Pirates. Dinosaurs. Still At It.
A week ago, I wrote something that might have come across as a bit mean. I know, I know. Sometimes I disappoint even myself. In the comments after my review of Richard Launius’ Defenders of the Realm: Battlefields, I voiced a theory that perhaps Mr. Launius is a bit of a prodigy when it comes to designing cooperative games — after all, he’s been involved in some pretty impressive projects, like Arkham Horror, the original Defenders of the Realm, Elder Sign, and even the Infernal Relics expansion for Sentinels of the Multiverse — but that he might not be quite as adept at crafting interesting competitive games.
Well, today we’re looking at his newest game, Pirates vs. Dinosaurs, and I’m going to be eating my words. Or at least some of them.
The First Stage: Outfitting Your Party
Pirates vs. Dinosaurs is about a bunch of pirate captains who each come into possession of a portion of a treasure map — so far so vanilla bean — except it turns out the treasure’s buried on an island that’s cursed as balls, complete with dinosaurs, restless natives, ghosts, a smoking volcano, and, if you lucked into a copy of the promo cards, even zombies and tropical ninjas. Mostly dinosaurs though.
Right there, that’s how you sell me on a Kickstarter project. It’s like Richard Launius was mixing his childhood playthings and his medications, to admirable effect.
PvD — as it’s known in really hip circles — is played over the course of three “stages.” The first is all about outfitting your crew, and it does a fine job of setting the tone that you’re one of the baddest piratical captains to sail the Spanish Main. You’ll select a magical pirate relic (these scalawags are no strangers to the unexplained), a first mate to lead your crew (as the captain sips rum from a coconut on the deck of the ship, presumably), and which weapons locker to bust open (pistols n’ pikes beat swords n’ muskets as implements of dino-slaughter for some reason; maybe more pirate magic). Then you’ll divvy up some points between hiring crew to send off to their deaths and various equipments that will come in handy later. Do you take supplies in the hopes of befriending the locals to avoid getting tossed into their giant cookpot? Or machetes, shovels, and ropes to help shave some time off all the exploring and digging you’re bound to do? If getting around fast isn’t your bag, maybe you should consider hauling a cannon along to wipe out whatever beasties you happen across? Choose wisely, because nobody wants to be stranded in the path of a charging brontosaurus without a talking parrot on their shoulder to help re-roll the dice.
The Second Stage: Exploring the Island
Now that you’ve scraped together a crew, it’s time to start hunting for treasure! To begin, your crew marches off to one of the island’s five regions, where they’ll begin exploring to hopefully uncover one of the landmarks that matches your map fragments. The denser and farther-inland regions like the mountains, jungle, and swamp take longer to explore than the beach or grasslands, though if you’ve brought along the right equipment none of the areas need provide much of a problem unless something goes wrong — like, for instance, the appearance of the giant T-rex, because a regular-sized T-rex just wasn’t enough for this game.
There’s a nice element of light strategy and long-term resource management to this stage, as you have to divide your time between exploring, which will gradually tick down the time until you’ve successfully searched a zone and can take a peek at one of its landmark tiles, and taking other actions like picking a fight with opposing pirate crews or calling for reinforcements. The latter action is especially interesting, as calling for extra men costs you some booty later on (the treasure variety rather than that of the tavern wench), and provides a diminished return if you run out of crewmen and have to call for emergency backup during a fight.
The most strategic element, however, is how you manage your hand of island cards.
At the end of each turn, you get the opportunity to mess with your rival pirate crews by handing out encounters. You can only give each player one card, and passing out these encounters requires you to meet certain criteria like being in the same location or that your target is currently searching a particular zone. It also isn’t mandatory, so you’re bound to piss off some friends and make new enemies when you stick someone with a Titanoboa dinosaur to incapacitate their last couple pirates before the battle even starts, or a Cliffs card they can’t hope to survive because they didn’t pack any rope. But making enemies is a pirate’s lot, and you’ll do it because telling your husband he’s now “Lost” and won’t be able to finish his exploration of the jungle is absolutely rad, not to mention the best way to keep him from getting to the treasure before you do.
