I've been considering this one for a while. When the new Baker's Dozen version came out, I finally jumped on it. I've got plenty of games about witches and potions, but not nearly enough about food!
I think I like the variant where you deal out all the cards right at the beginning.
UPDATE AFTER SOME PLAYS: I feels a lot like a cross between Category 5 and Coloretto. It may be slightly easier to explain that those (admittedly already pretty easy) games, but I think that overall I would rather play one of those than this. However, the people I've played it with seemed to really like it. My kids especially enjoy it.
This game has some nice systems, but I'm not yet convinced of its long term replayability. It's not exactly scripted, but it seems that the mechanisms are definitely trying to enforce a certain narrative arc. The shadow player washes over the land like a red tide, but as the game progresses the free peoples acquire superpowers that allow them to push back. I do have concerns that either you play out the intended narrative and end up with a close-fought finish, or one side has some lopsided luck and short-circuits the story. I have been enjoying exploring the game though. It will take some more plays before I can decide if the game has legs.
Update Jan 2015 (after 5 plays) At first, this game felt very lucky and swingy, exspecially around the Fate track. However, with more plays, I am realizing that the fate track is actually more balanced than it appears (much like the movement of the Fellowship in War of the Ring). The FP player can sacrifice activations for the CHANCE to accelerate the fate track, much like he can push the fellowship for the CHANCE of moving them faster without damage. And the Fate card mechanism somewhat balances out slow movement of the fate marker - when your characters do eventually come out, they will be stronger if more fate cards have been drawn.
I think the game feels a lot like when the FP go for a military victory in War of the Ring. There's a lot of reliance on tricky movement across the map and attacking the enemy's weak spots. The game has clearly undergone extensive development and offers many finely tuned options to the players. As I adjust my expectations and accept the game for what it is rather than my preconceptions, I am enjoying it more and more.
The cards are a big improvement over the tokens used for orders in Battles of the Third Age. There are a few component issues however. The combat dice are pretty chintzy (I've replaced them), then damage tokens are very unfortunate (I've sub'ed in wooden cubes), and how successful is this line of games going to be need be before they can make armies in more than just two colors (I may need to paint some bases at least)?
UPDATE June 2015 (after 8 plays) OK, I am back to feeling that while the game does offer a lot of choices, the impact of those choices is too dominated by luck. Now that I've finally seen a game or two that saw Beorn come out and fight for a while, I think I've seen most of the game's tricks and am ready to move on.
I contrast this to War of the Ring, where I've got over 50 plays in, and the game still manages to surprise me. WotR has luck, but I rarely feel like luck is the dominating factor in the outcome.
So where I think I am ending up on B5A is that it has some nice ideas and is fun to explore, but ultimately has too much luck to be deeply satisfying and is too beholden to its narrative to have long-term replayability.
Black Gold is a fun design coupled with a very nice production. Each round consists of a series of market fluctuation, action card draft, board movement, investment, and auction, and it all meshes and flows quite well. The bidding can be especially vicious because winner-take-all situations are common. Timing of when to go for a big score is critical, because mistakes can be punishing. Assuming your family can handle that, this is a good family game.
Drawbacks are the game feels like it runs a bit long, largely because the rounds are fairly repetitive. If I could have only one oil-themed economic game, it would be Crude, but it would be painful to let Black Gold go. Black Gold also reminds me of Owner's Choice, a lighter game wrapped around a similar market fluctuation mechanism.
It took some thinking, but for now I believe I will be keeping this game. Given my tendency to purge a game that does not meet a very standard, that is high praise indeed. I will be curious to see how this holds up after some more plays, as I can imagine my opinion going either up or down with experience.
A great distillation of Pandemic down to a more kid and family friendly format. Great components! Not nearly as interesting to me as Pandemic, but I give it points for being easier to get to the table with casual gamers.
I like this game, but I also feel I have not yet played it enough to truly appreciate the depth that seems to be waiting here.
The rules, however, are a mess. I don't think I've ever had so much trouble with a rulebook as this one. Once you get past it, the game is not very complicated. I think the problem is mainly that the first half of the rules should be last. You need to read the rules all the way through before you have any idea what's going on.
If it weren't for the rules issue, I would say this this is a great game to give as a gift. The cards are very high quality and the box is amazing.
UPDATE May 2015: I finally played this game again after many years. This one one of the first games I bought when I was getting into the modern era of boardgames, and I've been finding it very interesting how my tastes have changes (matured?) over the years.
Where I originally thought I had an inability to grasp the strategy of the game, during my latest plays I instead felt like there are many uncontrollable elements, and that your performance is largely based on luck. So my tastes are either more refined now, or I've just become arrogant I also found the flow kinda clunky. Sometimes you can draw bunch of melds and end the hand quickly, and other times both players stall for a while until someone finally draws the right card.
I think my latest plays really made me appreciate the durability of "Lost Cities", a game that also has you collecting sets but avoids the uneven performance of JtR.
There's a lot of things going on at once with this game, but they're all managable, and I enjoy this game very much.
UPDATE Nov2014: I just played this game for the first time in 8 years, and I have to say I think it's been replaced in nearly every way (thematically, mechanistically) by Jamaica. One player will probably get knocked out of a game of Pirate's Cove very early on, and that may be frustrating for them. However, my kids liked it, and it still looks great,
Catan is great, and this is my preferred edition of it, but I'm at the point now where I don't enjoy it so much if it's not played at a brisk pace. I have been occasionally tempted by Seafarers, but I think this may actually be all the Catan I need.