Review: Francis Drake

Designer: Peter Hawes
Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games
Category: Bluffing, Exploration, Nautical, Pirates, Renaissance
Players: 3-5
Price: $49.99 Amazon
Francis Drake is a 3-5 player game, designed by Peter Hawes (War of the Roses, Royals), and published by Eagle-Gryphon Games.
To fill you in on all the juicy, juicy details of who this Francis Drake fellow is, I dove deep into two separate Wikipedia pages.
After Christopher Columbus’ journey to the “New World” in the 1500s, the Spanish developed a naval route which would allow them to transport gold and jewels from South America and back to Spain. Jump forward a few decades, and we have the birth of Francis Drake, in England, circa 1540.

Sir Francis Drake himself.

Drake left for three voyages of note. His maiden voyage was to the Americas on a family-owned ship, though his first notable voyage was an attack on the Isthmus of Panama, or the Spanish Main. The Spanish would transfer goods both navally, and then on land, and then back to ships, and this is where Drake attacked. Suffering major injuries, yet surviving, and carrying as much gold and silver as possible over 18 miles of jungle was one point of interest on this trip.
His second voyage in 1577 was to be the second circumnavigation of the earth. This trip was notable for his ownership of six different vessels, capturing Spanish treasure galleons, nicknaming the Golden Hind, and many other exploits. Drake was a privateer, and due to his efforts, upon returning to England, was held by honor and death to withhold the secrets of his pirating from public knowledge, thereby removing the English affiliation with his actions. He was then knighted by Queen Elizabeth, which would burgeon his wealth and leadership for his final major voyage in 1585. Prior to this, he had become Mayor of Plymouth and purchased Buckland Abbey.
In his major third voyage, he destroyed 37 naval and merchant Spanish vessels, and was named the Vice Admiral of the English fleet. By annihilating the Spanish armada, his efforts stalled the Spanish attack by an entire year. Drake died of dysentery after suffering a major loss against Las Palmas, at 55-years-old off the coast of Panama.
Drake was notorious in his destruction of the Spanish, for their religion, but also likely his pursuit of wealth and power. He framed and murdered a crewman whom he convinced the crew was mutinous. He owned and transported slaves, and razed colonies and towns.
Despite both his affluence, and brutality, he has been the reasoning behind the naming of a hotel chain, a mountain peak, and river channels. Drake’s legendary fortune has been a topic in pop culture, especially the Uncharted series, featuring Drake’s fictional descendant: Nathan Drake. Finally, in 2013, Peter Hawes spearheaded the design of a board game, hoping to replicate some of Drake’s voyages in a competitive, player-interactive, eurogame.

Content Guide

Francis Drake looks pretty, but is thematically dark. The game has players gathering weaponry and crew to assault galleons, and raze towns and forts. It’s purely thematic and implied, however, with no real indications of violence.

Review

Francis Drake

A long, long row of discs give you access to bountiful resources.

Francis Drake takes place over three rounds, divided into voyages. Players send crew (discs) down the streets to gather supplies and guns, upgrade their pathetic frigate into a galleon, and enlist the help of various important persons in Plymouth. Once players have made their way back to the drydocks, they sit, stew, and plot their upcoming voyage through the Spanish Main. Decided by what supplies they accrued on their trip downtown, players will place face-down, numbered discs onto four different locations. These locations can be forts, ships, trade routes, and towns, all granting different rewards. Then sailing to each, players will complete requirements for their destinations, beat other players out of rewards, return to Plymouth, and play two more rounds of the same.
The winner is the player who consistently amasses the most diverse portfolio of conquests, gathers the widest varieties of trade goods, and generally pillaged and plundered more effectively than everyone else, snatching up the most gold, silver, and jewels. This is all decided by victory points, but the winner will need to have played both with smarts and well-paced cunning.
Francis Drake

Deciding on the appropriate resources is critical to success.

The board itself is beautiful, and one look at the streets of Plymouth is likely enough to drive any one person to the rim with questions. These locations are printed optimally onto the board for new players, yet shuffled and replaced by player-count dependent tiles for those who are more experienced. This offers a bit of re-playability, but honestly doesn’t do too much to affect the game. To enhance this introductory section of a round would require the addition of tiles that may or may not show up round to round in the streets. However, as it stands, Francis Drake instead relies on another way to complicate the preparation phase of each round.
While gathering supplies and crew, players simulate the passing of time to some extent. As you place a disc down to collect whatever goods are on the tile, you cannot place another disc any further behind you. All future discs must be placed ahead of your previous placement. This accomplishes a few things. It makes preparation crucial, because not only can you not backtrack, but once a disc fills a space, there become fewer and fewer spaces remaining. The first space usually has a higher payout, so the first one to visit that shop will get the best stuff.
Francis Drake

Each board location grants points and jewels. Here, this galleon requires at least three guns to defeat.

