You’ve got your sailing ship and a green crew, and the High Seas beckon. How will you make your fortune: as a brave explorer, an honest trader, or a cunning pirate?
What Is Dead Reckoning?
Dead Reckoning is a 4x card crafting game from AEG for 1-4 players, ages 14+, and takes about 90 minutes to play. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with “Deck Hand” pledges of $79 for the deluxe version of the game, or $109 for the “Legend of the Seas” pledge which includes extra bonuses as well as the Deep Legends campaign expansion. It’s designed by John D. Clair, creator of several popular board games including card crafting games Mystic Vale and Edge of Darkness. Art is by Ian O’Toole.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “4x game,” it’s shorthand for, “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate.” It’s a strategy game genre that spans all sorts of settings, and offers multiple pathways to winning the game. And if you’ve never hear the term “card crafting”… well, just read on and I’ll explain!
New to Kickstarter? Check out our crowdfunding primer.
Dead Reckoning Components
Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and may not reflect final quality. It’s been confirmed that the transparent card Advancements in the prototype were not printed at full production quality, the treasure chests will be getting improved art and function, and the art and construction on the ship-cube tower is not yet complete.
Here’s what’s included with the game:
- Battle Ship and Battle Board
- 48 Sailor cards
- 48 Sailor Ability cards
- 60 Crew Sleeves
- 4 Player Ships
- 4 Dock Tiles
- 4 Player Chests
- 120 Player Cubes
- 24 Achievement Markers
- 4 Pirate Mode Markers
- 4 Ship Boards
- 1 Harbor Board
- 12 Ocean Boards
- 25 Level 1 Advancements
- 23 Level 2 Advancements
- 23 Level 3 Advancements
- 23 Level 4 Advancements
- 4 Advancement Deck boxes
- 16 Wooden Damage Tokens
- 20 NPC Cubes
- 20 Wooden Buildings
- 30 Wooden Cargo
- 24 Ship Upgrades
- 4 Reference Cards
As you can see, there’s a lot that comes packed into the box!
The Harbor board is the “home base” of Dead Reckoning. There are four harbors matching each of the four player colors. When setting up the game you will build the ocean tiles off from the bottom of that board, while at the top of the board sits an achievement track. The symbols on the track may seem overwhelming at first glance, but you’ll easily learn them withing the first few rounds of playing the game.
The player boards, like the harbor board and ocean tiles, are made of thick, durable cardboard. The symbols on the board indicate that a base ship will give you two sails and one cannon, and the two holds will each hold four and three cargo or coins, respectively. There is also a “sail track” where you can place an action cube to indicate at what level you’ve set sail.
There are a plethora of wooden tokens that come with the game. Above are the cargo and damage tokens; there are also three different types of buildings that come in wood. Additionally, there are 140 colored wooden cubes for the players and NPCs.
Each player gets a cardboard treasure chest, a plastic pirate ship, and cardboard achievement markers and a pirate mode marker. The pirate mode marker is designed to sit between the sails on the ship, but that may change in the final product.
Each player also gets a deck of 12 sailors. Each sailor is composed of three elements: a card sleeve, an ability card for that particular sailor, and a matching illustration card. Over the course of the game you will be “card crafting”—inserting advancements into the card sleeves, as well as flipping and rotating the double-sided ability cards to level up the abilities of the different sailors.
The centerpiece of the game is the Battle Ship and Battle Board, which will be used to resolve combat in Dead Reckoning. The above picture is not the final design, as tweaks to the construction and the artwork are still being made as of this writing.
How to Play Dead Reckoning
You can download a draft of the rulebook from Alderac Entertainment Group’s Dead Reckoning page.
To finish the game with the most coins, which are earned through gameplay actions, achievements, and endgame scoring conditions.
Place the Harbor board on the table, with the harbors oriented towards the center of the table.
