Take the steampunk genre, add a pirate theme to it and sprinkle a modern take on Poker for good measure and you get Captain’s Wager. If you like any of these three things, this game is a good fit. If you like all three things, Captain’s Wager may be the perfect game for you.
We’ll sail off to the review after the tide rolls in but first, we must make preparations and cover the technical speak.
The Fiddly Bits
Designer: Jonathan Hager
Publisher: Grey Fox Games
Date Released: 2014
Number of Players: 2-5
Age Range: 12 and up
Setup Time: Less than a minute
Play Time: Around 30 minutes
Captain’s Wager, at its core, is a betting and wager card game but it has plenty of twists and turns. Players start the game with a deck of treasure cards. All of these treasure decks are the same (they consist of the same cards) and each of these decks has the color and symbol of your pirate clan on its backing.
All five pirate clans card backings
The cards in your treasure deck are kept face down and act like your currency with which to ante for a hand and bet with during a hand—but Captain’s Wager calls hands encounters. There are three encounters per round and whoever wins the most encounters in a round, takes treasure cards from the treasure pile (that folks anted and betted with), looks at these cards, and can either place them face up in their captured treasure pile (for points printed on the cards) or add them to their hand (if they have a neat ability). In order to win an encounter, you’re dealt four crew cards at the beginning of every round.
Example of Crew Cards
Each of these crew cards has a number in the top left-hand corner, ranging from 1-20, and most of them have a special effect that can improve their value. Players take turns playing one of their crew cards from their hand face up – some of these cards allow you to play extra cards from your hand during an encounter – and the player who ends the turn with the highest crew card value wins the encounter.
Example of Treasure Cards (Point Value in Top-Right Corner)
The game ends when one player runs out of cards in their (face down) treasure deck, which essentially means that they got cleaned out of all their money. After this happens, players tally up their score. You get a point for each card left in your treasure deck, count up the point values for the treasure in your captured treasure pile, and there are some treasure cards in your hand that can earn you points. The player with the most points wins.
The above game flow has a few things omitted – and we’ll get to those things in just a bit – but that’s pretty much the gist of Captain’s Wager.
Captain’s Wager, just like Poker, is mostly about betting and how well you can read other players. You can get dealt a great hand but other players can overcome your great hand if they play their cards better than you. The game does this well enough that pure luck can be overcome with skilled play. That must have taken the designer Jonathan Hager quite some time to get balanced.
One unique treasure per pirate clan
You can also borrow gold or even fold (Captain’s Wager calls it stealing) instead of paying for a hand. These two options add even more strategy to the base game flow. There are some crew members that allow you to pawn some of your negative point, loan tokens on another player and folding, and not wasting your cards and treasure, may be the optimal choice in certain situations.
Mechanical Dragon: he doesn’t have effect text but he’s big and nasty
Captain’s Wager is easy to pick up but it takes time to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. It takes 30 minutes to play Captain’s Wager but that doesn’t refer to your first time playing the game. Most rookies will view folding as losing and that’ll lead to them playing more cards, betting more treasure, and ending the game sooner because they’ll run out of treasure but Captain’s Wager has another barrier for new players. Fortunately, it’s a small one.
While most betting/wager games earn you points/money at the end of each hand, you don’t take from the Captain’s Wager treasure pile until a round (three hands or encounters) are finished. This sounds like it’s not that big of a deal but it takes time – about one play through – for you to wrap your brain around this odd rule.
I could also see some folks say that Captain’s Wager doesn’t have enough theme but I think that’s an unfair assessment. The name lets you know that it’s a betting/wager game—wager’s in the title. You assume the role of a steampunk captain and the crew cards mimic the types of characters you’d encounter in such a world and occupation. The art and graphics are phenomenal, the gameplay is quick and fun, but I’d say that it plays better with more players.
With more players, you’ll end up with more difficult choices in terms of which crew cards you’ll play, more treasure cards enter play, and there’s less of a chance of one player winning two rounds and that makes the game out of reach for everyone else at the table.
This game just finished its Kickstarter campaign and won’t be out until the July-August timeframe (around GenCon), so I can’t give a definite verdict for it yet, but I can’t wait for its release.