AVAST, ME HEARTIES!

Billed as a “Constructable Strategy Game”, Pirates of the Spanish Main is a WizKids game that works as a nice bridge between collectable card games and tabletop wargames. It is sold in foil packs of cards, and available in most of the same places you would find CCGs like Lord of the Rings, Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh, but these cards are actually die-cut plastic pieces that the player must assemble to build warships and sea monsters. These models are then used to conduct tabletop battles and treasure hunts that resemble simplified MechWarrior or Starfleet Battles games. The rules are simple, and the collectable aspect is very strong, but most of the cards are well-balanced and there is enough room for strategizing to keep most casual wargamers happy. Grognards and die-hard naval history geeks, however, may find its simplicity and lack of realism annoying.

Each foil pack of Pirates contains two ships, a crew card or unique treasure card, and an island card which usually has nautical “terrain” such as fog banks or reefs on its obverse. Also included are two slim booklets of rules, a checklist of all the cards in that series, and one microscopic six-sided die which you will immediately lose. This is, technically, a complete set of everything you need to play a game of Pirates, so for only four dollars you can actually find out if the game appeals to you at all – a very small minimal investment for this sort of thing.

However, if you do enjoy it you won’t get very far with only two ships to build a fleet from. Realistically, you’ll probably buy at least a handful of packs before you have a fun fleet to play with, and even then you may be outclassed at competitions by players who bought cards by the case and have a good selection of ships and crew cards to put together. From what I can tell, this seems to be an unavoidable element of the CCG genre, which is why I don’t take these games too seriously.

Be warned before you buy your first pack of cards: WizKids have pretty much perfected the science of developing collectable games that tease you into buying new packs every so often by providing just the right ratio of fleet-killers to deck-fillers, and Pirates is another one of those games often referred to as “cardboard crack.”

AN INVINCIBLE ARMADA OF MINUSCULE PLASTIC SHIPS!

Six sets of Pirates have been released so far, with a new series scheduled for November 2006. While all the sets are fully retro-compatible and can be combined in any way you like, each new release has expanded the game with a few new rules and added new rival factions and ship classes. In the first set (Pirates of the Spanish Main, which is still the official title for the whole game), ships were either Spanish, English or Pirates, but the expansions have included American, French, Barbary Corsairs, Jade Rebellion and Cursed fleets. The types of ships available now include everything from the familiar frigates and schooners to junks, galleys, ghost ships and sea monsters. Each new ship type has slightly tweaked abilities. For example, galleys are fast, can turn after moving and are the only ships that can move when demasted, which means they can dart into a fight and get away from situations that leave other ships dead in the water. To balance out these abilities, galleys tend to have weak cannons and severely restricted lines of fire.

Series released so far:

  • Pirates of the Spanish Main: included Spanish, English and Pirate fleets. Nice and simple.
  • Pirates of the Crimson Coast: introduced the French faction, schooner ship type, forts and terrain cards. Eliminated the “come about” rule.
  • Pirates of the Revolution: introduced the American faction and a new element, Event cards.
  • Pirates of the Barbary Coast: introduced Barbary Corsairs, the Jade Rebellion, galleys and junks. Focused on the Corsairs and their highly maneuverable galleys, with very few ships for the other nations. The set included four rare Jade rebellion junks as a teaser for the next series.
  • Pirates of the South China Seas: This series focused on the Jade Rebellion faction with its junks and turtle ships. An interesting set that I haven’t played with much. Junks are very slow ships, but fierce fighters because their masts do not block their line of fire. Turtles are small ships with very strong defense but limited offensive capabilities. To promote the Davy Jones series, this set also included four ships from the Cursed faction, ghost ships and the Fear mechanic. Spanish, English, American, French and Pirate ships were also featured, but no Corsairs.
  • Pirates of Davy Jones’ Curse: coincidentally (or not) released right around the time Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest hit theatres, this series focused on the Cursed faction and introduced sea monsters which can submerge at the end of a turn. Sea monsters are neat, but can’t carry crew, which is a serious disadvantage. Includes a few ships of the other “standard” nations, but no Corsairs or Jade Rebellion ships.
  • Scheduled for release in November, 2006, Pirates of the Mysterious Islands veers from fantasy to early SF with Nautilus-style submarines (including the Nautilus itself, along with Captain Nemo and Ned Land), the Mercenary faction and a new terrain type, most likely islands that have unique effects on game play.

It can be argued that the expansions have made the game more of a collectathon and de-emphasized strategy, but to be honest, if you didn’t enjoy collecting ships in the first place this was never really your game. Half the fun of playing Pirates is the act of buying new foil packs, ripping them open and chortling malevolently as you contemplate the devastation your spanking new 17-point Corsair galley and captain will wreak upon those snivelling English dogs, or groaning in disappointment as you unwrap a pair of slow, underpowered pirate two-masters and yet another Spanish shipwright.

BELAY FORWARD CHASER FIRE! LUFF THE MAINSTUDDIN’SAIL! ACTIVATE CLOAKING DEVICE! MAN THE BILGE PUMP!!!

Where was I now? Oh, yes. Notwithstanding the “gotta catch 'em all” aspect of the game, there is in fact a good deal of strategy involved. Every ship, crew and event card has a point value on it, and each player in a given game is limited to a mutually agreed upon point limit to build her fleet with, offsetting the effect of the really powerful ships quite a bit.

The secret to winning is not relying on powerful, unique ships, but putting them together with complementary crew and deploying them effectively as a fleet. I’m not the kind of guy who says “it’s like a game of chess”, but it’s like a game of chess. There are queens and there are pawns, and you need to use them together to win. Except these queens have long-range cannons and beaky tentacles of doom, and the pawns allow you to make repairs without docking. Okay, maybe it’s not that much like a game of chess. But you’ll find more strategy in this game than you might think.

What you won’t find here is any hint of nautical realism. If you’re thinking about emulating Jack Aubrey’s tactics to gain the upper hand against the pirate menace, think again. Jack Sparrow would be a better role model, and James T Kirk an even better one, because PSM ships behave more like Star Trek ships than actual sailing vessels. One thing that consistently annoys me in Pirates is the complete absence of any meteorological effects. Granted, calculating tidal effects and visibility at long range might have been a bit much for a pick-up-and-play game, but not having any kind of wind mechanic in a game of sail-powered naval warfare is just stupid.

So if you’re looking for something like one of Avalon Hill’s fiendishly complex wargames or the original Starfleet Battles, if your friends call you “the old grognard” or “Cap’n”, or if you actually know what a topgallant staysail is, Pirates is probably not a good game for you. But if you want a game to bring the Avalon Hill generation and the Final Fantasy generation together in the peaceful pursuit of nautical destruction, need a good pickup game that isn’t GURPS-based for the next geek gathering or just want an alternative to yet another Halo marathon this Friday night, set a course for your local gaming store and brush up on yer pirate accent.

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