I would expect every review of the pirate-themed card game, Ruthless, starts with a load of corny pirate words and phrases. I’d like to pretend I could resist such temptation, but I can’t! So…
Ahoy me hearties! Batten down the hatches and brace yourself for a review of Ruthless. Now, as you probably know, pirates and card games don’t usually mix, because pirates always seem to stand on the deck! Yo ho ho, the jokes won’t get any better I promise, but hopefully the review might!
So my band of Ruthless scallywags, let me tell you all about the game, and more importantly whether you should invest ye doubloons or whether this game be hornswaggle!
Shuffle the treasure deck and pirate deck and form separate piles of each. Flip over 5 Pirates to form the Tavern Row where you can go to hire some scurvy seadogs. Coins and achievement tokens are placed nearby. As do two or three end of game Legendary Achievement objectives.
Each player will also receive 2 coins, 1 Parley token to bury cards under and a handy player aide. Depending on player count you will deal either six or four Powder Monkey and four doubloon cards to each player. You also need to prepare five or six stacks of Prize tokens depending on player count. If two of you are playing one of the suites/factions is also removed.
Allocate the first player token and you are ready to play Ruthless. A bit to do, but overall setup is easy.
The aim of the game is to be the most notorious pirate by gaining the most Achievement points. These come in the form of certain buried pirates, end of round Prize Tokens, winning Legendary Achievements and whether or not you use your Parley token.
Like any good deck builder both players start with the same basic cards: Powder Monkeys and Doubloons. On your turn you will draw five cards and ultimately, play them. The actions available are:
- Trade (exchange treasure for doubloons)
- Brawl (use a powder monkey to remove a card from the trade row)
- Bury (place a pirate underneath your Parley token)
- Plunder (use two Powder Monkeys to reveal a Treasure card)
- Board (Place a pirate in your hand aboard your ship)
After performing one of these five actions you can then recruit one pirate from the Tavern Row. When doing so, any abilities on the pirate card are activated, these are different from pirate to pirate and faction to faction. Abilities vary from being able to attack another player causing them to lose a coin or card from their hand, to drawing additional cards, or plundering treasure. These abilities will be available when Boarding the pirate in future rounds too. Treasure cards have a similar immediate bonus or repeating income too.
Play continues until all players have used all their cards and recruited a few pirates. At this point the poker-style element of the game starts. Using pirates recruited and boarded you have to make the best scoring hand or ‘raiding party’ possible. Players will be looking to make pairs, straights, flushes, straight flushes and even the mighty Full Ship. If this terminology isn’t familiar to you, the rule book and player aides do a great job in describing them. The person who scores the most points gets the end of round prize token of the highest value, second highest scoring gets the next and so on assuming each player can form a hand.
Once per game each player can use their Parley token to discard cards from their hand and redraw that many. If you don’t use that option, you can take a notoriety point instead.
After five or six rounds, depending on how many people are playing, the game ends. Players tally their Achievement points to work out who is the most notorious pirate on the seven seas!
What it’s like
The start of the game feels very familiar as it adopts classic deck-building techniques. Ruthless starts off on calm waters where you will be scrambling for treasure and fledgling recruits. After the first few rounds the wind will be in your sails and the right cards will hopefully be in your hand for some cracking combos, while you push overboard unwanted ballast.
Balancing the immediate bonuses of a recruited card with what you may want for your poker style hand AND trying to win prize tokens at the end of each round, provides wonderful decision making quandaries.
You can only recruit three new pirates every round so you have to work out the best options available. You will consider when to purchase, and when to gamble on the perfect card appearing. Treasure cards are a bit luck dependant, but still cause you to make decisions about whether to keep for long-term benefits or cash in.
Of course, it also doesn’t always go to plan, especially with the higher player count as you can see the perfect card get snaffled by an opponent, or brawled from the trade row by a Powder Monkey. There is a bit of take-that in the game, but so far, I haven’t found it crippling, more an annoyance. It fits the theme too, after all there is no honour among thieves ! I will add, when playing with two, the take-that was generally quite equal.
As I say, the pace of Ruthless ramps up after the first couple of rounds. With the right cards you can be amassing quite the crew to build your poker hand with. I really like this twist at the end as it gives purpose to the deck-building round prior. Refining your deck is also key so more decision making comes with how to use your Powder Monkeys for the best.
At higher player counts the game slows down a bit between turns. This gives you time to plan your strategies and your contingencies so it never feels like there is too much down time, but I personally prefer the pace of a two player duel.
The rules for Ruthless covers everything you need to know. The player aides serve as a nice constant reminder of points and iconography. In terms of iconography, it is intuitive and on point. Ruthless is therefore language independent. There is a bit to learn. At first many may be a bit daunted or more likely glaze over, but actually after a round or two, you will be fully in the swing of it, trying to swashbuckle your way to success.
I am in love with the artwork in Ruthless. Sassy, diverse pirates adorn the cards and ooze antihero charm. Their factions are clear and although different colours, the icons make them easily identifiable for those with colour vision deficiency. The treasure icons are nicely illustrated too.
The coins and other cardboard tokens match the quality of artwork and general quality. Obviously I lust after metal doubloons, but certainly don’t expect them at this price point! I also hanker after a shared player board and individual player mats as I think this would really set the game off nicely. Rumours are circulating that some sort of board will be available as an add-on with the limited edition expansion, Ruthless Tall Tales, available at time of writing.
Final thoughts on Ruthless
Ruthless has exceptional gameplay with decision, after decision to consider and contemplate. It plunders from a lot of different games but unites and unifies them, creating a wonderful game. One that can rub shoulders with all the best deck builders. The fantastic gameplay is also presented in a stunning way, that makes sense with the overall theme.
This all sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? Well that’s because it is, but here is the snag, Ruthless with its expansion is, according to the website at the time of writing this, being limited to 400 copies in English and 400 copies in German. That means this is potentially going to be a hard to find game very soon. Which in turn means, that if you are reading this review in 2026 you will be weeping salty tears that you missed out on this magnificent game and will be destined to scour the market for a second-hand copy.
If you are reading this in June 2021, and you like what you’ve heard so far (pirate jargon aside), go check out Ruthless and its expansion. It is worthy of your attention and probably your wish list too! Especially, if like me, you enjoy a good deck builder! For all those reasons, Ruthless has found a nugget of gold in the Board Game Review Hall of Fame!
Number of players: 2 to 4
Board Game Review Recommended Age: 10+
Publisher’s Recommended Age: 12+
Playing Time: 50 minutes
Setting Up and Take Down Time: 4 minutes
Designers: Roland MacDonald
Publisher: Rolands Revenge
I don’t really know how to put this any other way, Ruthless is brilliant fun. I can see it regularly getting to the table again and again. Ruthless is an undiscovered hidden treasure of a deck-builder.
Artwork and Components
Value for Money
- Awesome artwork
- Deck building meets poker
- Lots of decisions
- An opportunity to speak like a pirate
- Might be hard to find when you discover it
- Some down time between turns
- Luck element of flipping cards
- Would be nice to upgrade to player mats, a board and metal coins!
Need more games?
If you already own Ruthless and enjoy it, or are looking for other inspiration, you might also like these similar games:
- Star Realms
- The Quest for El Dorado
- Clank! In Space
- Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle
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