Thursday, July 31, 2014

Assemble your fleet

Pirates of the Spanish Main (later re-branded as Pirates of the Cursed Seas) is a very, very clever game, almost ridiculously so. A sailing ship miniatures combat game with simple punch-out-and-assemble models printed on credit card plastic was ingenious enough, but using the random booster pack delivery system that the game buying public had become accustomed to by 2004 (when the game was released) was a stroke of brilliance.

Even better, each and every $4 booster pack contained 2 ships, a card of punch-out treasure coins, the complete rules, and even a tiny six-sided die, making it possible to try the game out with the contents of a single booster pack. The card edges even doubled as a measuring tool for ship movement and cannon ranges.

Delivery system aside, the game itself is great. Players assemble a fleet of ships to a pre-determined point value. Each ship has its own unique abilities, and can be further customized with captain and crew pieces. Initially the pool of ships and crew consisted of Pirates, English and Spanish, with French and Americans added later, followed by smaller regional factions such as the Barbary Corsairs of North Africa, the Jade Rebellion from the South China Seas, and even a small group of Vikings from the icy waters of the north. Later still, the game added a supernatural element with the Cursed, a group of ghost ships and sea monsters.

Several islands (three per player) are placed on the playing surface, and each player contributes a number of treasure coins that are randomized and divided among the islands, face down. Most coins have a gold value (anywhere from 1 to 7, and there are even some decoy 0 value coins), but some are unique treasures such as Shipping Charts, Letters of Marque or even unhelpful things like Cannibals. The goal of the game is to sail your ships to the islands, collect the treasure, and return it safely to your home island. The game ends when all the treasure has been collected, and the player with the most gold wins.

But of course it's not that simple. As was often the case on the high seas, ships can attack one another, conduct boarding raids, and even salvage derelict ships. Each ship model has a number of masts (depending on the size of the ship), which serve as both a damage tracker and a source of offensive capability. Each mast is printed with either a white or red die showing a number between 1 and 5, indicating how effective its cannons are and how far they can shoot. As ships get hit, they lose masts, and as a result they lose cannons. When a ship loses all its masts it is derelict and can be commandeered by an opponent's ship. Alternatively, if a derelict gets shot one last time, it sinks.

Another way ships can interact is by ramming into one another. When one ship rams another it has a chance of taking a mast from its target, and after the ram is complete, either ship can initiate a boarding action, with the winner choosing to either kill a crew piece (and possibly taking away a special power or advantage) or take a treasure coin if there are any aboard.

There are many options for strategy and play styles. You can go for speed and stealth, equipping your ships with helmsmen so they can move faster, with an eye towards gathering as much treasure from the islands as you can and staying out of the range of your opponent's ships. Or, you can play a more aggressive game, adding captains and cannoneers to your ships to make them more effective in combat. A cast of unique characters will give the ships they're on all sorts of interesting extra abilities; anything from cancelling the special abilities of nearby ships to allowing sunken ships to return to the game.

Later expansion sets added a supernatural element including ghost ships that can move through other ships, and giant squids that can travel safely underwater and spring up to engulf other ships. Still later a steampunk element was added, equipping ships with flame-blasting cannons, mechanical hoists, turbine engines and giant spikes that can spring out from the sides of a ship, impaling anything in their path.

Pirates really hits all my gaming buttons: collectible but not prohibitively expensive, a rich, immersive world, amazing components, and an incredible depth of strategy, both in finding the right combination of ships and crew to bring to the table, and maneuvering them once the game's begun.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) An absolutely ingenious game, and there really isn't anything else like it.

Date played: June 8, 2014

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