03 October 2022
The game that puts the “Arrr” into carrrd crafting
At first glance, John D. Clair’s nautical 4X game is yet another title which embraces the kind of high-seas skulduggery repopularised by the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Don’t get us wrong – Dead Reckoning does feature piracy. You can hoist your black sail (represented by a piracy token that slots neatly into your dinky ship miniature) and plant an imaginary parrot on your shoulder whenever you like. But that is not the whole story here.
As you’d expect from a 4X title, which awards victory from a wide menu of possible achievements (ship upgrading, trading, exploring, island-owning, sinking other player’s ships, etc.), there are a variety of ways to play. You could lean into the mercantile side of things, trading cargo with the merchant ships you encounter on your voyages in Clair’s mildly fantastical world. Or you might style yourself as a privateer, charging around the frankly gorgeous modular board, building fortifications on islands and aggressively tackling any threats that arise, whether they’re drawn from the Advancement decks or created by your fellow players.
The way piracy works is interesting, if a little counter-intuitive. At the end of your turn, you can announce you’re going into “piracy mode”. This doesn’t mean you can attack other players (that action is granted by certain ability cards for your crew), rather that you can be attacked. It’s basically a “come at me” move – with the added bonus that if any other player stops on your current ocean tile, they can’t interact with it unless they fight you first... Even if the ocean tile contains an island they own, with their money and/or cargo stored on it. It’s a fun wrinkle – although, as we say, entirely optional. You can have a satisfying game without any pirate antics at all.
And it is a very satisfying game. Clair has built it around the same “card crafting” mechanism he innovated for 2016’s Mystic Vale, and it’s implemented perfectly. Your crew of 12 sailors – represented by mostly blank sleeved cards – not only level up as the game progresses, they’ll also be able to slot in new abilities granted from encounter cards. Which ones you level up and upgrade depends on what your focus is. The bosun, for example, gives you access to building construction; the purser will enable you to produce at islands you control.
Clair also makes conflict a component-based treat, via an elaborate cardboard-ship cube tower, into which your combat-strength-representing cubes are dropped. The results are determined by where they fall on a battle board: plunder obtained, hits taken, explosions and victory points.
If we have a criticism, it’s that the base game is quite, well, basic. The only encounters are merchant ships, which you either attack or trade with. The real exploratory flavour only comes with the “Saga” expansions (of which there are currently two, with a third on the way), which add in story elements, some narrative choice with certain encounters, and a smidge of Legacy, especially if you choose the campaign mode. Meanwhile, if you crave a bit of asymmetry in the crew decks, you’ll want the smaller Sea Dogs expansion, which gives you different crew members.
Even if you choose not to fork out for all the extra stuff, there is still a great game in here, whose multiple courses to victory allow for sufficient variety and replayability. It’s just a shame the best experience Dead Reckoning offers lies beyond its core-set borders.
PLAY IT? YES
A superb, deeply thematic game with innovative mechanisms. If any of the expansion material were available in the core box, it would deserve a ‘Must-Play’.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED SCYTHE…
Dead Reckoning’s quality and attention to detail is clearly inspired by Jamey Stegmaier’s dieselpunk 4X masterpiece. You could call it “Scythe on the sea”, if you wanted...
Designer: John D. Clair
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group
Time: 90-150 minutes
What’s in the box?
- 1 Harbour board
- 16 Ocean boards
- 4 Advancement decks in tuck boxes
- 80 Coins
- 40 Cargo tokens
- 32 Ship upgrade tiles
- 16 Damage markers
- 22 Buildings
- 20 Black cubes
- 1 Battle ship and battle board
- 80 Card sleeves
- 4 Sailor reference cards
- 4 Turn reference cards
- 8 Bonus achievement tokens
- 3 Token storage boxes
- 1 Player decks storage box
- 2 Rulebooks (one for solo play)
- 18 Solo play cards
- 4 Ship boards
- 4 Dock tiles
- 4 Ship miniatures
- 4 Pirate mode tokens
- 4 Treasure chests
- 120 Player cubes
- 24 Achievement markers
- 48 Sailor illustration cards
- 48 Sailor ability cards
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