When you first look at Francis Drake fully set up, the massive amount of beautiful components may make the game seem overwhelming. Don’t be fooled; while there is a lot of deep strategy and interesting choices to be made, the gameplay is very straightforward.
In the first phase of Francis Drake, players take turns advancing down the street of Plymouth, collecting various resources–like crew members, guns, trade goods, etc–you’ll need in order to go on your voyage; however, once a player advances down the road, they cannot backtrack to a location they skipped.
I really enjoy this aspect of the game, because it’s one of many areas where strategy comes in. For example, if I desperately need to upgrade my ship from a frigate to a galleon and the Queen space is the only spot left to do so, I’ll have a tough choice to make if she’s a few locations down; do I skip over acquiring other resources I might need, or wait and hope the other players don’t take the Queen before it gets back to my turn?
The other interesting part of the provisioning phase is that, on the second and third voyage, the location tiles get shuffled and randomly redistributed on the board, which means you’ll have different decisions to make during each provisioning phase. (For your first few games, the rulebook recommends leaving them in the same order from voyage to voyage.)
After everyone finishes advancing down Plymouth street and goes to the outbound harbor, the second phase of the voyage begins. In the sailing phase, players use discs to chart their course on the board. Each player receives four discs numbered 1-4 and secretly places them, in sailing order, around the board; some players may have the use of the Golden Hind disc or the Ghost Ship disc if they used that location space during the first phase. The Golden Hind allows the player who has it to resolve the action space it occupies first, before any other players act, and the Ghost Ship is a bluffing disc that disappears after it’s revealed.
There are some other actions that can happen before or after placing discs in the sailing phase, depending on if players used the Admiral, Governor, or Informer spaces. After every player has placed all their available discs, the discs are flipped over and each action space is resolved, starting with the first player’s disc 1 location, then moving to the second player’s disc 1 location and so on; this continues until all players return to Plymouth Harbor.
The actions a player can take during the sailing phase are: attacking a town, attacking a fort, attacking a galleon, or trading goods for commodities. Towns are guarded by soldiers and players must spend crew members in order to neutralize the soldiers on a one-for-one basis; in other words, if a town is guarded by two soldiers, you’ll need to spend two crew members to successfully defeat them. Galleons are fought the same way; however, instead of using crew members, you’ll need to use guns to defeat the ship’s cannons. Last but not least, forts require the use of both crew members and guns because they are heavily guarded.
And the Admiral and Governor spaces I mentioned earlier? They allow the players that use them to potentially add more crew and guns to various Spanish forts and galleons, secretly of course. By doing so, a clever player can can often disrupt the plans of his opponent. This is one of many elements that encourage you to pay attention to what your opponents are doing.
If you are the first player to win a battle, you receive a bonus of one silver, gold, or ruby piece to put in your treasure chest–these will be scored at the end of the game. Also, if you defeat at least one fort, town, and/or galleon in the same voyage, you receive bonus victory points for that voyage.
Trading, on the other hand, requires that you have a trade good (received through various locations on Plymouth Street) to trade for one of the commodities available. Commodities are strictly used for scoring victory points at the end of the game, depending on the number of sets each player has.
Once players have used all their actions and/or returned to Plymouth Harbor, they lose any unused crew members, guns, trade goods, and supplies. The board then gets reset for the next voyage and turn order is set with the player in last place going first; after three voyages, final scores are tallied based on how many trade commodity sets, silver, gold, and rubies you have in your treasure chest, and a winner is declared.
Francis Drake always has me feeling engaged and interested in the turns of my fellow players as they make their moves around the board. I’ve played this game more than a handful of times now, with 3-5 players of varying gaming experience, and every player has had a great time. The best part is, even with five players, I’ve yet to have a game last longer than 100 minutes! Francis Drake will be a treasure in my collection, and I look forward to all the voyages yet to come!