Blunder: A Pirate’s Life
Pirates are this year’s Cthulhu. That isn’t a complaint. If anything, piracy as we popularly portray it is a democratizing force, the revenge of the have-nots against the haves. Never mind how the have-nots somehow got their yo-ho-hoing mitts on a frigate in the first place. Forced redistribution was never so soaked in rum. Or so gleefully vicious.
And then there’s Plunder: A Pirate’s Life, which is about as gleeful as watching your frigate get pulled apart plank by plank by a whirlpool. At least it understands that pirates and board games are both meant to look good.
Bear with me while I dissemble for a moment.
Not all game mechanisms are created equal. This isn’t to say there are any inherently “good” or “bad” options. They’re tools. And like tools, there are times when you need a flathead screwdriver and times when you need a screwdriver for driving weird star-headed screws. Just because you’ll use the first one a hundred times for every appearance of the second doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate them both in the moment of their need.
But also like tools, some mechanisms are easier to work with than others. Take deck-building. Dominion spawned a billion imitators because even a rudimentary understanding of deck-building provides a few baked-in strategies. As long as you stick to the usual archetypes, the proper cards will allow for gradual deck powering, winnowing, combo-making. Cards that draw extra cards are always valuable. Cards that get rid of crappy cards are valuable earlier than later. Cards that riff off of other cards are conditionally valuable. And so forth. In the toolbox of game design, deck-building is a flathead screwdriver, much like dice-rolling and action point allotment and multi-use cards. They can be used, and more importantly used relatively effectively, with very little effort.
And then there’s roll-and-move. In this analogy, roll-and-move is a chainsaw that hasn’t been properly oiled, hasn’t had its chain tightened, and, oh yeah, you haven’t read the user manual or purchased the proper safety equipment. You can still use the thing. It’s still a viable tool. But there are risks that any trained operator should know going in.
As a product, Plunder: A Pirate’s Life is adorable in that toy-like sense that shouts gimme gimme. Even better, its ships are visual masterpieces. Each one starts with three crewmen for hit points; lose all three and it’s into the murky depths with ye. Over time, plunder can be swapped for upgrades. Masts let you travel faster, while cannons add +1 bonuses whenever you roll in battle. Nothing is hidden. When you want to go up against an opponent’s ship, everything important is communicated at a glance. Crud, less than a glance. The colors are so vividly realized, the figures so fully established, that relative strengths make themselves known without even the advantage of a direct look.
As a game, some of that toy appeal manages to creep into the actual process of play. The spinners, for one. Whenever you need to place the X that marks the location of a treasure, you spin for the grid coordinates. Similarly, whenever somebody rolls a 1 for their movement, the storm moves in the same manner, very mildly inconveniencing anyone in the vicinity. As a method of randomizing loot and storms, there’s really nothing wrong with using a pair of spinners. If anything, they come across like an artifact straight out of childhood, one of those silly things that went the way of the dinosaur along with dice poppers and Heath Robinsonian mousetraps. “Why don’t we see spinners in games anymore?” someone asks, forgetting how your childhood’s only spinner came to favor a small range of numbers as the cardboard warped from humidity. It’s a good question. Spinning for coordinates is a joy.
More of a joy, anyway, than rolling to see what you’re permitted to do on your turn.
What does a pirate in Plunder: A Pirate’s Life get up to? Pretty much what you’d expect. You can chase down treasure, conquer islands, sink enemy vessels, or spend loot on upgrades or extra ships. Nearly everything yields loot and points, and the first pirate to ten points wins. Notably, most of these actions aren’t really “actions” as we customarily understand them. They’re things you do when you’re near something else. Sitting in port? You can attack that port. Sailing alongside another vessel? You can attack that vessel. Squatting on an X? You can loot its treasure.
Instead of using actions, everything is metered according to the die you roll at the start of your turn. Roll a 3, for example, and you can move your ship(s) up to three times, although ships with masts can move two or three spaces for each spent pip of the die. The game settles into its rhythm almost immediately. Roll that die, collect a loot card for every island you control, tap your ship a few spaces, now it’s somebody else’s turn.
As you might expect, the experience is uneven. For one thing, there’s the obvious deflation that comes from rolling a low number and finding your ship becalmed while everyone else moves like they’re chasing a gale. For another, because you don’t know whether you’ll be moving one space or six, there’s never any reason to plan out what you’ll be doing. Sure, there’s the nearest X to chase, and you might be hoping for a particular loot card so you can afford a cannon to attack a vulnerable island. But that exhibits about as much player agency as planning your route to the grocery store. If you need gas, you’ll stop by the gas station. If you have a package, you’ll swing by the mail bin. If you don’t have either of those things, you’ll travel in a straight line from A to B with nary a diversion or snake’s hand or second thought apart from what to listen to on the radio.
Just as the spinners are a trifle out of childhood, so too is Plunder’s usage on roll-and-move a sin straight out of old, bad board game design. Almost no element of the game goes unspoiled. Fairness to younger players? Except there’s no reason a younger player will roll better than an adult. Thrilling randomness? Not when it leads to tediousness rather than excitement. The whimsical wholesomeness of family games? Plenty of modern games let me have the best of both worlds. A simulation of the capriciousness of the weather? What, are we the only captains who don’t know how to tack into an unfavorable wind?
More’s the pity, because the care that was poured into Plunder: A Pirate’s Life is apparent in every other regard. Imagine a game like Merchants & Marauders given this much attention. There would hardly be any reason to play anything else.
Instead, Plunder is beautiful but hollow, designed with a keen eye for aesthetics and little else. Yo-ho-nope.
A complimentary copy was provided.