Jumping ahead, the voyages themselves will require different prerequisites in order to gain the specified reward. A town will need a certain amount of crew to expend to take the silver and victory points. A fort will need guns and crew to take the treasure and points. Finally, the Spanish Galleons require both guns and a galleon to assault. A pinnace will allow players to subvert cannons on land by docking behind the port and assaulting on foot. Players will need trade goods to receive the various indigos or coffee tiles to build massive point bonuses. Players are also limited on distance traveled, pending the number of supply barrels they are able to pick up in town.
Players can also spend two actions in a row hiring the counsel of Francis Drake himself, granting crew and guns. The Queen can be visited for trade goods and an upgraded galleon. The Admiral and Governor will give all leftover gold and silver to the player who hired them, as well as give that player insider information on the hidden strength values of various soldiers and galleons in the Spanish Main. Other tiles grant various powers, but the balance of deciding which tiles are most critical are imperative.
This brings up a turn-by-turn dilemma. Players must constantly gauge their interest in specific items for their voyage. You might pass up the crew you need in order to pick up supplies that without them, will damn your voyage before you even leave port. You might need to pick up the Admiral to prevent the yellow player from grabbing both the Admiral and the Governor.
Francis Drake

Here lies the pool of resources. Choose sparingly, as you can’t excel in all areas.

This gives players a press-your-luck scenario, where you might sacrifice guaranteed supplies in order to stop another player from getting too far ahead. After all, if no one can visit the level 4 distance with their supplies, one player will easily take the leftover gold. To some extent, players are forced into positions where they have no choice but to stop another from taking a very powerful tile. If this isn’t managed turn by turn, someone could sneak away with dozens of free points throughout the game.
Francis Drake tows a strange line between feeling extremely thematic—especially with Pirates of the Caribbean music in the background—and feeling altogether bashful about its historic roots. Without any knowledge of why players are attacking colonies and ships, players feel strangely thrown into a conquest of the Spanish Main with no reason. “Why are we attacking these ships again?” asks one player. I respond, “Oh, the rules say we are replicating conquests of Francis Drake on the Spanish Main.” We all squint our eyes in a bit of confusion. Finally, we nod, pretending we understand the implications of the text.
Francis Drake

Red: I got here first!

Each voyage is historically accurate in terms of which were the most important years in Drake’s life, yet players are viciously assaulting innocents in the pursuit of gems and treasures. It seems harmless, and I admit it is, but it seems pointless. So round-by-round, you need to attack a fort, town, and galleon to be known as glorious and prosperous? I guess that’s fine. “So, are we actually hiring the Queen on our ship? Who is Francis Drake and why is he giving me a crew?” Are we historically ignorant? Did I not pay attention in 1500s History when I was homeschooled? Did I miss something here?
Thematically, the game becomes extremely interesting when you do a little research into who Drake was, but on the flip side it makes each player an ambiguous sea captain with no purpose other than to plunder and slaughter. I want to reiterate, I don’t see this as an issue, but it leaves me confused, especially when trying to explain to an onlooker what the game is about.
Let’s hop back a tiny bit and discuss the process of planning your trip.
At this point, the Admiral and Governor will get a peek at the soldier and galleon support tiles. They steel meticulous glances towards others at the table, spitefully placing these tiles onto their chosen locations. They essentially decide the hidden strength of seven territories. This comes back into play later.
Francis Drake

Careful planning is key to success. Like generals in a war room.

In the most interesting of phases, players take turns placing unknown discs onto various locations on the board. These discs determine the sailing order of players in terms of when they will arrive in different parts of the Spanish Main. It’s quite the feeling as you slide your discs between towns and trade routes. Imagine the scene from some old military film, with generals in a war room, looking at hills and miniatures on a long table, pushing their troops around with long sticks. This replicates the feeling marvelously.
You see another player place a disc on the galleon you were hoping to attack. You have no idea what number lies under the disc. Should you forgo your number one disc for your intended location, moving it to this new spot? Lots of intrigue happens here. Players can also have hired the Golden Hind for the voyage, giving them a fifth action that takes place before everyone else’s voyage. Players might also have a fifth disc from a ghost ship, giving them bluffing power, as it suits no purpose other than psyching other players out.
Once this phase ends, players flip their discs and scream in frustration at being beat out, since each location can only be completed twice. This leaves the unfortunate 3rd or 4th players feeling out cold, a wasted action in their midst.
Francis Drake

This fort is defended by at least one troop and two guns. It will grant a gold and four victory points to the first champion here.

Players then sail to each ordered spot and pay up whatever resources necessary to take the goods and points. At the appointed time, each player flips the hidden troops and guns for forts and galleons. Sometimes, this becomes simple, where a player need only spend an extra crew, or nothing to take the location’s treasures. Other times, players will need to fork up two additional guns or crew to take the goods, otherwise they forfeit their action, and move along to the next location on their voyage. With each player having a minimum of 12 actions per game, and the chance at 10 extra points a round from different conquests, each setback feels massive.
Once the round ends, the saddest thing in the world happens: you lose every single leftover resource.
Back to thematics. I guess this makes sense. The next voyage is maybe five years from now. How would you hold onto Drake that long? Your crew will be returning to their homes and relaxing. Your guns rust. Now the turn order is arranged by victory points with whoever sits in last now taking the lead. Whatever.
Francis Drake

Your tableau, sir.

