The first thing that popped into my head after seeing the box art for Captain’s Wager – from designer Jonathan Hager and publisher Grey Fox Games – was “high adventure.” Something like Atlantis or Treasure Planet; films from Disney’s awkward phase where everything had to involve a grand quest of some kind. I mostly blame Andre Garcia’s fantastic artwork for this. Seriously, this is one beautifully illustrated game. Unfortunately it’s not really the sort of game I was expecting – or at least it doesn’t evoke that sort of feeling – but once I made peace with that fact I had a good time with it.
Diana: I didn’t.
Yes, players in Captain’s Wager will be going on adventures and hoarding the spoils of their efforts (kind of), but it’s not as grandiose as it sounds. What could’ve been a memorable and imaginative experience that leaves participants with stories they’ll want to share with anybody who wasn’t present is, instead, a fairly low-key “take that” kind of game that also involves a little gambling. What it is isn’t bad, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the game world needs a more substantial representation.
Diana: See? It sounds like you didn’t like it either!
Rob: But I did! I was just a little, I dunno, disappointed. I was expecting something else.
Right. Time to get back to what Captain’s Wager actually is, rather than what I wanted it to be. It is a game about gambling your own treasures against those belonging to other captains in a bid to win the entire pot. The goodies you win (potentially) at the end of an adventure will mostly be used to determine points at the end of the game, though a few can occasionally be kept in-hand as useful items – depending on a few factors.
The core idea of how these treasures can be used is an interesting one, to be sure. Each player’s treasure deck doubles as a sort of game timer: whenever any deck runs out of cards, it triggers the end of the game. It’s also pretty cool how these treasure cards can act as your primary way to take part in adventures, powerful one time use items, or victory points that are totally useless in-game but essential to the end-game. I’ve always had a soft spot for games where the cards serve multiple functions (Mage Knight, San Juan, etc), and Captain’s Wager is no exception.
Diana: A lot of the treasures seemed kinda pointless to use as items, though.
Rob: I guess. I mean I think if we were playing with a larger group there would’ve been more of an opportunity to use them. Maybe.
Rob: But yeah, some of them seemed to be limited to very specific situations.
Having each adventure broken up into a handful of “encounters” isn’t a bad idea either, though the pacing felt a little off. Every single player has to toss a treasure into a central pot at the start, whether they plan to take part or not – gotta keep the game moving along somehow, right? So that’s the start of the adventure. But then there are the encounters that make up the adventure. Each of these is represented by a card drawn randomly from the numbered Encounter deck (“1” for the first, “2” for the second, etc), and sometimes provide the player who completes it with some sort of temporary perk or bonus. Of course, even if an encounter doesn’t give a bonus it still counts towards the final tally at the end of the adventure, and whoever has the most completed encounters at the end will win all of the treasures in the pot. Yay, right?
In order to actually complete encounters, players have to make use of their crew. This is where things started to go off the rails a bit for me. Everyone draws from the same crew deck, and there aren’t a whole lot of cards in there. Sure there are more cards when there’s a larger player count, but not by much. So there’s a lot of repetition, and not much overall variety. It’s great that each type of crew member has a unique skill, but those skills can be almost as weirdly situational as the treasure cards. Sometimes they’re just not worth using.
On top of that, in order to use a crew member in an encounter players have to either pony up another treasure card (in addition to the one placed at the start of the adventure) or take out a loan, which will reduce their end-game score. Only one crew card per player can be used for an encounter, too, so the first to place is at a huge disadvantage because they likely won’t be able to react to anything any of the other players do. Not unless they have a treasure that can be used during someone else’s turn, anyway.
Rob: The crew cards had a very “take that” sort of feel to them, which I don’t think works very well in a two-player game.
Diana: Definitely not. Like you said, if you’re going first you can’t do much more than hope the next player doesn’t have a stronger crew card.
Rob: I suppose this is another one of those games that’s far more enjoyable with more than two players.
There’s also an expansion for Captain’s Wager available called “Maelstrom,” but truth be told we didn’t give it much of a chance. Neither Diana nor myself are fans of games that focus on screwing over others players, and the base game was pushing things enough, but the expansion pretty much exists just to push the “screw-over” factor even further. The new mechanic, Haunts, is essentially another “take that” element layered on top of the one already provided by the crew cards. Only this time it can ruin a player’s time during the end-game. I’m sure some folks are into that, and more power to them, but that’s not my thing at all and I was more than happy to go back to the base game.
Diana: You know, it really doesn’t sound like you enjoyed this game.
Rob: I know, I know. But I did. Kind of.
Rob: What I mean is, despite its faults I could see myself having a reasonably good time with it. Provided I was playing with three or more people. And we threw the expansion to the steam-powered robo-kraken.
(Thanks to Grey Fox Games for providing our copy for review. Their generosity didn’t influence our opinions)