Posted by: gschloesser | November 12, 2015

Francis Drake

Design by Peter Hawes
Published by Eagle Games / Kayal Games
2 – 5 Players, 1 ½ – 2 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser

Francis Drake - cover

NOTE:  This review was first published on the Opinionated Gamers website.

History lesson time. Francis Drake is best known as the scourge of the Spaniards, operating with the not-so-tacit approval of the English crown during the 16th century to raid Spanish ships and ports in order to loot their New World wealth and embarrass their European rival. However, Drake was also a renowned explorer and was the second person to successfully circumnavigate the globe. Sadly, his legend is severely tarnished by his prominent role in the slave trade. He remains to this day both a celebrated and despised figure.

Drake’s exploits certainly provide rich fodder for game designers. Peter Hawes (Heads of State, Triassic Terror) taps into the adventures of this famous character in Francis Drake, a big box release published by Eagle Games and Kayal Games. Players outfit their ships and undertake three voyages to the Spanish Main, hoping to raid and pillage Spanish towns, forts and galleons. Trading is also a worthy goal, and the player returning with the most booty and fame will win the favor of the English Crown and win the game.

Each player receives a Ship’s Log board whereupon they will gather the supplies and materials needed for each of their three voyages. There are spaces for crew, cannons, trade goods, commodities and other necessary items. Players begin with a supply of player and mission discs, one investor tile, and a frigate and galleon.

Francis Drake - main boardThe large—and I mean large—central board depicts two main sections:

Plymouth and its harbor. This is where players will place their player discs in order to recruit crew, acquire cannons, trade goods and supplies, and win the favor of special characters who will provide assistance for their upcoming journey.

The Spanish Main. This large section of the board depicts a large swath of the Spanish Main, along with key towns, forts and ports. On each voyage, players will raid the forts and towns, assault the galleons and trade at ports. They are often in competition with their fellow players, so careful planing—and a dose of luck—will determine success or failure.

There is also a second central board that serves as a repository for the abundance of game supplies and tokens, including crew, guns, trade goods, commodities, jewels, and much more.

Each of the three turns is divided into two main phases: Provisioning and Sailing.

Provisioning. This is the worker-placement aspect. In turn order, players alternate Francis Drake - tilesplacing player discs onto the 18 location tiles strewn along the one-way street in Plymouth. On the first turn, these tiles are in a preset order, but they are randomly placed in the final two turns. Each tile conveys a specific benefit, usually supplies (crew, guns, trade goods or barrels) for the upcoming voyage. Other items can also be gained, including prestigious titles, while a few spaces allow the player to upgrade their frigate to a galleon, which is required in order to assault the Spanish armada.

For me, this is the most tense aspect of the game, made more so by the restriction of only being able to move forward when placing one’s player discs; this is a one-way street with no turning back. So, if a player opts to skip over the “Supplies” tile in order to secure some much needed deck-help on the “Crew” tile, he cannot on a future turn go back and place a player disc on the Supplies tile. This mechanism has been used to great effect in other games, including Egizia, and always forces players to make some tough decisions.

Further, each tile has a limited number of spaces upon which player discs can be placed. Generally, the players placing a disc early on a tile will receive more generous benefits. Couple this with the fact that there are only a limited number of tiles that supply each type of good or resource, and the decisions become even tougher. There is often fierce competition for certain tiles, particularly the trade goods, shipyard (upgrade frigate to a galleon) and Golden Hind (resolve first during Sailing phase).

Each player has one “Investor” tile that can be used once per game, but at the cost of 4 victory points. This tile allows the player to place a player disc onto the Investor space, which allows the player to take guns and crew or upgrade to a galleon. This space is fixed near the end of the track, so players can grab the needed supplies or galleon if they were unable to secure them earlier.

A player’s final, last gasp chance to grab a crew, gun or barrel is at the dockside. However, at any point a player can decide he has accumulated all of the supplies he needs and immediately jump to the Harbor, moving his frigate / galleon to the first empty space. The harbor will determine the order in which players place their mission discs and breaks ties when determining the order in which those actions will be executed. Thus, being early to the harbor has its benefits.

Sailing Phase. Before players actually set sail for loot and glory, the board is set with gold, silver and jewels, which are placed in set locations as marked on the map. The player who secured the favor of the Admiral during the Provisioning phase determines the secret placement of the three Spanish frigate counters next to the Spanish galleons as printed on the board. The values of these frigates range from 0 – 2, and supplement the overall defensive value of the galleons, which range from 1 – 3. Thus, the admiral has knowledge of at least a portion of the overall value of each of the three galleons.

Likewise, the player holding the “Governor” title—which was secured during the Provisioning phase—places the four Spanish troop counters next to the four forts, thereby affecting the overall defense of those forts.

Each player can only sail as far as the number of barrels they obtained during the previous phase. Thus, if a player acquired three barrels, he can sail no further than zone 3 during the upcoming voyage; zone 4 is unreachable for him. As would be expected, the most valuable forts and towns lie in zone 4, so securing enough barrels during the Provisioning phase is important. Each player marks this zone limitation on the board, so players can readily see how far each player can travel that turn, which helps in planning one’s missions.

