Monday, 24 December 2007


I first played Loot on 1 Dec 2007. It was Chee Seng's game. This is a short and simple card game, which we played three times straight. Chee Seng originally only intended to drop by to pass to me the Lego Creator 4954 set which he helped me buy from Melbourne, but we ended up playing Loot three times and Tower of Babel once. Yes, he's an addict too.

Loot is a game by Reiner Knizia. I think I cannot stop myself from mentioning his name every time I write about a game designed by him. This is a simple card game about pirates and merchant ships. There are three types of cards in the game - the pirate cards, which come in four different colours and depict one to four skulls representing the strength of the card, the merchant ship cards, which are worth 2 to 8 coins, and the captain cards, one captain for each pirate colour, and one admiral. Every turn, you draw a card, or play a card, and the game ends when the deck is exhausted and one player has exhausted his hand.

You can play a merchant ship card to send your merchant ship out on a trade mission. Once you put out a merchant ship, your opponents can play pirate cards to attack the ship, and you yourself can also play pirate cards to attack your own ship. This is a game of escalation. You can keep adding cards until no one else is able to or is willing to top you. Then you claim the merchant ship. After you play a pirate card on a merchant ship, you are committed to that colour and your subsequent cards played must be of the same colour. Also your opponents cannot use the same coloured pirates to attack the same merchant ship. The most interesting mechanism in the game is the "one-round uncontested" rule. After you have played a pirate card to attack a merchant ship and become the strongest player in contention, if the turn passes around the table and noone else tops you, then when the turn returns to you, you claim the merchant ship. The same applies when you send out a merchant ship yourself. After sending it out, if noone attacks it (e.g. they are busy sending out their own merchant ships, or they are attacking other merchant ships and ignore yours, or they have run out of pirate cards, etc) then when the turn returns to you, you collect your own merchant ship, which now goes to your score pile, not your hand. This means the merchant ship had a successful trip and was not attacked at all.

Aarrrr! I've got lots of pirates! In the background a merchant ship is being fought over by two groups of pirates.

Close-up of a merchant ship and a pirate ship.

This is baaaad. Too many merchant ships.

This "one-round uncontested" rule makes things interesting, and created a lot of funny moments in our games. Often you get that "turn angst" feeling (despite such a simple game), because you can only do one thing on your turn, but you have a few things that you want to do. Do you attack one of your opponent's merchant ships, because if you don't, by the time his turn comes, he will claim it back? Do you put out one of your own lower valued merchant ships, hoping that the other merchant ships out there will attract all the pirates and you can slip under the radar and score some cheap points? In our games we had a number of times when everyone just sent out one merchant ship after another hoping to score cheap points and slip past the pirates. It was funny to realise that everyone had that mentality. The rules discourage you from not sending out merchant ships, because any merchant ships left on your hand when the game ends will become negative points. So, you are out of luck if you get too many merchant ships and too few pirates.

The captains cards are trumps. Pirate captains can only be played after a pirate card of the same colour has already been played. Captains beat any number of skulls played by other opponents, but are trumped by other captains (or the admiral) played later. The admiral is just like a captain, but does not need any pirate cards to be played before it, and can only be used by the player who sent out the merchant ship. The admiral is the "good guy". The captain cards add some spice to the game. No matter how good your pirate cards are, you are never sure whether they will be topped by your opponent's captain. Even if you play a captain card, it may in turn to topped by another captain or admiral card played later by another player. There are only 4 pirate captains (one for each colour) and 1 admiral in the game. I find this addition ingenious. It can create yet another type of "turn angst". Do you play your captain now, because if you don't and the turn returns to the last player who has played a card, he will claim the contested merchant ship? Maybe you will hope that another player will keep the merchant ship contested by playing another pirate card. Then you can swoop in with your captain card, beating all other players. But then what if another opponent is also waiting with another pirate card or admiral card?

In our three games, Michelle, Chee Seng, and I each won once. I was lucky to get many pirate cards in the first game, and Michelle was unlucky to get many merchant ships. In our second game we didn't shuffle the cards well, and there was one stretch where we kept drawing merchant ships only. We ended up taking turns to send out merchant ships one after another, hoping to sneak them by without attracting any pirates, and hoping the others all have the same idea. We also had an occasion of a hotly contested pirate ship being attacked by one captain, who was in turn defeated by a next captain.

Loot is a light, fun game. Easy to teach and quick to play. Like most Knizia designs, the design is clean and clever. There is definitely luck, but at the same time there are also interesting decisions to make. Although not something I'd seek out to buy, it is a handy game to pull out as a filler.

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