Take all the Ocean boards with islands and shuffle them face down. Draw the appropriate number of boards for the number of players, returning the others to the box. Then do the same with the Ocean boards that have islands, and shuffle those in with the other ocean boards. Deal out the Ocean boards face down in a 3×4 grid, and flip the 3 ocean boards touching the Harbor board face up.
Before playing the game, you should have separated out the Advancement/Encounter cards into 4 decks, based on the “row” icons on the cards which match the tuck deck boxes. Shuffle those decks and place them in their respective tuck boxes with the bottoms of the cards at the top of the box. Place each box next to the corresponding row of islands, with the #1 box going next to the row of islands next to the harbor. Finally, draw a card from the #1 box for each of the face up islands in that row, and place them in the open card space.
Create a general supply of cargo barrels, coins, black cubes, damage markers, and buildings. Place the basic and advanced Ship Upgrade tiles in stacks of identical tiles. And place the Battle Ship with the Battle Board nearby.
Each player will then get a treasure chest containing 15 coins, 30 cubes in their chosen color, a Ship board, a dock tile, 6 achievement markers, a plastic ship, a pirate mode flag, a reference card, and a deck of 12 sailor cards, all of which start at level 1. Place the dock tile either at the matching space at the harbor or near your ship board, and place the ship in the harbor. Shuffle the sailor cards and draw the top 4 cards into your hand.
Finally, randomly determine the starting player. Players all receive a number of cargo based on their play order, which is placed on the dock tile. Everyone is now ready to start the game.
Each player’s turn consists of 2 phases:
- Main phase. This is the bulk of the turn, where players perform multiple actions including moving their ship, loading and unloading cargo, playing cards and using their abilities, buying Advancements, or resolving Encounters.
- Cleanup phase. Players sleeve advancements, draw new cards, and replace any Advancements on Ocean boards. Optionally players can raise their pirate flag during this phase.
Before a player’s next turn, they will also level up one card in their hand.
Here are the Main Phase actions. You can perform as many of them as you want/are able:
Load / Unload / Rearrange Cargo & Coins
If your ship is at a harbor, you can freely load and unload cargo and coins. You can always unload both at any island, but you can only load them from an island that you control. You can also rearrange your cargo and coins at any time except during a battle, or even jettison them into the ocean.
Play a Card from your Hand
Place a sailor card from your hand face up on the table. You can play the abilities on the played card any time during your turn. For example, this Purser card’s level 1 action would allow you to produce resources on an island you control:
This action can only be done once during your turn. You add up the sail icons from any empty holds of your ship along with ones on cards you’ve played from your hand, and then place the action cube in that spot on your Ship board. (Tip: if you’re at the harbor or an island you control, you can unload before you set the sails, count the sail icons in your cargo holds, then load the cargo back up again.)
Move Your Ship
You can move your ship orthogonally a number of spaces equal to the amount you’ve set on the sails. However, if you choose to stop on an unexplored Ocean board, you must stop and explore it.
To explore the Ocean board, you flip it over, and draw an Advancement from the box associated with that row, placing it on the open card space on that board. If you have any movement remaining you can now take it, but you cannot explore more than one Ocean board on the same turn.
Buy Advancements / Resolve Encounters
If you stop at a space with an Advancement card, you can purchase it using cargo that’s currently on your ship. You will sleeve it during the Cleanup phase.
If you want to resolve an Encounter card at a space you stop at, you have two choices: you can either Trade, or you can Attack. If you Trade, you’ll pay the purchase cost and put it aside to sleeve it as you would an Advancement card. If you instead decide to Attack, you’ll flip the Encounter card over and resolve it, most likely via battle. I’ll explain combat a little later.
Use an Ability of a Played Card
Each ability on a played card can only be used once per turn, and is always optional. Battle abilities can only be used during combat. As with combat, I’ll cover some specific abilities in just a bit.
Meanwhile, here’s what you’ll do during the Cleanup Phase:
Refill Advancements / Encounters
For each empty card slot on Ocean boards, draw an Advancement/Encounter card from the corresponding box for that row and place it.