Now, it is time to set sail. In turn order, each player places one of his mission discs (valued 1 – 4) face-down at a location. Some players may have extra discs (Golden Hind or Ghost Ship), which would have been obtained during the previous phase. Once all discs are placed, the player holding the Informer tile can peek at the discs at a particular location and, if desired, exchange the location of two of his discs anywhere on the board. Alternatively, he can peek at the troop or frigate strength of one location and move one of his mission discs from this space to another location.

All mission discs are then revealed and players alternate (in turn order) resolving their discs in order. For example, if Gail is first, she will resolve her #1 disc. Tom comes next, so he will resolve his #1 disc. This process continues until all players have resolved all of their discs or set sail for home port. Only two players can successfully attack a particular location, so the value of the mission discs at a location, as well as overall turn order, can be critical. When playing with a full complement of five players, it is common for one or more players to depart a location empty-handed.

So just what are the risks, requirements and benefits of each location? The benefits are victory points and perhaps a gold, silver or jewel. But, they are not there just for the taking, as the Spanish did not leave their prized possessions undefended. Players must overcome these defenses. Towns require the expenditure of one crew token, while forts require both crew and guns. Forts have hidden troop counters, as placed by the player holding the Governor title. The hidden token is revealed when a fort is assaulted, adding to the number of crew that must be expended by the attacker. All crew and gun tokens required must be discarded for an assault to be successful. If a player cannot meet the requirements—or chooses not to—this will allow another player to launch an attack, provided, of course, there are others at that location. Remember, only two players may successfully assault a location.

There is an added advantage to being the first player to successfully assault a location: a gold, silver or jewel. The player claims this in addition to any victory points, placing the precious metal or jewel into his nifty treasure chest. These will be worth victory points at games end.

Assaulting a galleon is handled in much the same manner as attacking a fort. The secret frigate counter is revealed, with its value added to the overall value of the galleon. The player must discard a matching number of gun tokens in order to be successful and claim the indicated number of victory points and jewel. The victory points earned by a successful assault of a galleon are substantial, so players have a considerable incentive to do so.

In spite of their unrelenting aggression against the Spaniards, the English also had a peaceful side. Three locations on the board offer players the opportunity to trade and acquire commodities. The player must exchange a trade good for one of the available commodities, which is placed onto their ship’s log. Commodities, when collected in sets, can yield a tremendous amount of victory points—up to 26 if four different commodities are collected. Thus, there is always fierce competition for the few spaces that provide those scarce trade goods.

At any point, a player may opt to forgo any further missions and return to Plymouth Harbor. The order in which players return to the harbor determines the turn order for the next turn’s Provisioning phase, which is critical. Further, the first two players to return without resolving their 4th mission disc earn a few victory points.

After all players have returned, the current voyages are scored. Players earn points (ranging from 1 – 10) based on the types of Spanish holdings they successfully assaulted. So, if a player assaulted all three types—towns, forts and galleons—he earns a whopping 10 points. Only assaulting one type earns a measly 1 point. This is tracked via an on-board chart. These points can be significant over the course of three turns, so, if at all possible, players should attempt to assault all three types of holdings each turn.

The board is reset for the next turn, which is conducted in the exact same fashion, with players once again being reduced to a frigate. After the completion of three turns, players earn final victory points for their sets of commodities and value of treasures (gold, silver and jewels). The player with the most victory points wins the favor of the English crown and, of course, the game.

As mentioned, the game has two distinct phases. While both are interesting, I find the Provisioning phase to be far more tense, with the angst-inducing placement decisions being quite tough. The “no going back” rule is employed to great effect, and the limited opportunities to grab each type of supply presents players with numerous dilemmas. The Sailing phase is not without its decisions, as players must make decisions as to their goals, where to place their discs and the value of the discs to place at particular locations. These are important decisions, but some are based on guessing, as the defensive values of the forts and galleons are not fully known.

There are numerous ways by which victory points can be earned, so all players are not pursuing the same exact path. Still, the paths do intersect frequently, and it appears impossible to ignore any one in particular. So, all players will be pursuing each method, but with varying degrees of urgency.

One complaint that has been leveled against the game is that each of the three turns is pretty much the same. That is difficult to refute, as the mechanisms, actions and goals do not change. The only difference is the order in which the tiles along Plymouth street are arranged, as they are randomly dealt in turns 2 and 3. While I concede the point, it doesn’t bother me, as I find the game exciting, tense and, most importantly, fun.

I cannot fail to mention the quality of the production, which far surpasses what it needed to be…but that is a good thing! Everything is big, from the immense board and box to the oversize treasure chests. The tiles are thick and sturdy, and the artwork is nice. The game could easily have been made smaller with more basic components, but I enjoy the over-the-top production.

Francis Drake could well be designer Peter Hawes’ best creation to date. It has an enticing theme, a variety of mechanisms, tough decisions and tense moments. It is fairly easy to learn, and plays to completion in less than two hours. I look forward to many more journeys to the Spanish main in search of wealth and glory.

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