Mon
Sep 19 2011 12:19pm
Five Pirate Games Not Inspired by an Amusement Park Ride

Ahoy, it’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and whilst I have no particular skills at pirate speak (and it gets old quick without ample amounts of grog) I have wrangled up some board and card games with piratey themes for your perusal. Given the wealth of available source material, both historical and imagined, it’s surprising how few good pirate games are on the market. Dozens of games are released each year with questionable themes such as mercantile economics during the renaissance, but of ships festooned with cannon and swashbuckling pirates? Not so much. Never the less, here be a select few, and if ye look close enough ye might spy a few gems in the lot. (Next month will be my Halloween roundup, but keep yer eyes peeled for Ninjas before the end of the year).

 

Merchants & Marauders

Merchants and Marauders, designed by Christian Marcussen and released by Z-Man games late in 2010, is without a doubt the current gold standard for pirate games. Players select captains with varying nationalities, skills, and a unique special ability. Players also start with a small ship, either a frigate or a sloop. From these humble beginnings players navigate highly detailed plastic miniature ships from port to port over a gorgeous board depicting the Caribbean Islands. Initially all players start as merchants picking up cargo and delivering it where it is most in demand, gaining gold and glory (victory points), racing to raise funds for ship and weapon upgrades. At some point a player captain may decide it’s more profitable to steal treasure either from other players or from unsuspecting merchants and so they begin to pursue the life of a pirate.

Combat between player and non-player ships is wonderfully thematic with enough choices to engage players without slowing down the pace of the game for everyone else. Pirates must be selective in choosing their prey as each attack places a national bounty on their head, restricting access to ports and attracting the unwanted attentions of patrolling Man-of-Wars. Even if you don’t choose the life of a pirate there are missions to be completed, rumors to be explored, and the ever present danger of other players eyeing your valuable cargo.

Merchants and Marauders supports 2 to 4 players and is a fairly long game clocking in at about 3 hours. Unfortunately, the first few plays may feel a little daunting. While the game is not particularly difficult, it may take a few plays for everything to flow smoothly and quickly. Effort and experience with this game is well rewarded. Merchants and Marauders may be found in specialty game stores and online for about $42.

 

Pirate’s Cove

Admittedly Merchants and Marauders isn’t for everyone, it’s long and while not complex it does take some effort to learn. If you want something much quicker and lighter, say 60 to 90 minutes for 3 to 5 players, but still with plenty of cutthroat action then Pirate’s Cove is worth a look. Pirate’s Cove was designed by Paul Randles and Daniel Stahl and published by Days of Wonder in 2004.

In Pirate’s Cove players navigate their ships between six fictitious islands. Four of these islands offer various amounts of fame (victory points), gold (needed for ship upgrades and repairs), treasure (victory points when successfully buried), and tavern cards (which provide a variety of useful bounty; from combat bonuses, to ship upgrades, to victory points and more).

The outer islands also specialize in the repair of different ship components, namely sails, hull, crew, and cannon. Players use “captain’s wheels” to secretly select their destinations and move their ships after a simultaneous reveal. Anytime two or more ships find themselves at the same island combat ensues until all but one player has fled to the safety of the central island. To add to the danger, a legendary pirate patrols the islands in a powerful ship. An encounter with the legendary pirate can reap a wealth of fame or result in a ravaged ship and expensive repair bill.

While Pirate’s Cove may not offer deep strategy, it is an excellent, light game appropriate for family play. Pirate’s Cove is available in specialty stores and online for about $43.

 

Pirate Fluxx

It’s Fluxx, with pirates! I’ve already written about Zombie Fluxx and Martian Fluxx, now in 2011 Andrew Looney from Looney Labs brings you Pirate Fluxx. Like other Fluxx games, Pirate Fluxx is a card game for 2 to 6 players that starts with two simple rules; take one card, play one card. Each card played adds, subtracts, or modifies existing rules or creates new victory conditions. In addition to the pirate theme, Pirate Fluxx introduces surprise cards that can be played out of turn to prevent the current rules from being modified. These cards don’t completely eliminate the chaotic feel of a Fluxx game but they do moderate the randomness to some extent. If you’re looking for a very light, social card game with a piratey feel, Pirate Fluxx is worth taking a look at about $12.

 

Pirate King

Pirate King doesn’t get a lot of love in the gaming community which is unfortunate because this game has the potential for being an excellent gateway for bringing fans of Monopoly into the much richer world of specialty gaming.

