Brine & Dice
I’ve heard tell that pirate games are the new zombie games, but I don’t think that’s anything to be worried about. For one thing, zombie games aren’t going anywhere, sadly. They’re as unkillable as their subject matter. Secondly, the latest pirate game is called Rum & Bones, and it’s about immortal (and sometimes skeletal) pirates brawling over cursed doubloons, flamboyant captains firing off flintlock pistols and getting into duels, and maybe a kraken rising from the depths to munch on both sides.
Isn’t it odd how the exact same plot can sound moronic in a movie but so utterly wonderful as a board game? Fret not, Rum & Bones is about five times more comprehensible than the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.
Okay, so here’s the scene: two ships loaded to the gills with cursed pirates have pulled up alongside one another. Now they’re bellowing with what little scraps of lung they’ve got left, steel flashing and severed bits flying. Being functionally immortal, their only goal is to wreck the other ship badly enough that it’s forced to retreat.
There are two halves to the action in Rum & Bones. The first is a pitched battle between the two ships’ deckhands as they pour out from the hold, scream across the deck, and then charge bravely across the gangplanks. What makes this such a cinematic affair — appropriate for Cool Mini Or Not’s assault-your-eyes aesthetic sensibilities — is that it actually presents a critical mass of manpower to back up the concept that you’ve got two crews crashing into each other. After those first couple rounds, you’ll have a huge number of deckhands rushing forward while bosuns tower over the rest and beef up their buddies’ attacks. It really is a sight to behold.
It’s almost a pity you aren’t actually in control of the carnage. These peons attack and move according to a strict script, always pressing forward and usually dying in roughly the same central spaces. In fact, their efforts can seem like a slog at times, the same gangplanks swapping hands here and there, the same attack-then-push moves being made turn after turn. For all the commotion, there’s a whole lot of going nowhere.
Then again, this half of the game is merely the backdrop, the orchestral swell that accompanies the real action. It’s the vague noise of clashing steel and yelling men that fades into the background once the real stars come forward.
See, while your crewmembers are getting busy dying, you’ve got five pirate heroes just itching to spring into action. These represent the real meat of the game, and it’s little surprise that they also represent the longest portion of it. The crew battle is over in seconds, a quick roll of the dice followed by a shove to fill in the gaps. Your heroes, on the other hand, have places to go, things to do, objectives to destroy. And much of what makes them so much more interesting than their mindless counterparts comes down to careful management of both risk and resource.
We’ll start with risk. As suits many game miniature, your heroes are able to move and attack, and spend about ninety percent of their actions doing so. But while it’s possible to use them as frontline fighters, sticking with your troops and just helping with the push — and sometimes that’s a very good idea, since heroes can wipe out entire rows of deckhands pretty much by belching legume-breath in their direction — a lot of the time they’re better served by swinging over to the enemy ship, going around the side or creeping between rows of gnashing combatants, and making risky attacks on enemy hardware. This is, as I said, risky. Even stout heroes can be cut down by deckhands if left out in the open, and on enemy turf it’s entirely possible you’ll get ganged up on and KO’d, sent back unconscious for a couple turns. The act of swinging from ship to ship is also dangerous, possibly resulting in your hero going overboard for a while.
The possible benefits, however, are enormous. Not only do you win once you destroy three objectives, but each one’s destruction also confers some sort of benefit. Destroy their deck guns and they won’t get a free barrage every turn. Splinter their helm wheel and you can hold a bonus tide card (more on those later). Plunder their armory and all your heroes become stronger. Suddenly, the prospect of swinging over the briny sea, forcing your way past some deckhands, and risking a legendary pile-on becomes worth the occasional pirate sleeping it off.
And that’s not all there is to being a legendary pirate. As your heroes wipe out deckhands, they gain a steady stream of magical gold coins, which can then be spent on special attacks, abilities, and reactions. In one game, I had a hero called Little Tom. His name was predictably ironic. More importantly, his main attack let him roll extra dice when he became wounded, and with the help of Captain Albrecht the Damned’s healing pistol shot, I kept him alive for a very long time. Many a deckhand and even a couple heroes fell to Little Tom’s beefed-up cleaver. Eventually he had a whopping 11 wounds, putting him on death’s door. There was nowhere left for him to run.
However, this was all part of my plan. See, Captain Albrecht had another ability in addition to his silly healing pistol. This one was called Devil’s Due, and it hurt an enemy hero with the same amount of damage that was on my most-wounded guy. My opponent had a fresh-faced hero standing nearby, Albrecht had saved up enough gold to afford Devil’s Due, and Little Tom was sitting pretty with 11 wound counters. You can see where this is going.
That brings us to the tide cards. Each side gets their own deck, and they’re as loaded as your ship’s crew cabin. Only this time, instead of a bunch of improbably devoted pirates, the truly crazy stuff comes out to play. Some let you ignore all of an attack’s damage, or hand out extra wounds when you land a hit, or gain precious cursed doubloons out of thin air. And those are the boring ones. The really nuts ones sweep everyone off a gangplank at once, heroes included, or summon a sea monster that chows down on pretty much everything within reach.
With cannon barrages, hordes of deckhands dying left and right, and heroes pulling off crazy combos, Rum & Bones might sound like too much awesomeness. As in, it might seem too complicated.
But that isn’t the case in the slightest. If anything, it’s too simple. I’ve already mentioned how your deckhands run in a straight line until they die, but the heroes are also borderline simpletons. They move, swing across the water, attack, or use their abilities. And that’s it. Three actions per hero per turn. The structure of the game is so simple, in fact, that you don’t even alternate hero turns with your opponent — each round sees one player moving all three, possibly making a whole bunch of attacks at once. This can be frustrating when it leaves heroes left out in the open so easily beaten, or when even a small gap in your lines from some unlucky rolls — and boy oh boy will those happen about every minute — is enough of an opening that you lose an objective that was previously secure.
However, I’d argue that this isn’t meant as a particularly deep game. From the lovingly crafted miniatures to the crazy abilities, cards, and the possibility of a kraken showing up to murder literally everybody, Rum & Bones is designed from start to finish as a spectacle. It’s a joy to behold, and slick as butter melted across the foredeck. Sure, it comes down to the whims of the dice more often than skill, and it isn’t the sort of game that has anyone using adjectives like “elegant.”
Instead, it’s fun to play with.
Recommended for younger players or sensible older folks who appreciate some games being big dumb fireworks shows.