Christian Fiore &
Knut Happel


No. of Players:
2 - 4



Having published over half a dozen games under the labels of GOLDSIEBER and NORIS within the last few years, Christian Fiore and Knut Happel have assumed something like a "resident author" status at the publishing house of NORIS-SPIELE. In their games they have touched a great variety of topics, going from the crusades in Akkon to the building of Venice in Die Säulen von Venedig. Roman roads (Via Romana) and Latrines (Pecunia non olet) have been topics as well as the building of the Palace of Saba in the Middle East, and now the authoring team once again has shifted the focus to a topic which they have not touched yet - the life of a privateer in the Caribbean.

The box of the new game Captain Jack's Gold is a rather cute-looking treasure chest, but if you give the artwork a closer look it's not just the name of the game which gives a strong resemblance to the blockbuster movie Pirates of the Caribbean. A pirate looking quite similar to Captain Jack Sparrow is depicted on the box, and it seems to be no far-fetched guess that NORIS is hoping to attract a bigger audience to this game by a clever choice of both the game's title and the box-artwork. However, let's not forget that a game is only as good as its rules, and so let's have a look if the blockbuster-appearance of the exterior of the box really can be matched by the game itself.


Every player starts the game with a lousily equipped Pinnace, hosting a meagre starting equipment of two sails and one cannon. Each player's ship has a hold for up to seven additional cards, and these cards may be additional sails and cannons, crew, passengers and cargo. All these things may be acquired during the course of the game, and they can be found in three different decks of exploration cards to which the players can send their ships in search of loot. Each of these exploration decks consist of 30 cards, and at the beginning of his turn a player can send his ship either into the coast deck, the island passage deck or the high sea deck, and depending on the chosen deck he may hope to find certain types of cards which may help him during the game.

Once a deck is chosen, the active player starts to reveal cards one by one, each time deciding whether he wants to keep and perform the card just revealed or whether the voyage continues by the revealing of the next card. However, just like a real voyage, a card which is not kept may not be re-activated later, and so the player always has to speculate whether he will really find a better card. In addition, the maximum range of a player's exploration action is determined by the number of sails his ship possesses, and so the rigging of the ship determines the maximum number of cards which the player may reveal. When the maximum range is reached or when a card showing a "calm"-symbol is revealed, the player still can choose to perform this last card, but if he does not want to perform this card his turn ends without any further event.

All exploration cards actually are split into two halves, and when a card is revealed only the half with an upwards pointed arrow is available for activation. The lower part of a card may show some kind of booty or personality, but these lower parts usually only can be activated either by turning the card around in port or by overcoming a challenge which may be found on the upper part of the card. As indicated, there is a wide range of things which may be shown on the exploration cards, but the frequency of certain kinds of cards depends on which exploration deck was chosen by the active player.

  • The coast deck gives best access to cannons and sails, but it is not really worthwhile when it comes to collecting gold coins which count as victory points in this game.
  • The island passage deck means a better access to trading goods, but on the other hand it also includes some ships which may be boarded in hope of booty.
  • Finally, the high seas deck does not contain many opportunities to gain cannons, sails and trading goods, but on the other hand it contains many enemy ships where boarding actions may yield a good amount of gold coins and other helpful goodies.

If the active player decides to act on a card which he has found, he takes the card and adds it to his ship, provided he does not exceed his maximum holding space of seven cards. If the maximum is reached, a new card still can be added, but the player is forced to discard another card in order to make room for the new card. As suggested earlier, quite a range of helpful things and personalities can be found on the exploration cards, but unfortunately especially the more valuable findings only are displayed at the lower half of the card. The upper half of such cards regularly shows either less valuable equipment or even challenges like enemy ships, sea monsters, storms and reefs, and such a challenge must be overcome in order to successfully take the card.