In Pirate King each player captains a ship that travels along a serpentine track between ports in the Caribbean Islands. Players collect cargo cards that can be delivered to specific ports for monetary reward; they can also purchase and fortify the ports they land on. Once a port is owned other players must either pay docking fees or choose to do battle with the port fortifications. Combat may also erupt anytime two players find themselves on the same space. Ships may be upgraded with canon and crew, acquiring matching crew cards can provide a player with special abilities.

I wouldn’t call Pirate King the most realistic pirate game in this group, but if you have friends and family that enjoy Monopoly this game is definitely worth taking a look. Pirate King is available on Amazon.com for $35 although it can often be found new on eBay for less than $25. Pirate King was designed by Flaster Siskin and published by Temple Games in 2006.

 

Pirates of the Spanish Main

Okay, these little ships are just cool. Pirates of the Spanish Main is a complete game sold in a foil pack, the same size as a collectable card game booster pack. Each foil pack contains two random 3 dimensional ships that can be assembled by punching the parts out of plastic cards, about the same size as a credit card. A pack also contains rules, treasure tokens, island tokens, and on occasion specialty crew or weapons.

The basic rules are simple, move your ship, roll dice to fire your cannon, pluck sails off your ship to reflect damage. The goal is to transport more gold than your opponents from a central island to your home base. Of course to make things interesting, each ship has special abilities, and strategy is expanded further by the inclusion of special crew and weapons placed on each ship. The game truly shines when multiple packs are combined with each player bringing an armada of ships to the table.

Pirates of the Spanish Main and its many expansions are technically out of print, although booster packs can easily be found on eBay and possibly at Target stores in the discount bin. There is a rumor in the hobby that this product line may return again in 2012, although there is a distinct possibility it will be sold as fully sculpted 3 dimensional ships using HeroClix bases (see this post for an explanation of a HeroClix base). The original price of a ship pack was $3 but if you’re fortunate enough to find discounted packs at Target they can be purchased for as little as $0.99 each.


When not digging for buried treasure, Bob Gallo is a computer programmer specializing in Flash and interactive application design living in the Charlotte, NC area. Bob got his gaming start in the mid 1970s with traditional hex-and-counter war games and has played nearly all types of games including role playing games, miniatures, collectible card games, video/PC games as well as traditional board and card games.

5 comments
Nick Rogers
1. BookGoblin
I am surprised that Munchkin Booty didn't make the list. Excellent list though, I'll have to check all of these out.

Arrggghhh.
Bob Gallo
2. StormbringerGrey
Aarrgggg, Munchkin Booty is indeed worth looking into. I shall make amends on my Halloween list by remembering Munchkin Cthulhu.
Chris Hawks
3. SaltManZ
I'm definitely going to have to look into Merchant's & Marauders!

We own Pirate's Cove, and it's pretty fun, but man, if you're the first ship to get taken out and sent to the Cove, you're pretty much screwed. I think with a couple of rules tweaks this could be a great game, but as it is it's merely decent.

As far as other pirate-themed games go, we also own Reiner Knizia's Loot, which we had a bad first session with, and have yet to give a second chance. It's got an average rating of 6.33 on BoardGameGeek, though, so we should probably try it again sometime.
Bob Gallo
4. StormbringerGrey
@SaltManZ – It took me three plays to love M&M. A port action has 9 optional steps and new players will fumble with the choices available and take entirely too long, but there’s no way around teaching/learning the game other than to work through it. My most recent game had 3 experienced players and one new player and a full port action took no more than a minute each. This game definitely works best with 4 players that know what they’re getting into; a longish game with a bit of learning curve and some randomness (this is no Euro at sea) and tons of theme. If you have players that like games like Twilight Imperium this would be a good fit.

I haven’t played Loot. Knizia is hit or miss with me, pasted on themes don’t bother me as long as the mechanics are interesting but with Knizia you never can tell. Let us know if you try it again.
Bob Gallo
5. StormbringerGrey
Oops, forgot to mention. Anyone interested in Merchants & Marauder’s should download the official Cutthroat Variant and I would strongly recommend using the variant, even for a first game. The variant allows inactive players at sea to hunt for active players passing through their sea zones. This is far more realistic, dramatically increases the potential for player conflict, and prevents cowardly merchants from “port hopping” and never being exposed to attack.

Pirate King also has a Cutthroat Variant that is included in the box. This variant has lots of options that simply accelerate the game by jump starting the start positions, but the crew special abilities is a definite keeper.

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