Buzzworthiness: Pirate King

My wife is a librarian, and as part of her summer reading program, she ran a game day.  As part of the game day, she (with the help of our friend Brian) contacted several publishers to see if they would be willing to donate some games to the cause, as prizes for those teens that completed the program and/or to go into a library collection for in-house play.  One of the publishers she contacted was FlasterVenture, a small company owned by designer Flaster Siskin.  He sent a generous donation of copies of his entire catalog (five games), and I wanted to take a look at them and give them reviews, hopefully to get the word out there for them.  The first one I’ll be looking at is:

image by BGG user da pyrate

Pirate King first came out in 2006, designed by Flaster Siskin and published by Temple Games.  It’s a game for 2-4 players aged 8 and up that takes around 2 hours to play.  The theme is that you are pirate captains, sailing around the Caribbean, smuggling cargo, capturing territories, and trying to become the Pirate King.  The game is probably going to seem very familiar to you, but rather than spoil it right away, I’ll let you figure it out for yourself.

A two-player game – image by BGG user asutbone (that’s me!)

A game turn works like this: you take the sail marker and place it 1-5 spaces in front of your ship.  You then roll a d12 to see if the wind affects your move.  If you roll 1-4, you’ll be moving less than what you planned.  If you roll 5-8, you’ll move exactly where you planned.  And if your roll 9-12, you’ll move farther than you planned.  Whatever space you land on, you’ll have a specific action to take.  On a territory, you can either capture it if no one has yet, or pay the dock fee, or fight the owner for control.  On the Pirate Booty or Captain’s Log spaces, you’ll draw a card and see what happens to you, good or bad.  On the Buried Treasure space, you collect fines previously paid during the game.  At the Crosswinds, you can fight another pirate present (which you normally can’t do), or can change direction.  Turn abouts spin you around, and Secret Passages can allow you to travel quickly to another spot.  The Commodore takes your cargo and a cannon, but you could fight back – a win makes you the automatic winner, but a loss severely cripples your ship.  The game ends when someone reaches 16 points – you get points by having castles on your territories (1-4 pts), by having Great Treasures (3 pts), or by defeating the Commodore (16 pts, you win).

COMPONENTS: This game has got some really nice components, especially for a small company.  There’s a ton of stuff in the box, which is surprising for the $35 price tag.  You get lots of glass stones and some plastic coins to serve as your money for the game, as well as plastic treasure chests to store them in.  There are a lot of double-sided cardboard counters that indicate the type of building you have on your territory, as well as plastic flags you can stick through the counter and into holes in the board to indicate ownership.  Ships are cardboard stand ups, but each one is different, and each fits into a different colored stand.  The cards are fairly nice, though a little too glossy and sticky for my tastes.  The art is pretty good – it’s nice and thematic, and works with the situation.  The board is big and well laid out – there’s no question about where the various paths are.  There were some air bubbles on the back side of the board we played with, but it didn’t take away from the experience.  Overall, I give the component quality a thumbs up – not Fantasy Flight quality, but definitely good for what it is.

THEME: Pirates!  ARRR!  I find it odd, in our society, that pirates have gotten so romanticized.  They were thieves, rapists, murderers.  It wasn’t adventure on the high seas – it was vicious crime, pure and simple.  And yet, pirates are almost revered these days.  That’s partly the fault of Pirates of the Caribbean, but it goes back much further than that.  Still, it’s kind of fun to play as a pirate, and say “ARR!” a lot.  The theme adds a lot to the game, which is, as you may have guessed, very similar to Monopoly.  But it’s not a new version of Monopoly with a theme slapped on it so Free Parking becomes Tortuga, or Boardwalk becomes Port Royal, or Jail becomes Davy Jones’ Locker.  I’ll talk more about the mechanical differences in the next section, but the theme really serves to drive the game and make it something else.  You’re sailing around the board, and wind may affect you.  You’ll fight, and probably lose a couple of battles.  You’ll search for treasure, smuggle cargo, and loot territories towards your own sinister ends.  The theme is well integrated into the entire experience.

