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A (not so) Ruthless Review

As a kid, I was exposed to soooo many card games. It started with Go Fish and Crazy 8’s but quickly advanced to playing 99’s and Queens with my nan. I’m sure these experiences, in part, helped shape my love of playing games. In particular, playing card games. The thing is, every time I would visit my beloved grandmother and we would sit down to play cards, I would have to be reminded of the rules. I could never keep the rules set in my head. I always had to be reminded. Utterances like “matching suits,” “the ace is high” and “you can lay on a two but fours hold” became gibberish to me.  I felt like Leslie Knope having the Cones of Dunshire explained to her.

The same was true when I was introduced to Texas Hold em’ Poker in high school. Everyone was into it, but I couldn’t keep the card combos straight. Every time I played I was robbed of my hard-earned lawn-mowing money. I always preferred to play video games. Games that engaged me with their characters and storyline. Games where the rules made more sense to me. The artistically styled Jacks and emotionless Kings and Queens of playing cards were cool looking, but never enough to hold my attention like the fantasy worlds of video games.

That’s why modern board games were such an amazing discovery to me. Boardgame settings and themes have allowed gamers like me to enter worlds and learn rules that stick because they are more immersive and give context through their setting and story.

Enter Ruthless – a game that has suits and poker hands but, because of its theme and setting, the rules make sense to me. More importantly, the game is fun and I actually want to play it unlike the card games of old I mentioned above. Ruthless is a card game that uses poker-style hands as a mechanic but bids adieu to the Royal suits of traditional playing cards.  Replacing them instead with amazingly illustrated pirates. The standard four suits we’ve come to know are supplanted with swashbuckling swords, skull and crossbones, and bleeding hearts.

The best part is, you’re not meaninglessly trying to assemble the best poker hand to beat your opponent. Here you are recruiting pirates, plundering treasure, and spending loot in an effort to assemble the best “raiding party.” This game makes it hard for me to ever want to return to playing traditional card games. The mechanics, art, and theme catapult this above poker and make it stand out in a market over-saturated with deck-building games.

~From the Publisher~


Ruthless is a pirate themed game in which players will gather their crew and fight with their opponents.

2-4 Players

40-60 Minutes

Ages 10+

Publisher: Alley Cat Games

Designer and Illustrator: Roland MacDonald

2019 UK Games Expo Best Card Game (Strategic) People’s Choice Winner

~This is not an affiliate link. ~


Ruthless is a fantastic game that not only brings something new to the deck-building genre but fixes some classic problems along the way. Like most deck builders, you and your opponent have an identical starting hand – a collection of powder monkeys and some loot.

Typically in this sort of game, you draw your hand of cards, play them and recruit a new card into your deck. You then discard your hand to your discard pile and hope to see your newly added cards in future draws. The first thing that stands out to me about Ruthless is how you play your cards. You are not forced to play them all at once. You can play a card for its ability or play a number of loot cards to collect coins that you can then spend recruiting new cards. You and your opponent go back and forth until you have no cards left, which signals the end of the round.

The second standout is that, when you recruit a new card, it doesn’t go directly to your discard pile. Instead, it gets played in front of you and you can use its ability! This can result in some nice combos that let you draw more cards or plunder for treasure, extending your turns for the round.

Finally, at the end of the round, the cards that you have played in front of you are essentially a Raiding Party of pirates that you’ve assembled and the player with the best poker hand scores the most victory points. These may seem like small tweaks to deck building, but they are literal game-changers.


Some of my favorite games are deck builders or include deck building as a mechanic. I adore Clank!, Thunderstone, The Quest for El Dorado, and Shards of Infinity. My only gripe with those games is that they can often devolve from strategic deck building to simply adding cards to your deck just because it feels like it’s the only thing you can do on your turn. Towards the end of these games, you could be adding cards that are unlikely to show up in your hand for the duration of play. 

I know it’s possible to craft efficient decks in the games mentioned above, but it feels like the game encourages you to collect more cards. Ruthless avoids this problem by nudging you toward building the best poker hand. It feels more focused and promotes strategy, eliminating a lot of the randomness that can plague some deck builders. Best of all, you get to play the card you recruit rather than burying it in your discard pile, uncertain when and if it will show up again.


The artwork of Ruthless comes from Roland MacDonald who is also the designer of the game. You may have seen Roland’s artwork adorning games like Western Legends and Undaunted. It seems as though Ruthless is a passion project of Roland’s and it shows. Every pirate on every card is teeming with life and personality. At the risk of sounding like Dr. Suess, these tattooed and pierced pirates come bearded, braided, and equipped with all kinds of blades and barrels. The colors on the cards and the box pop and give a fairly small game, a noticeable table presence.

It would be remiss of me to not mention the beautiful treasure cards that are also a big part of the game. When you plunder in Ruthless, you have the option to sell the treasure for immediate money or add it to your discard pile for better benefits in the future. As important as it is to sell treasure early in the game, the gems and statues are so purdy that they are hard to discard. Similarly, if there ever comes a day when I’m tired of playing the game, the vibrant and detailed artwork of Ruthless would make it pretty difficult to part with.


I have entered the world of Ruthless, and I have to say, it’s a world where I would comfortably remain (apart from all the discomfort I would feel pirating, looting, and presumably murdering on a regular basis). As an avid solo gamer, if I had anything to complain about it would be that Ruthless doesn’t come with a solo variant. But fear not fellow Pirateers (are they a thing?), because an expansion is on the way and it includes a solo mode among a treasure trove of other additions. The expansion also includes a Merfolk faction, a Kraken monster, Undead hordes, Notorious Pirates, Quests and more treasures and suits!

Head to to pre-order a copy of the expansion. Or to grab a copy of the base game if you don’t already own what is one of the best deck-building card games on the market!

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About The Author


Steve Haley is a musician and high school teacher with a penchant for comic books, RPG video games and exploring the world of craft beers one (or two) bottles at a time. His favourite game mechanic is deck building and he gets a bit light-headed when he is able to chain together more than three cards in a hand.