Choose to be in Pirate or Mercantile Mode
As long as you’re not in harbor, you can choose at this time to move out of the default Mercantile Mode into Pirate mode, where fights are automatically started when other ships stop on the same Ocean board that you occupy. Place the pirate flag between the sails of your ship.
Lose Any Unspent Sails
Reduce the Sail track on your Ship board back to 0.
Take any advancements that you’ve bought this turn and sleeve them onto only cards that you’ve played. Each card can have a maximum of three advancements, and they must not overlap. You may set one advancement aside to be sleeved on your next turn.
Discard and Draw
Discard any cards you played during the turn and draw up to 4 cards (your hand limit is 6).
Finally, between the end of your turn and the beginning of your next, you may level one of the cards in your hand. To do this, you’ll remove the ability card and rotate and/or turn it so that the next level shows at the bottom of your sleeved card.
Different sailors have different abilities, the use of which will help you to achieve your goals. For example, with the Deck Hand, his level 1 base ability will allow you to place an influence cube on an island. To control an island (and thereby be able to pick up any cargo or coins produced there), you must have the majority of influence cubes.
The Bosun has the ability (once you level him up) to purchase upgrades for your ship. These go over one of the 4 slots outlined on your Ship board.
The First Mate, once you level him up, can purchase buildings to place on islands you control. Buildings will upgrade your islands: Forts and Garrisons help to protect islands, while Outposts boost an island’s production capabilities.
There are also some abilities that are geared specifically towards combat. There are three types of combat that you can participate in: player ship vs. NPC ship, player ship vs. buildings, and player ship vs. player ship. There are a few differences among the three, but overall a battle is run in much the same way.
Here’s an example of how combat plays out, using a player ship vs. an encounter. If you decide to attack instead of trade, you flip over the Encounter card and it will reveal the parameters of the encounter.
In this particular case, the NPC ship will contribute 3 black cubes to the battle. The card shows that the winner of the battle will gain two coins on their boat as well as the advance to sleeve onto one of their cards. The advance in this case gives the ability to draw an extra card. The loser’s ship will take two damage, but they also get to level up one of their cards.
In this particular example, thanks to some advancements on cards that I had played, I had 5 cannon symbols, which meant that I would be contributing 5 cubes of my blue player color to the battle. To battle, you drop all of the cubes from both sides of the fight at the same time into the Battle Ship.
Here are the initial results of that roll:
Cargo and coins indicate plunder you receive in the battle, flame symbols indicate damage you do to the opponent, the tiny explosion allows you to “explode” your cube, re-rolling it along with an additional one, and crown symbols are Battle Strength, which determines the winner of the conflict. After your initial roll, you can choose to play battle abilities on any cards in play. Although I’d already won the above conflict, for sake of this example, I decided to play the ability on this card which allows me to drop two additional cubes:
And here are the new results:
Not much has changed, but my Battle Strength improved by one, and I did get a little more plunder. Having won, I receive the Advancement as well as the additional two coins from the win condition. If I had been fighting another player, my opponent would have taken one damage to their ship, but also received two of either cargo or coin. Also, a loser in a battle takes one additional damage to their ship. And if your ship ever takes 5 damage, it sinks. Don’t worry though, you don’t actually lose your ship… it’s returned to your harbor, minus some (or all!) of the coin on your ship at the time.
There are 9 different achievements that you can earn in the game, as noted on the achievement track at the top of the Harbor board. If at the end of your turn you’ve completed any 4 achievements, then the endgame is triggered. Every other player then gets one more turn, and the game ends. These are the achievements you can earn:
- Terror of the Sea: sink a ship.
- Builder: own 5 or more buildings.
- Capitalist: have 30 or more coin in your Treasure chest.
- Settler: have 6 or more permanent cubes across islands.
- Elite vessel: acquire 4 ship upgrades.
- Explorer: explore a certain number of Ocean boards depending on player count.
