Wedded much more to mechanics than thematics, Tiny Epic Pirates finds something of a middle ground.
Those of you that are regular readers (all seven of you) may remember that I know things about pirate games (Lilly.) So, when Tiny Epic Pirates was announced (and Kickstartered) last year, I was pretty geeked about it. The Tiny Epic series had already covered plenty of nerd topics (zombies, dinosaurs, weird Pythagorean fantasy) so this was a natural progression. (One expects Tiny Epic Ninjas to emerge sometime soon.) The real question I had in mind was whether it would arc closer to the Black Fleet end of the pirate spectrum or the Merchants & Marauders end. The real answer may be... kinda both? Tiny Epic Pirates is very mechanically driven and basically without the chrome that inhabits other Tiny Epic titles like Tiny Epic Dinosaurs or Tiny Epic Zombies. That said, it still feels more like Merchants & Marauders because of the way a couple of those mechanics are implemented. Does that make for a good game on its own two feet (sails?) or something that just seems derivative? I'm not sure there's a solid answer to that.
First and foremost, Tiny Epic Pirates is a pick-up-and-deliver game. Full stop. There are elements of "piracy" in that among the actions you can take are attacking merchant ships, plundering the local communities, and attacking other players for their booty. But it's perfectly feasible to win the game doing nothing but the aforementioned plundering and schlepping the stolen goods to whomever is willing to buy them. The object of the game is to bury three treasures, wihch basically means burying the profits of the stuff you've stolen from the nearby towns/islands. What separates it from Black Fleet in that respect is that, like Merchants & Marauders, there's a market that has to be heeded. If someone sells rum or gunpowder, those goods flood the market and drop to the lowest return of gold for everyone. But that also makes everything else more valuable, so a rapidly fluctuating market can be either boon or curse, depending on who got to the buyers first.
The main mechanic that allows you to engage in this commerce is a rondel. Everyone shuffles their potential actions during setup and then turns them over for their own arrangement. If you want to do the next action on your wheel, you can move there without trouble. If you want to skip over to another action, you have to take your crew from their useful posts in the Rigging (makes you go faster) or on the Cannons (makes you kill faster) or in Extort (makes you squeeze money from the locals faster?) and stick them on the wheel, holding that space down until you skip over them again or until storms or the navy or failed attacks jostle them into Repair. There's a certain rhythm to it that takes a couple turns to really get a feel for, but once you do, you can see all of the possibilities and frustrations of the rondel unfold in front of you. As in, you'd like to do a Search action, but that's two spaces away on the wheel, which means you'd have to pull a deckhand from Rigging which means you won't be able to actually sail to the space you wanted to explore in the first place. Or you're lining up an attack on a nearby merchant and skipping two deckhands again on the wheel allows you to drop them right onto Cannons, which is what you need to sink that target. So there is some planning into future turns that becomes extant once you're comfortable with bouncing guys back and forth between assignments and wheel.
My feelings on combat are kind of mixed. As noted, you can assault merchants and other players, while your encounters with the navy are always an auto-loss for you. But getting to the point where you can even attempt the lowest merchants takes some doing. You can't just run out and start buccaneering from turn one. But the downsides of combat can be fairly minimal. Unlike Merchants & Marauders, where losing means an enormous setback, losing a fight with merchants or other players just means sending another guy to Repair. You'll often be more troubled by the storms around the board that do the same thing. Getting hit by the navy means all of your deckhands end up in Repair, which is irritating if you wanted them for assignments, but you can pull guys from Repair to the wheel in the same way as any other assignment. However, I think the fine line that designer, Scott Almes, was trying to walk here is that Tiny Epic Pirates is potentially a very fast game. Losing all of your guys to Repair can mean you basically skip the next turn to use the Hideout action and redistribute all of your dudes. Losing one turn in this game can easily put you well behind the inexorable progress of your opponents. So, while losing combat isn't a catastrophic result, it can put a dent in your plans.
But the other possible concern with that arrangement is the Legend ranking. You gain levels by defeating sufficiently tough merchants (which get stronger every time one of them is sunk by a player) and by winning fights with other players. In general, it's a good idea to advance on the Legend track, since it means you can move farther, gain another deckhand, and eventually have more dice for combat. But so far, I've not seen anyone go past the second level of the track (Corsair, where you gain another deckhand) and I've seen winners of the game not go past the first. If you hire the right crew or are able to keep dudes in Rigging, the extra movement isn't needed and the size of the board limits the utility of that, anyway (i.e. you generally only need to move three spaces or so.) Of course, not needing to attack other players is a bonus for a lot of gamers who aren't interested in that kind of thing and it does mean that there's more than one path to victory, which is always a positive.
The thing nagging at the back of my mind is that, unlike almost every other game in the Tiny Epic series, Tiny Epic Pirates feels limited. It feels like it's just a smaller, more basic version of Merchants & Marauders. The rest of the games, even if they can be drawn into some obvious parallels, such as Tiny Epic Dinosaurs to Dinosaur Island, still feel like they have their own identity and like there's more story to explore within them. I'm not getting that sense from Pirates. Mechanically, it's a solid game. There are interesting choices to make, even in the basic combat system (e.g. Do you spread your crew choices out so that you cover more of the possible results of the dice or do you focus on a couple results so you get multiple hits from each die?), which affects the crew that you recruit. Further in that vein, the extra actions that each crewmember adds to your tableau are also considerations for putting together some really fun combo turns. But I find it odd when a pirate game can be compared to Black Fleet and one realizes that the game in question has even less chrome than Black Fleet does.
There are no cards to be drawn that change the game. There are no "variable player powers" beyond what you can piece together with crew and the minor variations in captain extra actions. There's nothing there that lends itself to the idea of story. It's all very... mechanical. That doesn't make it a bad game. In fact, it's a quite solid game and I had at least one participant say that he liked it better because it didn't have all of the random story elements that Merchants & Marauders brings to the table. I can completely understand that. I just find it weird that a game about one of the most romantic and fabled (as in "fictionalized") periods of history doesn't really try to tell you a story or make any one particular session stand out from the rest. In that respect, it actually belies what I said above to some degree. It's not a smaller version of Merchants & Marauders. It's definitely its own game. But it feels more constrained, which is not an experience I'm accustomed to with the Tiny Epic series. The Curse of Amdiak expansion alleviates that lack of chrome somewhat, in that it adds another kind of resource to the game, enlarges the board by 25%, and provides crew with abilities that are much more elaborate than the base game. It also adds another victory condition, so adding the expansion will increase the game length but, again, Tiny Epic Pirates is already a pretty swift experience, so that shouldn't really be an issue for most people.
In the end, I have to say that I enjoy Tiny Epic Pirates. I'm just not dying to get it to the table when I have two excellent pirate games already sitting on the shelf that do parts, if not all, of what this one does. It's a sound design. If you can accept that piracy was also about raiding the land, as much as running down ships at sea, it's a solid pirate game. But I think this one is a lot closer to the also quite mechanical Tiny Epic Galaxies than the other more flavorful releases in the Tiny Epic line.