There are even some encounters that are best played on yourself — Clear Pathways to help with exploration, Native Villages for extra crew or to learn the lay of the land by peeking at a landmark tile, or even just mild dinosaur attacks you feel you can weather better than the Triceratops attack your mom has been threatening you with.
You start with a healthy hand of island cards, but after a few rounds of handing out as many Velociraptor attacks as possible and only drawing a couple per turn, it’s easy to start running low. To make your dwindling hand even lighter, most cards can also be played for extra bonuses like rerolled dice or a single crewman, so careful hand management is a surefire way to make sure nobody beats you to the dig site.
The Third Stage: Digging for the Cursed Treasure
Once you find and reveal your final pairing of landmark and map fragment, you ship out to the dig site, where you’ll begin your search for treasure! Unfortunately, digging at the base of a haunted volcano is an unexpectedly risky venture. In addition to treasure and a few more dinosaur attacks, you also run the risk of being cursed by a ghost or having the island’s volcano grow closer to a full eruption — and if you’re still on the island when its smoking stack blows, you lose regardless of how much plunder you pulled out of the earth.
All in all, this part of the game is straightforward. You roll some dice to determine how much you dig up, then fish around in a drawstring bag. You can still call for reinforcements and fight other pirates, though your hand of island cards is gone and you don’t get any more, and eventually you’ll opt to leave the island. When you choose to leave, your surviving crew carries the treasure back to the beach (two crew can carry one treasure), pays the envoys who shuttled new men over to the island (one unique treasure per envoy), and then tallies up the bounty for your final score.
Just like that, you’ve completed your first haunted pirate voyage. Arr.
The Words I’ll Eat, and the Ones I Won’t
Pirates vs. Dinosaurs proves that Richard Launius can indeed craft a solid, interesting, thematic competitive game. A lot of what PvD does is nothing short of awesome, and I’m not just talking about the fact that Launius has somehow blended about six of my childhood interests into a flavorful melange; even the gameplay is taut, filled with compelling decisions and harrowing near-misses and tragic losses.
Still, there are a few things I want prospective buyers to be aware of.
The first is that there’s a lot of downtime when playing with more than three or four players. Each turn involves a whole lot of stuff: drawing cards, figuring out all their possible effects, resolving encounters by rolling and counting dice, choosing an action and possibly rolling lots more dice, and choosing to hand out encounters. Even a quick turn can often take a couple minutes, especially if you’re holding a thick stack of island cards, and waiting five times that long just so you can play again could take the wind out of Blackbeard’s sails. I think copious amounts of rum might alleviate the wait a bit, but since I’m an alcoholic I can’t be sure. Also all my friends are alcoholics, so I really have no data on whether this is an adequate solution.
Second, the three stages resemble three separate games, despite some loose connections. Outfitting your crew is fitting and a lot of fun, but you’re stuck making decisions that will have an impact later, as opposed to reacting to the situation on the island as it arises organically. Consequently, the choices feel a touch arbitrary. Similarly, digging for treasure has basically nothing to do with the lengthy exploration of the island other than the fact that you’re probably short a few pirates because they drowned in quicksand or got ambushed by panthers a long time ago. I would have liked to see the three phases integrated somehow, because it’s a shame to only use that juicy draw-bag of loot, ghosts, and volcano eruptions for a simplistic risk-vs-reward game at the very end.
The third thing is completely a matter of taste: the sheer quantity of luck would need a dozen Spanish treasure-ships to pack it back to the motherland. Basically everything is determined by luck, from card draws to the rolls that determine the outcomes of combat, exploration, treasure-digging, and all the encounters you’ll face. It’s even possible to discover both of your landmarks on the beach, while another player struggles because his are spread across the mountains and swamps. I personally think this is the fun type of luck that shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and there are some steps you can take to mitigate it — saving some island cards that let you re-roll at critical times, for instance. Either way, just don’t go in expecting some deterministic Eurogame.
Despite these reservations, I think Pirates vs. Dinosaurs is one hell of an adventurous romp. Playing the perfect combination of dino attacks on your friends while you blitz to the dig site and loot mountains of treasure is a wildly good time, and being on the receiving end only the slightest bit less so, because what’s the point of being a pirate if you’re not an underdog — a contemptible, scurvy-ridden, reeking, dishonorable underdog?