It’s a sad thing because your hard work at planning may or may not have paid off, but furthermore, now you have nothing to your name but fame from bygone days. This leads to no real sense of progression. Aside from the goods you traded for and your treasures, you basically start the game over again. Sure, the tiles in Plymouth get reshuffled, but this whole expedition leaves you feeling kind of empty. The worst player sits first in turn order. Many years have gone by as they’ve watched the leader from the last round sit high and mighty on their throne of gloating. “No,” you say, “I won’t let that player get away with another round of glory.” So you go first. You plan ahead. You work to dethrone them.
One area where Francis Drake holds no quarter is presentation. The game is beautiful. From each player’s wonderful array of cubes and bits, to the tall, thick, slotted treasure chests. Players drop colorful gems into their secret fortune chest, only revealing their contents at the very end of the game.
Francis Drake

Treasures galore.

The map of the Spanish Main is easy to follow. It’s separated into four colors to depict the four areas of naval travel and the many locations to pillage. Players can quickly find their score on the tracker that borders the board. Including the player tableaus, once explained, no one should have any difficulty figuring out what icons mean, or how strong a fort is, or how many points they will gain, etc.
The insert itself is wonderful. I’ve now seen both disaster and excellence from my foray into Eagle-Gryphon Games. Some inserts feel absolutely cheap (Empires: Galactic Rebellion, The Daedalus Sentence), while others (Defenders of the Realm: Battlefields, Vinhos: Deluxe Edition) are clearly thought out and wonderful. Francis Drake fits together nicely, has many slots for bits, and comes in an appropriately-sized box for its contents. I have no complaints in the presentation.

Note: Francis Drake ships bi-lingually, as you might see in some Alea/Ravensburger games, though more so here than others. Almost every tile has a flip side in German, allowing for my… German speaking friends? It makes sense, I suppose, and I’m glad EGG took the steps to print the game in this manner, though I’m sorely ignorant of why games should be multilingual in their printing.

Francis Drake

Front and backs of tiles. English and German combined.

My last complaint on Francis Drake is I think the three-player game is dumb. Whoa, what a boring word to use: dumb. Well, the game is meant to tightly pack players into zones and barely grasp the resources they need. The resources argument still works at three because there are three-player tiles to disperse in Plymouth. However, I think it would make more sense to limit players to the first three zones on the map because with only three, there is so much land left over for people to cover. This makes taking leftover gold and silver easy-pickings for the Admirals and Governors of your group. Once you play with four or five, three players seems like a weird game you’re unfamiliar with.
Francis Drake also has two expansions. One adds a sixth player, and another adds Aztec treasures to the board. I’ve done little research on these two, but they don’t include variability on Plymouth tiles. In my eyes, these expansions beef up two things of which I’ve no interest. More players seems too depressing, and the map already speaks for itself well enough.

I hope I’ve not turned you off to Francis Drake in my novella. Drake’s history warrants more theme than the board game can offer. Although I have no clue how to make this more apparent in-game, I’ve offered some thoughts on how to spice up the streets of Plymouth. The thematic cunning and plotting of taking map locations before others is interesting and I like it. The press-your-luck element of pushing ahead too far on the Plymouth streets is also dynamic, since tiles change, but still forces players to grab special tiles quickly, to avoid a runaway leader.
The game is unique, but I can’t recommend anyone buy it outright. This is the sort of game that might need a dozen plays of chewing on to fully appreciate. Perhaps an ever-developing meta between a gaming group would reveal more interesting counterplays and bluffing cues. This player always takes the Hind first, or always goes for trade goods in the first few rounds, etc.
I think Francis Drake fits firmly into the “try before you buy” camp. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad game by any stretch. It’s excellent at doing a few different things, and leaves me a bit confused thematically, that’s all. It’s so niche I think you might want to play with a few buddies before coughing up the cash.
If anything, take solace in the fact that you could very well take the elusive indigo on the third round of the game from your friend. You stare at him, even though you already took indigo earlier in the game. He exclaims, “You already had indigo! Why did you take the one I needed?” A sinister grin forms in your mind, tilting your head, and mustering up the Jack Sparrow inside of you, all you can obviously reply with is, “Pirate.”

A review copy of Francis Drake was provided by Eagle-Gryphon Games for a fair and honest review.

The Bottom Line

Francis Drake is a weird game with excellent production quality, leaving players with dozens of meaningful decisions to make. The thematics are a little weird, but overall, Francis Drake is fun and exciting, not overly complicated, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

 

8