Monday, October 21, 2013

Art Swap 2013: Pirates on the Sea of Board Games

Back in August, I spent a night in Chicago with fellow Art Swappers Jon Trainor, Kaitlin Vogtner, and Brad Stasell playing Pirates, Jon's board game contribution to the swap.  After three rounds, I can safely declare the game a complete success, even though I didn't win.

Pirates was the brainchild of Jon Trainor and Barry Pfingsten after about four margaritas, and the only Art Swap project not designed to fit in a postal mailbox.  The board is an open sea of squares that players navigate by rolling a single dice (which, like Clue, can take a frustratingly long time).  Across the sea are islands with buried treasure, and players roll dice before the game to determine which three specific treasures they must find and retrieve.  The catch is that any player can dig up any treasure to trade for bonus cards that provide all kinds of useful abilities, such as increased attack power, or moving diagonally.  If a player has the treasure you need, you can attack them in a single-dice showdown.  If you have a treasure someone else needs, you can bury it on any square and leave the other player scrambling to dig it up.  The first player to get all three of their treasures wins.

Despite my comparison with slow-moving games of Clue, each game of Pirates moves fast, and takes less than an hour to play.  With four people, the treasures get scooped up after only a few turns, dividing the game into an initial phase of acquiring treasures and items and a second phase of journeying across the board to retrieve a distant treasure or attack a player who's dug up yours.  Because two players might very well need the same treasure to win, hilarity and battles inevitably ensue when the people around the table figure this out.

This showdown for the final treasure is undoubtedly the most challenging and fun part of the game, though because this high-strategy portion only lasts a few turns, Pirates becomes a game best played multiple times in a row to gain full satisfaction.  The attacking feature initially seems unbalanced (Note: I'm not just saying this because I lost every attack), since the defender wins in case of a tie and can take both a life and an item from the attacking player upon victory.  However, the inequality makes acquiring items to boost your attacking power a better strategy, as is foiling another player by stealing treasure rather than risking a hazardous battle.  It's also to players' advantage to shout out guesses for who needs what, and to bargain around the table to prevent another player from winning.  All are allowed, and players are encouraged to make their own cards, decide house rules, and otherwise alter gameplay as they see fit.

Though I neglected to get a picture of us actually playing the game, here's a generic 1980s back-of-the-box board game photo of a family playing Life instead.  Enjoy!

Boy, this family sure loves sweaters.
Jon Trainor is the brainchild behind the Blingasaurus Rex series of internet song mashups introduced in the 2010 Mix CD Swap. You can listen to his mixes via Soundcloud or Tumblr.  He's played in all kinds of bands (including the Chicago-based I Think Everything I Say), co-founded the Easily Distracted podcast, started a financial advice blog for the Nerdist, and is currently programming his own computer game.  This is his first board game, about pirates or otherwise.

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