MECHANICS: As I said, this game bears a striking resemblance to Monopoly.  But rather than being a knock-off, you see a lot of the inspiration throughout the design.  For example:

  • Territories.  You claim territories, then start collecting dock fees (rent).  When you have two adjacent territories of the same color (not quite a monopoly), you can start developing them to make them stronger in battles and collect more dock fees.  You can also sell off your improvements (mortgage) to raise money to pay other debts.  However, unlike Monopoly, you can also choose to attack rather than pay.
  • Movement.  In Monopoly, you roll the dice and move around a square track, always in the same direction, at the whim of the dice.  In Pirate King, you get some semblance of control in being allowed to choose where you want to go before rolling for the wind.  That makes this a “move and roll” game rather than “roll and move.”  Also, you don’t have a square track – it’s more like a figure eight – and there are opportunities to switch directions and use secret passages to go elsewhere.
  • Cargo.  Rather than collecting $200 every time you cross Go, you get cargo cards that are dropped off at different points.  These earn you more money, and also allow you to get a new crew member or cannon for your ship.
  • Captain’s Log and Pirate Booty.  These cards are essentially Community Chest and Chance.  There’s not much difference – you land on the space, draw a card, and something good or something bad will happen.
  • Jail.  There is no Jail in Pirate King!  Instead, you get the Commodore and a Mutiny spot, where you and an opponent roll to see if you’ll have to make a crew member walk the plank.
  • Buried Treasure.  One of the most annoying things about Monopoly is the Free Parking house rule, where people get an accumulated pile of money just for landing there.  It’s not in the rule book, it extends the experience, and people get upset if you tell them they shouldn’t use it.  Buried Treasure is basically Free Parking – you get the money accumulated from fines paid by the players.  It doesn’t seem as annoying as Monopoly because the fines don’t pile up as fast.
  • Combat.  As I mentioned, you have the option to fight rather than pay a dock fee.  The way combat works is that you roll dice equal to the number of cannons you have, then compare the highest numbers.  Each hit causes your opponent to lose a crew member.  This fighting mechanism is not from Monopoly at all, but Risk fans will probably find it to be familiar.

Though the mechanics are similar, it’s obvious that Mr. Siskin put a lot of thought into putting a twist on the gameplay of Pirate King to make sure that it does not feel like a rehash of Monopoly.

STRATEGY LEVEL: A big problem with Monopoly is its inherent randomness.  You want to go to a specific spot, you have to roll exactly what you need to get there.  The movement here is a little less random, but you still have a 1/3 chance to get where you’re aiming.  You also get the random things happening to you via the Captain’s Log/Pirate’s Booty cards.  Beyond that, strategy comes from the territories you capture and how you develop them, as well as when to fight and when to pay.  It’s not a highly strategic game, but I would say there’s more to the strategy here than in Monopoly.

An expansion, which is basically a page of extra rules, adds some more strategy – hand management rules allow you to hold cards and possibly play them on other players; characteristics for each of the crewmen drawn in the game; and a cutthroat variant that add some extra rules that would probably speed the game up (beginning with two cargo cards, three crew, and a settlement at their port of origin, as well as the ability to save crew lost in battle and to fight the Commodore’s First Mate instead of the Commodore).

ACCESSIBILITY: I think this is the game’s shining point.  Because it is so familiar, people will have no problem picking it up.  I have a feeling most non-gamers who play will find it to be a better experience than Monopoly, especially since there’s no player elimination and the game is shorter.  It’s a game that I think a lot of people will be able to pick up and play, and while not necessarily a gateway game, I do think it’s a good alternative to Monopoly.

REPLAYABILITY: Here, I don’t know.  The game doesn’t change much, it’s only the random factor that provides variety from game to game.  For people who enjoy the theme and this type of game, I bet they’ll be able to get a lot out of it.  For people who like new experiences every time, this probably isn’t the way to go.

SCALABILITY: I’ve played this game with 2 and 4 players.  The 2 player game was not very interactive – it’s very possible to play without bumping into each other at all.  The four-player game, on the other hand, is much more crowded.  The BGG page says that 3 is the best number, and I think that’s probably true.  Not so many people that there’s constant fighting, and not so few that there’s none.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY?  Well, it depends on what you’re looking for.  If you’re looking for a solid alternative to Monopoly with a better theme and more interaction, then this is a really good game to look into.  If you want a deep gaming experience, one with lots of strategy and lots of of meaningful decisions to make, this is not the game you’re looking for.  My personal view is that this is not a game for me, but that doesn’t mean I think it has no value.  From a gamer’s perspective, it’s nice to see the changes made to what is widely considered to be the bane of the board gaming industry.  It’s a game I would heartily recommend over Monopoly any day, and that’s good enough.  I would also recommend that you use the expansion – I haven’t tried it, but from what I can tell, I think it adds more to the experience.

Thanks again to FlasterVenture for donating games to the Hebron Public Library – I think the audience there will be perfect for the game.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to cover more of the FlasterVenture games that were donated in the future.  Thanks for reading!

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