- Master Merchant: return 12 cargo from your Harbor and/or ship back to the supply all at one time.
- Legendary: win 4 ship vs. ship battles.
- Expert Sailors: have 3 cards of Level 4.
Once the final player has taken their turn, everyone adds up their total coins. These are calculated from:
- Achievements earned
- Coins in Treasure Chests, on Ship boards and on islands players control
- Buildings on islands controlled
- Ship upgrades taken
- End of game effects on Advancements
- Influence cubes on islands
And whoever has the most coins wins the game! In case of a tie, you settle things in a most thematic way: the tied players count up all the cannon symbols on their Ship and cards, take those cubes, and drop them in the Battle Ship. Whoever has the most Battle Strength then wins.
There will be solo rules included with the game, but at the time I reviewed the prototype, they were not included.
Why You Should Play Dead Reckoning
Designer John D. Clair has certainly been on a roll with his game design the last few years. He created the widely popular Space Base, a dice game that for many gamers replaced Machi Koro in their collections. And he’s generally considered to be the creator of “card crafting” as a mechanic: sleeving transparent cards together to modify and level up other cards. This is a mechanic which he’s used in Origins award-winner Mystic Vale, Edge of Darkness, and in his newest game, Dead Reckoning.
The card crafting works exceptionally well in support of the theme. Every player starts off on equal footing: a very basic ship, and a bunch of inexperienced sailors to crew it. As the game progresses and you purchase and sleeve Achievements on the sailors, you truly feel like you’re improving your characters while they gain experience out on the high seas. They’re becoming better at their jobs, but it’s also up to you to decide which sailor gets what Advancements, so that you can customize your crew the way you want.
It’s this freedom of choice which makes the game so enjoyable, and had me pining for playing the game again after I’d sent my prototype copy on to the next reviewer. As you can see with those 9 achievements, there are many different ways you can earn coin to help you win the game. Do you want to be an explorer, sailing to the farthest regions of the ocean? Level up your Deck Hand early so you get more sails, to allow you to go farther each turn. Want to take control of islands and get them producing for you? Then it’s your Buccaneer and Purser you want to focus on. Or if you prefer plunder to production, then your Gunner and Captain can help you on the path to piracy.
Similarly, upgrading your ship can be important, no matter what path you choose. You can expand cargo holds, and add sails and/or cannons to your Ship board. It’s up to you, the player, to choose which upgrades will best suit your play style.
None of these choices are overwhelming, either. If your eyes started to glaze over while reading the rules section above, don’t worry—with the game in front of you, everything is very straightforward and easy to learn. The rulebook itself is well-laid out, with plenty of examples, illustrations, references, and even tips for how to go about pursuing different play strategies. The symbology on the boards and cards is also well thought out. As I mentioned earlier, in a very short time playing Dead Reckoning, you’ll become familiar with those symbols and won’t need to use your reference cards.
Battle resolution is a lot of fun, too. I remember when I mentioned the Battle Ship and Board to a gamer friend, his immediate reaction was that it was a “gimmick.” But the combination of the Battle Ship and the Battle Board provides a simple yet engaging method of resolving combat that’s truly enjoyable. I also reminded him that this wasn’t combat where you were firing missiles or shooting machine guns. It’s emulating the lobbing of heavy balls of iron propelled by gunpowder at your opponent. I also appreciated that both winners and losers of battles can earn plunder… it all depends on where those cubes tumble onto the Battle Board.
So all hands on deck for Dead Reckoning! With its accessibility, card crafting, and multiple pathways to victory, this game delivers a broadside to the swashbuckling genre. I can’t wait to get the final version of the game to my table.
The prototype that I played was fun and compelling, but I still haven’t gotten a chance to try out the solo rules. And AEG has already announced Deep Legends, a campaign expansion to Dead Reckoning which is included free with each Legendary pledge. Who knows what other surprises they have in store during the Kickstarter campaign?
To find out for yourself, or to back the game, head on over to the Dead Reckoning Kickstarter page!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.