I don't pretend to know a lot about these kinds of games, other than they usually don't appeal to me. But Whiz Kids adds an interesting -- no, a fun twist to them. The game is sold in small packs, like a baseball card pack, containing enough pieces to play a complete, but very small game. The twist is that it's a naval combat game, and the cards are laminated styrene affairs that you punch out to assemble tiny model ships.
I was in the candy store with my kids who were buying Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh cards when the typical Topps style display box caught my eye. "A Complete Game in Every Pack". Well, $3.99 for a game is certainly worth a lark. I bought one, punched out the pieces and assembled American The Roanoke and, I think, some dinky pirate scow, and I was hooked.
Objectively speaking, the game is not nearly so sophisticated and elaborate as Magic, but from my perspective this was a good thing. It's very simple, and I play with my elementary school children, who are more than match for me, as they like to gang up. It's nice to see them on the same side for a change. It's complex enough that there is some planning in putting together and manning a fleet, but it's not really something most people will spend endless hours refining. My play time is limited, so when I play I want to play.
I think one reason Magic left me cold is that I just wasn't all that interested in hellish monsters and magicians and all that stuff. I happen to like fantasy books, but show me a cover with a demon, or a young girl singing to a sword some such thing, and it leaves me cold. Not only is the universe of Magic strategy more than I want to deal with, I have no desire to amass a collection of mediocre fantasy art. But for me there's just something thrilling about opening one of those foil packs and finding the Bonhomme Richard. I positively lust for the USS Constitution, which has eluded me so far. As you can tell, I like to play American ships; I may have an heretofore undiscovered patriotic streak. I suppose that the Magic player is thrilled to find that rare card that add just what he needs to his deck, but the Pirates player gets to put his ship together, which I find satisfying and oddly theraputic.
The fundamental game is quite simple. Each ship has a number of performance parameters: speed, cargo capacity, and weaponry (cannons of varying accuracy and range). It may have special abilities, either because of its design (e.g., schooners are allowed to pivot in place) or to introduce complications to the game (e.g. the Richard gets a bonus attacking English ships). You can also optionally add crew to your ships. A captain allows your ship to move and fire its cannons at the same time; musketeers give your ship an additional attack at short range. Certain named crew are give special abilities just like the ship, for example the ability to steal treasure from an enemy island.
Needless to say, some ships and crew are more powerful than others. Each is assigned a point value, and the basic rule is that everybody starts with the same point value and builds his fleet according to his preferences. Typical point values for ships run from eight to twelve points; some unusual ships cost five (or in very rare cases) four poins on the low end, or up to fifteen and sixteen point ships for floating fortresses or speedy treasure houses. The basic rule is that everybody starts with the same point budget. Within that budget, there is considerable room for difference.
My seven year old son has a favorite ship: The Ville de Paris. It's a massive, five masted affair with superior cannons and plenty of room for crew. Although I bought and paid for it, he regards the Paris as his personal property. He loves the feeling of invulnerability as he cruises around in his mighty ship of the line, scattering his enemies before him. Even my Bonhomme Richard, which is no slouch, turns tail and runs unless she has support. The Richard has excellent cannons, and Paris has only a slight edge in that department, but the Paris has a special ability to ignore the first hit in any exchange. That's enough to mean that when they meet the Richard is as good driftwood unless she's lucky enough to cut across the Paris' bow at short range.
The Paris has one problem though. She's slow. By the time she shows up, the party is aready over, which is frustrating to my son. This means no 30 point games for us; at sixteen points once he's bought and crewed the Paris, he wouldn't have enough to buy a single additional French ship. In our house, we don't allow mixed nationality fleets, although standard rules do. A 40 point game is the minimum that allows him to join the action, and most days he refuses to play unless we're doing 50.
With a 150-200 points worth of ships, the game can drag a bit. Take to long deciding what to do and you'll hear a chorus of "Move already!" However with a fifty point fleet, your fleet becomes an expression of your personality. My son likes the one-two punch: he ties you up with his small ships long enough so he can bring up the Paris for the coup de grace. My daughter loves swift pirate vessels that dash out, grab all the treasure, and evade larger pursuers by darting behind islands or skimming over reefs where bigger ships cannot follow. She always amasses more treasure than the boys combined, who spend far too much time struggling for strategic domination.
