"To be honorable and just is our only defense against men without honor or justice." -Diogenes of Sinope
"Today is the yesterday you won't be able to remember tomorrow" -Pinkwater
Swashbuckler is a classic board game for sheer fun. The game comes with two 17th-century settings, which are played separately, not together:
* A Barroom (a 15x15 grid of squares)
* Two sailing ships grappled together (with a grid of squares overlaid).
The barroom is a setting for Musketeers and/or pirates, while the ships are primarily for pirates, though you could have a pirate ship raiding a shipload of musketeers.
We like to have at least four characters in action at once, so we each play two characters with fewer than four players. Only at conventions have I played in a free-for-all game - at home we always seem to have teams, Musketeers vs. Pirates.
Set Up, or: Let's Play House!
The barroom must first be set up with tables, chairs, shelves, mugs of beer, carpets and chandeliers. This is quite fun and will undoubtedly remind someone of their sister's dollhouse, but the other players are usually too macho to admit it. Once the tavern is set-up, roll for random placement of characters, and begin the game.
Each turn you write orders for your character(s). Orders are written simultaneously for six phases. So if you're planning a lunge into a given space on phase five, you'd better hope somebody'll be there - and not a friend, either!
The game lists many possible orders on your character sheet, and they include movement (both horizontal and vertical), swordplay, and manipulating things - more on that later.
You have to write six phases at once, but some actions require two phases to complete. In those cases, you use a dash (for "rest") in the second phase of the action. A very few actions require three phases, and some just one.
Thinking ahead six phases can be tricky. I can plot a move, rest, turn, turn, lunge - and hope your character will still be there, but you may very well have moved away and I'll be lunging at air ...
The best move I ever saw in this game was where someone wrote the orders:
1. Block (to block a Dagger he was expecting to be thrown at him)
2. Rest (mandatory after most maneuvers)
3. Pick Up Dagger (there wasn't one there at the start of the turn, but if his Block was successful, it would drop there)
5. Throw Dagger (he didn't have one at the start of the turn - but he was so confident of getting one he wrote this order!)
It was successful!
Ho! Ha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust!
The game has rules to cover usage of all the materials mentioned in the set-up: throwing mugs and slipping in the resultant mess, bashing chairs around, shoving and flipping tables, yanking carpets, swinging on chandeliers and toppling shelves. Of course there are also rules for throwing knives, using cutlasses and rapiers, kicking someone, shoving, etc. There are also rules for taking damage, being stunned, going prone, standing up, crawling, walking, running, running lunge, parrying - and waving your hat in someone's face to distract them.
Most items can stun you, and possibly damage you. If stunned, you replace the appropriate number of written steps with "Rests", and rewrite the rest of your turn, if any. Get used to doing it...
If hurt, check off the body part hit, for as many points as you lost. The advanced rules allow for different character strength, endurance, skill, etc, so you may be able to take more hits than your opponent, but possibly aren't as strong (don't do as much damage), or as skillful.
The Different Boards
The board with the grappled ships uses none of the furniture, but does have cannons and treasure chests, and lots of rigging to swing on. Of course there are still hand weapons, too. Each side starts with a treasure chest in its hold - the object is to get the other chest, while retaining your own.
I must admit that I'm much more enamoured of the tavern setting - mugs and chairs and tables and carpets are just so much fun! One of the most delightful gaming sights I've ever seen was at GenCon, where I played in a 12-player game of a miniatures version of the tavern setting! Someone had done a lot of work in making a three-dimensional tavern, with a bar, balcony, chandeliers, tables, chairs, carpets, etc. The figures were also painted very nicely. They may have even introduced the barrel rules from the sister game, Adventurer, which is set in an SF bar, ala Star Wars. Well done, whoever you are!
The game doesn't try to simulate reality so much as the movies. Indeed, Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone are on the cover, and these should be your role models when playing the game. Be bold! Swing on that chandelier, yank that carpet, hurl that mug, flip that table! A light-hearted, great-fun game not to be missed.
-Review originally published in 1998