading and towns, forts and Spanish galleons for battling.

Players receive wooden pieces, two ships (nicely molded plastic frigates and galleons) and a ship log to hold their supplies (in their chosen color) plus a treasure chest to hold accumulated gold, silver and jewels and an Investor card. Each player begins with 4 Victory Points (noted by score markers placed at 4 on the board’s perimeter scoring track) and their frigate anchored in Plymouth harbor. (Player order for the first of the three voyages is randomly chosen. As compensation, the player going last, for the first round only, gets 1 black gun cube.) From there, players travel along Plymouth Street.

There is a nice variety of locations on Plymouth Street, some representing places to obtain vital goods, each with a specific purpose. Barrels allow you to sail, one barrel for each of the four regions of the Caribbean. Crew (gray cubes) are required to attack forts and towns. Guns (black cubes) are necessary to conquer forts and Spanish galleons. Trade goods (purple cubes) are what you exchange at the trading ports for commodities. Other Plymouth places allow you to interact with people and things that can provide needed assistance including the Queen (who allows you to upgrade your frigate into a the more powerful Galleon), Drake himself (who provides you with crew and guns at the cost of two turns at his location), the Golden Hind (which guarantees that a player will go first at a chosen Caribbean location), an Informer (who can provide valuable intelligence before missions are begun), the Admiral, the Governor, a “Ghost Ship” and more. As players travel along, they will mark their stops with discs to show which shop or personage they have interacted with along the way. The two final spaces on the street are available to everyone: the Investor and Dockside.

The Investor gives players a choice. If stopping here, a player may either take 1 crew and 2 guns OR 2 crew and 1 gun OR upgrade his frigate to a Galleon. (Upgrading is required if you plan to attack any Spanish Galleons since only Galleons may attack Galleons.) Dockside is the final chance to get one more supply: 1 more gun, crew or barrel. You need to carefully consider your stops because travel is one way; no back-tracking allowed. Once everyone has finished their trip down Plymouth Street, preparations are made to set sail.

Towns and forts are marked with gold and silver icons. On each, a stone of the matching color is placed. Similarly, the three Spanish Galleons are marked with jewel icons and jewels are placed there. Holders of the Admiral and Governor counters place Spanish frigate and Spanish troop counters (respectively) next to the Spanish Galleons and forts. They know the values of these counters but no one else does (unless the player with the Informer chooses to use that power to examine one of those counters). Players note their sailing range (number of barrels) by placing a cube on the appropriate Navigation Marker. Finally, players commit to their voyages.

Each player has four mission discs, numbered 1 to 4. (A player may have a Ghost Ship or the Golden Hind in addition to that.) In turn order, players place ANY one disc face down in any location (number order is irrelevant here) provided that it is a location he can reach (does not exceed his navigational ability) and that no other marker of his color is already there. When every marker has been placed, the Informer may look at missions discs to see if he wishes to stay where he is or move his discs OR examine one of the counters placed that give additional power to forts and Galleons. Once the Informer is done, all discs are revealed and mission order resolved.

If a Ghost Ship has been played, that ship simply disappears and has no effect on Mission Order. If the Golden Hind has been played, that the player controlling it will go first at that location no matter what.

francisdrakebackOnly two attacks and, generally, only two trades (one port allows three trades) may be done at each location. The higher numbered mission disc allows that player to go first. Position order at the Outbound Dock is the tie breaker. Trades are the easiest to do. Players exchange one purple cube for any one of the available commodities there. There are four different ones in the game: sugar, tobacco, coffee and indigo. Sets of commodities will score Victory Points at the final scoring. Successful attacks will give you VPs faster.

Towns carry a base value of soldiers for protection. Forts have a base value of soldiers plus an additional force of guns. (Forts also have an additional troop counter that may increase their soldier value.) Similarly, Spanish Galleons also have a base value (of from 1 to 3 guns) with an additional frigate counter which may increase that base value. To neutralize a soldier, the attacking player must give up a crew (1 gray cube). The more soldiers, the more crew is needed. Guns work the same way as for each gun defending a fort or galleon, a black cube must be expended – but not always. If you have gotten a Pinnace on Plymouth Street, guns at forts are completely and automatically neutralized. The first successful attacker gets the Victory Points specified at the location as well as the gold, silver or jewel there. (Those go into that player’s treasure chest for later, Victory Point, calculation.) The second successful attacker gets the stated Victory Point but no stone.