I also have a favorite ship. The humble, common 8 point Hornet. This ship is unremarkable; while moderately fast, two mast vessels don't have the durability to duke it out with a ship of the line; they're usually relegated to treasure hauling duty. I have a lot of this little vessel in my ship box, and in the fifty or sixty point games my son demands, I can play a lot of them. A typical fleet for me in that game would be three Hornets and my favorite big ship, the Richard, which amounts to 39 points, leaving 11 points to add crew to the Richard and perhaps one of the Hornets. Both the Richard and the Hornets are faster than average, and I operate them as two task forces, two or three Hornets and the Richard by itself or with one Hornet if there is a chance of encountering the fearsome Paris. My swarm of Hornets is nearly as dreaded as the Paris, and twice as fast.
Serious gamers will soon find the rules of Pirates limiting . Sometimes I long for a bit more realism or tactical depth. I won't go into the shortcomings of the game's rules -- they're obvious to anybody who has played and would be incomprehensible to non-players. One frequent annoyance that will affect both serious and casual gamers is that the special ability text on some ships and crew is frequently unclear or even mystifying. For example, some named crew cards bear the title "commander". I think but am not sure, that these count as captains -- skippers if you will. This would be consistent with naval practice.
However,the main problem with the game starts with the way you build your fleet from a pre-agreed point total. Just as building your fleet starts to get interesting, operating it becomes impractical. More elaborate rules would result in large fleets becoming impossible to operate and simpler ones would make building them less interesting. It's hard to see how the combat rules could be improved without major restructuring. The challenge for the designer is to nail your audience accurately, and make your rules accordingly. Which they've done: Pirates is in my opinion Magic for the casual gamer. And in my house we're as casual as they come. We never play by anything like tournament rules, we play for fun, which for my son and I is knocking the stuffing out of each other and for my daughter is smirking at how little treasure the boys end up with at the end of the game. I think toting up gold is her favorite part of the evening, which she does very loudly and distinctly, punctuated with pointed inquiries about how much gold we managed to amass.
If there were one wrinkle I'd add, it's one that I think every great strategy game needs: obtaining and using resources efficiently. My change would work like this: you start with thirty or even twenty points, and as you amass wealth you'd use it to build more ships. Let's say for fifteen point, five masted ship, you need to pay fifteen gold pieces to lay the keel, fifteen to launch her, and take one or two turns per mast to build her, depending on how long you want the game to run. This would presuppose a longer gaming session, but it would get the session off more quickly, and not add any tactical complications to it.
For me, though, the thrill of this game still will always be opening that foil pack to see what's inside. Unlike most collectible games, these little ships appeal to me; they're so cute even my wife can't bring herself to complain about them, although I caught her biting her lip when I announced I had to get a second box to hold my ships.
And I'm always hoping that the Constitution is in that next pack.
The other day I reached into the card display for my usual weekly fix, and by impulse put down my first pick. I had a good feeling about the pack that was underneath so I took it instead.
I couldn't wait until I got home, so I ripped open the pack in my car. No Constitution but something equally rare: an English ship, the Dreadnought, a mighty twenty six point floating fortress that makes the Paris look like a mere Hornet. As I expected, as soon as I got it home my son claimed it as his exclusive property, and positively cackled with glee at the prospect of running both the Paris and Dreadnought.
I forsee eighty point fleets coming to our house, and the no-mixed-nationalities rule is as good as dead. Well, if I ever get my Constitution, I say bring it on. In the meantime there are some sweet little six or eight point pirate vessels that would make a nice little task force.
Check out Wiz Kids Games, creator of the series for details on rules.
The Ville de Paris: the a 104 gun ship of the line reportedly later upgraded to 130 guns and reputedly the most powerful warship on Earth in her day.
The Hornet: Many ships have borne this name, but presumably the one of "don't give up the ship" fame is intended.
The frigate Bonhomme Richard: Even as she was burning and sinking, John Paul Jones declared he had not yet begun to fight on her decks. The real Richard was a beautiful ship, which sadly the styrene version completely fails to capture.
The Dreadnought: Many ships have borne this name, including two ironclad battleships. The game version most resembles the 1801 edition although at 98 guns she was only a "second rater". While her service was distinguished, she was nowhere near as formidable as her game counterpart makes her out to have been. That reputation better fits the 1901 ironclad.
And of course, the Constitution: It's a gyp she only gets 1L for her movement. In the game she's considered a five mast vessel, but of course the real life one is a three masted frigate. Mast count == cannon count in the game. I'd have made her a 3 mast/cannon vessel with 1L + 1S; she was built for speed and could do an exceptional 13 kt. And I'd goose her cannon rating a bit or perhaps give her an automatic musketeer, either of which would be consistent with her historical battles in which she displayed superior marksmanship and use of musketeers. She was designed so that anything she couldn't outgun, she could outrun. Captained by Isaac Hull, she did both brilliantly but didn't shy from a tough fight. But you can't do a legendary ship like this justice in a game.