In case you weren’t aware. Barnes & Nobel is having its annual clearance sale on the games they got in stock for the holidays. Most of them are crap, but Pirate King caught my eye. If you are jiggling your car keys as you read this, hoping I’ll get to the point quick so that you know whether or not you should race out to B&N immediately to snag your copy of Pirate King before they are all sold out, here’s the short version. If you like Merchants of Venus and Talisman, you will get your $17.50 (or $8.75 if it has gone down to 75% off) worth of fun out of this game. Go for it.
For the rest of you who are a bit more patient, here’s the slightly longer version…
The man sent me to mall land to purchase snow boots, a desk lamp and vacuum cleaner bags. I came home with a pair of black faux lizard skin stiletto pumps, a bottle of Captain Morgan’s and a copy of Pirate King. I’m easily distracted. The man took one look at my purchases, none of which protected, illuminated or cleaned and said, “This game has 11 dice! Cool. Let’s crack it open.” Fortunately the man is easily distracted too.
The man mixed the drinks while I cracked open the game. Two bits of advice. First Pirate King is packed full of goodies, which makes the box unexpectedly heavy. Don’t try to pick it up with your usual, one handed, limp wristed flick. You’ll hurt yourself, or the game. Second don’t let someone who is over eager to play the game mix the drinks. Rum and coke is NOT made with equal parts rum and coke – bleh. So after we fixed the drinks and iced my toe, we returned to unpacking the game.
As I said, the box is packed full of goodies, all with high production quality. Each component adds flavor and color to the game. For example, your ship’s crew (which is basically just your ship’s hit points) is represented by large round cards, each with a full color portrait of a crew member. These could just as easily have been little cardboard chits or cubes. Glass “gems,” rather than paper or cards, are the money in the game. You get a little pirate chest to keep your gems in. I noticed that some of the reviewers for PK didn't like the gems as money. Personally I think it is fun and piratey, especially when your pirate chest is full of booty. For heaven's sake, it is no more difficult to remember the value of the the gems than it is to remember the value of poker chips. Special super powered treasures are printed on skull shaped cards, rather than the standard rectangle. When you claim an island, you mark it with a standing flag, rather than the standard chit or wooden token. All the event type cards are printed in full color with pictures and flavor text on thick card stock. The copy of the game I got at B&N is the more recent edition, so the ships are flat cardboard tokens that you stick in a stand, and the canons are flat cardboard tokens that you place in front of you with your crew tokens. Therefore, I had none of the ships coming apart or the canons falling off problems. Overall the game is a visual and tactile delight.
It is difficult to get a sense of the game from the rules, which give the impression that the game is both Monopoly like and a mishmash of mechanics which might not hold together. In play, however, this initial impression proves false. The different aspects of the game - movement, control of islands, finding treasure, smuggling cargo, random events - come together to provide a rather satisfying simulation of being a privateer.
Your primary objective is to control a number of islands. You do this by landing on them and paying a sum of money to control them. If you control two adjacent islands, you can develop them by spending money to build up the island's defenses. All islands start as mere settlements. You level them up in steps - settlement>tavern>fort>rampart>citadel>castle. If an opponent's ship lands on an island that you control, they have to pay you docking fees. The more developed your island, the higher the docking fee. Sounds kind of Monopoly like, doesn't it? However, there are some important differences. Instead of paying the docking fee, your opponent can choose to attack your island and try to take it over. Each level of development increases the number of defensive canons and crew the island has. You can hire crew and purchase canons for your ship at fortified islands that you control. Finally, and most importantly, castles give you victory points. In play this aspect of the game feels more like Warrior Knights than like Monopoly. You have to expend resources to capture a territory, and you also have expend resources to defend it. If you expend resources to defend an island, this means you have less money to spend to arm and man your ship. You have to carefully consider which territories you want to control and whether or not you have enough resources to defend them. Is it better to control several islands in one quadrant of the board, or is it better to try to control pairs of islands in as many quadrants as possible? Is it better to level up your islands quickly and risk sailing around in a weak ship, or should you try to get your ship as strong as possible and sail around terrorizing the other islands? I don't know, but so far it has been fun trying to figure out what the best strategy is.
Combat is simple, which is something I always appreciate. There is nothing that breaks the mood faster than having to do a bunch of math or having to look something up on three different tables to determine who wins. Ship to ship combat and attacking islands is resolved in the same way. You roll a 6 sided die for every manned canon you have. You match your highest die roll to your your opponent's highest die roll. Whoever has the lower die, loses a crew member. Then you match your second highest die rolls, and so on. If you both still have crew after resolving the first round of canon fire, you fire again. It takes two crew to man a canon, so on the next go round, if you have lost some crew, you may not be able to fire all your canons (you roll fewer dice). You fight until someone loses their last crew member, which means their ship is sunk or their island has been captured. If your ship gets sunk, you can come back into the game with a new ship by paying a bounty to the person who sunk you. Despite the risk, there is a lot of incentive to attack opponents and it is often the best route to victory. This is NOT one of those games that appears to offer a lot of player vs player combat, but then turns out to be two hours of tooling around and building up your "economy" followed by a couple of quick battles at the end. This is the kind of game where you come out, canons blazing as soon and as often as you can.
You get most of the money you need to defend your islands and crew your ships by smuggling. This is the pick up and deliver bit of the game. Since you are a smuggler, you don't get any choice as to what you smuggle or where you need to deliver it. You pick a cargo card which indicates what you are smuggling, where it needs to be delivered, and how much you will earn when you deliver it successfully. When you manage to sail by the island to which the cargo needs to be delivered, you gets your money and pick up a new cargo. You also earn your choice of an additional crew member or canon for your ship.
Navigating the islands isn't an easy task. You plot your course (place a token on the space you want to move to) than hope the wind is in your favor (roll a die). You have a 1/3 chance of making it to your destination, a 1/3 chance of falling short, and a 1/3 chance of shooting past it. If you have ever attempted to navigate a sail boat, you will agree that this is a pretty damn accurate simulation of what happens. I once spent a couple of weeks sailing in the Bahamas. Most of that time was spent trying to figure out where the hell we were. The rest of the time was spent mixing up rum drinks in the blender, so we didn't much care if we weren't where we thought we were.
Delivering your cargo is further complicated by the various events that might befall a pirate. You can be attacked by opponent ships, blown off course, lose your cargo in a storm, or get boarded by the royal navy. On the other hand, good things can happen too. You might find a map to a fabulous treasure (which gives you special powers and 3 victory points), win a bar fight, or rescue and ransom a governor's officer. This is the bit of the game that reminds me of Talisman. If you land on certain spots, you pick a card. The card could be a new crew member, or it could be fight a big ass ship. There are also spaces where set events always occur, such as you find buried treasure or your crew mutinies. In an instant you can go from sailing the biggest, baddest pirate ship in the sea, to hanging on to a bit of debris from said ship after it gets blown up by the Royal Navy. If you enjoy the chaos of adventure games, this is fun. If it makes you get all cranky and sulky and say things like, "This card is broken," then the pirate life is not for you.
Pirate King has everything I want in a pirate game - ships sailing around (WTF were they thinking with Sword & Skull), buried treasure, walking the plank, ship to ship combat, storms, mutiny, attacking islands, avoiding the Royal Navy, brawls, even tavern wenches and their sisters. It plays in 1-2 hours, and scales well for 2 - 4 players. It is more abstract than Blackbeard, which is one of my favorite games, but the shorter play time and simple rules means Pirate King will get played more often.
On the pirate scale, I rate this one a solid Captain Blood.