Pirates Ahoy

Pirates! Who doesn’t love pirates? If there was ever a subject perfect for boardgaming, then pirating must be it—the chaotic sea battles, the blasting of cannons, chain-shot whipping through the air, crew falling from the rigging into the sea … the buying and selling of cargo, letters of marque, naval ships chasing your ship through mysterious waters … even the occasional ghost ship and zombie pirate crew—ay, pirates have it all!

And yet, pirates are a notoriously difficult subject to bring to boardgames—perhaps because there are so many things a pirate can do, and so many classic moments to cover in a pirate boardgame. So let’s have a look at some of the pirate boardgames of yesteryear and the present, and then let me tell you about last night’s gaming session and what I now think is the ultimate pirating game!

One of the first pirate games to really try and cover all that the genre has to offer was Blackbeard, realeased in 1991. This notoriously complex game by Richard Berg, a prolific wargame designer, covered almost everything you’d wish to see in a pirate game, but was also weighed down by a very long playing time and a profusion of fiddly tables. Still, many people have very fond memories of how the game captured the feeling of historical pirates and their adventures in the waters of the Caribbean. In 2008 the game was finally re-released by GMT games as Blackbeard: The Golden Age of Piracy, with many of the systems simplified and a new card mechanic introduced. It’s still a complex and relatively long game, but it’s one of the most detailed pirate games out there and certainly the most historically accurate.

Pirates CoveIn 2002, the relatively new company Days of Wonder released Pirate’s Cove, a fun family-friendly pirate game that featured spectacular art and production values, and remains a firm favourite with gamers of all types. If you want together your family around for a fun evening of pirate-themed plundering and treasure-burying, then this is the game to get. You gain fame by winning battles; burying gold and treasure; and bragging about your exploits at the tavern, in true pirate style. At the end of twelve months, the pirate with the most fame is declared the winner! Highly recommended.

With the advent of collectible games, the ingenious ‘collectible construction game’ Pirates of the Spanish Main hit the market in 2004, and not many gamers could resist the clever little 3D pirate ships that you could punch out of credit-card sized plastic. The game system itself was incredibly basic, but that didn’t seem to stop the collectors going crazy and the game going on a very successful four-year run through multiple editions and hundreds of different ships.

Of course it was the Pirates of the Caribbean films that really brought pirates back into the limelight, especially the memorable character of Captain Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp in wonderfully over-the-top form. And mainstream game manufacturers like Hasbro didn’t miss the opportunity to release pirate-themed versions of their classic games. Monopoly: Pirates of the Caribbean Edition was the first, but recently the Monopoly: Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides Edition has come out, featuring all your favourite characters from the brand new fourth installment of the franchise. Even the dice game Yahtzee has seen a pirate version with the Yahtzee: Pirates of the Caribbean On Strange Tides Collector’s Edition, which features a pretty spectacular silver chalice movie replica that serves as the dice cup, and collectible skull & crossbones dice.

Talking about franchises, game companies often have their own little franchises happening, and if it’s one that features classic gaming genres, they’re bought to release a pirate version eventually! Steve Jackson Games has Munchkin Booty, one of the better releases in their long-running Munchkin series, and Loony Labs has Pirate Fluxx, and both games wring the pirate cliches from the genre without mercy: plunder, doubloons, monkeys, crow’s nests and barrels of rum flying about like cannonballs in a sea battle!

Merchants and MaraudersWhich brings me, after a long voyage, to the game I played last night: Merchants & Marauders! this seems to me to be just the right mix of complexity, theme, fun and strategy that’s required for the perfect pirate game. Games can be quite long, but you’ll be so immersed in the theme that you won’t notice. Buying and selling cargoes, evading and fighting pirates and naval vessels, plundering merchant ships, claiming missions and following up rumours are the main meat of the game, and mix in a wide variety of very thematic cards and you’ll swiftly encounter some classic pirate moments. At one stage my opponent’s ship was slipping through the fog off Basse-Terre, just managing to avoid the pirate ship that lurked in those waters; at another time he was desperately fending off a pirate attack that was shooting his ship to splinters; in the meantime I took a safer route, upgraded my sloop to a galleon and delivered goods in demand between Havana and Santa Domingo. War broke out between France and England and I took a French merchant vessel off Cartagena; but my opponent reached his home port and stashed gold to reap glory points enough for the win! Time flew by, there was always something interesting to do, and it was one of my best game experiences of the year. If you’re at all a pirate fan, grab a copy of this excellent game!

That’s just a few of the great games that let you live the life of a pirate on the high seas. So grab your parrot, screw on your hook, adjust your eyepatch, and join with me in shouting out loud me hearties—ARRRRRRRRRR!!!!