At the end of the voyages, when all players are done, players are rewarded for successful attacks. Those who have successfully attacked a town, fort and Galleon received a 10 VP bonus. A successful attack on two of those three will still earn you 4 VPs wile a single successful attack will earn you only 1 VP. When a player has finished his missions (or before, if accomplishing a potential mission is no longer possible due to lack of supplies or positioning), that player’s ship returns to Plymouth, setting up the turn order for the NEXT voyage. (There is a consolation here. Should you decide to return to harbor before using your fourth mission disc AND have had a successful attack against a town, fort or galleon, you get 2 Victory Points if you’re the first back or 1 VP if yours is the second ship to return.)

One of the best things about Francis Drake is the variation in voyage preparation. For the second and third voyage, a deck of 16 Location Tiles are shuffled. These tiles are identical to the places found on Plymouth Street. However, these cards are now randomly placed OVER the printed street locations so the order of those locations can be radically changed. While this may strain credulity for those of us living in the real world and bring forth thoughts of magic and fantasy realms where locations strangely shift, suspension of disbelief is worth doing. This simple design device prevents a “perfect” strategy for provisioning your ship. creating a different set of choices every time. (The board is pre-printed with starting positions for the locations for four players. If I had a voice in this, I would have opted for variable locations EVERY time.)

With the third voyage finished, players do the final scoring calculations. To their running total of Victory Points, players add VPs for sets of trade goods: 26 for a full set of 4, 16 for 3, 8 for 2 and 2 for a single trade good. Multiple sets are, of course, allowed but are difficult to obtain. (Indigo is the rarest of the group, being available at only 1 port. This creates some higher competitive jockeying for position there, especially if several players are following a trade strategy for victory.) Finally, in “the big reveal”, the treasure chest is uncovered and players score for their stones. Each silver is worth 3 VPs, gold 4 VPs and jewels 5 VPs. (Someone with a good memory should be able to have a good feel for who is collecting what and how much. Still, the unveiling of stones at the end is fun.) The player with the most Victory Points wins the game!

Francis Drake is a remarkable piece of craftsmanship on several levels. Graphically, it can be summed up in one word: superb! The molded plastic ships are delightful (one is even used to track each voyage of the game!) and give you the feel of sailing the seas as they go from mission to mission, the individual treasure chests keep your gold, silver and jewels hidden from prying eyes (giving you a feel for the pirate in you) and the artwork of the board and the cards first rate. The always amazing Franz Vohwinkel is to be commended for a stellar job. (His swashbuckling Errol Flynn-like Francis Drake on the box cover is excellent but his very flattering portrait of Elizabeth the Great is, well, great, so much so that had she been alive today, Vohwinkel would have undoubtedly received a knighthood.) The rulebook is colorful and clear with many helpful examples. As for the game play, Peter Hawes shows himself a master.

The Plymouth Street “walk” makes planning as to how to acquire the supplies you need an always changing challenge. How many crew and guns are enough if attacks are the plan? Or do I follow a trade strategy knowing that purple trade cubes are relatively scarce? Do I spend two turns with Francis Drake to gather up more crew and guns and risk going later in the turn? Should I use my Investor now at the cost of 4 VPs? Or save it for later? Or not use it all? Placing mission discs is a brilliant piece of cat and mouse game play. Just how important is a location to an opponent? Should you commit a mission 1 disc there or take a chance with a 2 and depend on a tie-breaker so you can get something important elsewhere? What about The Golden Hind? How important is it that I assure myself of going first at a specified location? And if I have the Ghost Ship, how can I best use it to misdirect and mislead my opponents about my plans?

With its stunning presentation, Francis Drake draws players into a world of sea dogs and treasure with battles on land and sea while providing tough decisions and enough adventure to satisfy all would be seafarers.


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