A sea battle with an enemy ship is dealt with by classic dice rolling, but a player may only attack a ship if he has a number of sails matching or exceeding the rigging of the prey. If there are not enough sails, the enemy is faster and will quickly get out of range of the unhappy pirate player. When it comes to a boarding action, a player is entitled to make a number of rolls up to the number of cannons available on his ship. If the player exceeds the combat rating of the enemy ship, the boarding action is won and the player instantly may activate the lower half of the card. However, a player even may stop rolling and claim the card if he has reached a draw, but in this case the player's ship will be damaged and he had to discard and sails or cannon card which was lost in the action. This also happens if the boarding action is not successful, but of course in this case the player will not gain the card and the benefit.

However, a boarding action is not limited against enemies which can be found in one of the exploration decks. Instead, some of the exploration cards also show a specific boarding symbol, and in this case the active player actually may opt to attack a player who has chosen to explore the same exploration deck during his last turn. Now both players roll a number of dice corresponding to their number of cannons, and the winning player will be entitled to take one card of his choice from the ship of the losing player.

Apart from going on a voyage into one of the three exploration decks a player also has the possibility to visit the central harbour. In this case no exploration will be possible for the whole turn, but instead the player can overhaul his ship in dock, meaning that he may rotate any of the exploration cards which he has added to his ship display during his voyages. Thus, the lower half of some cards can be activated, possibly giving the player access to an even broader range of actions and benefits.

In addition, a total of four letters of marque are available at the Governor's palace, and each of these cards lists enemy ships, trading goods or a combination of both. If a player has acquired a matching combination of cards during his voyages, he may exchange these cards for the letter of marque, awarding him one or two gold coins for loyal services to the Crown.

As indicated, some of the cards which can be found in the exploration decks even will reward the lucky finder with passengers or crew members. Passengers can be traded for a gold coin when the player meets a ship matching the nationality of the passenger, whereas the eight different crew members will give the player's ship some benefits. For example, the helmsman can be used to turn over additional exploration cards, the quartermaster enlarges the ship's cargo bays to hold three more cards, the carpenter allows the rotation of one card without visiting the harbour or the master gunner the repetition of one dice roll in a sea battle. Some of these crew members have a permanent effect, whereas others need a bottle of rum to work properly. The distribution of rum bottles is triggered by a symbol on some exploration cards, and if a player finds such a card all other players receive one rum bottle which they may place on one of the crew members to activate him during a later turn.

The game is won by the first player who has looted a certain amount of gold coins, and so the players constantly have to keep an eye on the letters of marque available at the harbour. If a letter is collected, the card is discarded and a new card is revealed, and since the demands of the governor may change dramatically from letter to letter, the players often will cash in their cards as soon as they can fulfil the requirements of a letter. However, due to the fact that the randomized fashion in which the players travel through the exploration decks offers no real control which cards they will find, there is not much of an alternative to going to the harbour whenever a letter can be collected. It simply would not make sense to hope for a lucky find in an exploration deck, when on the other hand another player possibly might snatch away the desired letter.

This brings me to the question whether Captain Jack's Gold can be played strategically, and here I must admit that the strategic potential of the game is rather unincisive. Okay, the players can influence the types of exploration cards they see on their turn's voyage through the choice of one of the exploration decks, but otherwise the game is dominated by a very high factor of luck. You need luck when drawing cards, and you need luck in combat, and so the players are left only with some basic decisions like which cards they should keep as permanent equipment for their ship or which exploration deck should be chosen.

However, if this limited possibility for strategy is accepted, the players who dare a voyage in the Caribbean will come to a flabbergasting conclusion: despite its limitations Captain Jack's Gold is one of the best pirate-themed games released in recent years. On first sight, these two observations seem to contradict each other, but playtesting quickly reveals a high entertainment value which succeeds in quickly captivating the players and creating a rather well-matched playing atmosphere. In terms of story and playability many elements of the rules fall well into place, and the bandwidth created by equipping the players' ships, transporting cargo, "hiring" crew members, overcoming sea hazards and daring naval combat strongly contributes to an all-round playing experience. Some degree of player interaction is reached through the possibility of a naval battle between two player ships and by the competition for more valuable letters of marque, and due to all these factors Captain Jack's Gold can be qualified a rather good family game!

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Copyright © 2011 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany