Blunder: A Pirate’s Life

I keep reading this like an imperative. You! You there, child! You must plunder 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.

I'm sure somebody who knows pirate history will tell me about some weirdly handsome pirate.

That’s twice as handsome as any pirate.

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.

Are these measured in nautical miles or leagues or what

Spinners are back, baby! But should they be?

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.

Gold isn't wild. Just sayin'. Don't get your hopes up.

Wood for ship?

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.

Repurpose these wee ships in a better game.

At last. Behold. Tremble.

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?

The Golden Age of Yawn.

This appears more dynamic than it truly is.

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.

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on May 13, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Thanks Dan!

  2. Nice review. I can’t say I disagree with you on any points, but my kids (11, 9, 7, and 6) really LOVE this game. Toy factor aside, the roll-and-move and high luck are great equalizers, and this game, more so than any others, has been great in making them a bit more aggressive and attacky with their siblings – and has (miraculously) led to less hurt feelings than is the norm. I’d never play this with my group, but as a family game it has been an absolute hit.

  3. Michael Kruckvich

    What if you just roll the die at the beginning of the round, and that’s everyone’s roll for that round? You’d still get the sense of being dependent on the winds, but equalize everyone’s planning for the turn.

  4. A nice review.

    It’s hip in design circles to pooh-pooh output randomness vis a vis input randomness, but people doing so forget the original form of input randomness, roll and move! But input randomness in more modern forms is still something of an odd duck, at least thematically. “I want to attack Rohan this turn, and muster some troops in Dol Guldur to be able to attack the elves. Can I do that?” “No, sorry Sauron, you rolled six ‘eyes’ this turn; I guess you actually wanted to hunt for the ring!”

    Not to carry forward a discussion from a previous review, but it seems that, as you say, this year is given us an abundant booty of pirate games, all of which are tonally playful and fun. And yet, and yet, if we worry about inaccuracies in games about colonialism or slavery, should the bad acts of pirates not also be explored? I don’t know the answer to this, I am curious as to what you think about it.

    • Good question, Jeff. Let me offer three thoughts.

      First, as I wrote in my review of Nubia, not every game has an equivalent burden to address the issues underlying their topics. Even though Settlers of Catan is about colonialism (or at least as colonialism-adjacent as possible), it plainly isn’t trying to address questions of indigenous removal, local sovereignty, or widespread ransacking of resources and cultural identity. Whether because its scope is too broad or because of its alternate (and obviously simplified) history, it isn’t capable of delivering commentary — nor should it be expected to, as that commentary would likely do a disservice to actual understanding. On the other hand, a historical game like Nubia introduces the concept of slavery forthrightly — but not necessarily accurately. As a work of history, in addition to being a work of game-making, its author invites the same degree of scrutiny I would use to examine any other work of history. As an example, not every history book about Roman politics deals with slavery, even though up to forty percent of Ancient Rome’s population was enslaved. Scope is always a major consideration in evaluating a work; which is why if a book treating the topic of ancient slavery didn’t address certain portions of that topic, it would cause me to take note. The same goes for games. Some are designed as pure entertainment, others as models of history. Personally, I evaluate them as such.

      Next, with that in mind, any designer is free to make any game they like. I’m not the boss of anyone. If somebody wants to make a game where colonialism or slavery are portrayed as the best things to ever befall a particular region or people, I welcome the challenge of evaluating their argument.

      Finally, not every topic is created equal. Colonialism and slavery are difficult topics specifically because the fractures and bruises of those institutions remain embedded in the bones and purpled on the skin of today’s societies. Piracy, on the other hand, causes me to ask two questions. One, when is the last time you suffered because of piracy? And two, isn’t the ugly underbelly of piracy technically colonialism, seeing as how most piracy was funded by seafaring nations attempting to undermine one another? Yet the flavor of piracy exhibited in most piracy games doesn’t fall into this brand of privateering; rather, the topic hews closer to ferocious individualism. This becomes an issue of scope. Every army in history has committed rape and theft, but most games don’t depict these acts because their enterprises are expressed at an operational level. Similarly, the behavior of individual pirates or the motivations behind a ship’s captain aren’t introduced into most games about piracy. Escapism is fine because it’s a function of entertainment. Nubia’s slavery was explicitly introduced as part of its historical model — and, as a model, it beckons for evaluation.

  5. Thanks Dan! I agree with you that tone makes a big difference, and certainly a historical sim is held to different standards than a breezy game. That said of course there /are/ people who judge Settlers, or more recent games like Maracaibo or Mombasa or Santa Maria by similar standards as they might judge a more historical game like Nubia. Of course, if we are not such people we don’t have to take up their cause!

    It’s true that many bad things that happened historically aren’t “on camera” at the scope of a particular game’s action state, and I think that’s an adequate answer to why no WW2 games have concentration camps, etc..

    As to the idea that things that have legacy effects should be handled more carefully, I think that’s defensible. As I said in the Nubia review, I worry slightly that it means that our attention to /historical/ detail may be compromised in pursuit of saying the “right” thing from a contemporary perspective. For example, I’m not certain (admittedly, without having played it) whether Nubia’s slavery, which seems to be unconnected to the triangular trade, /should/ take modern ideas about slavery into account. But I will definitely say that the wisest course is the one you appear to me to take: to judge a game based on its own sense of its self, what is it trying to say, what it is trying to be? This was Ebert’s great skill, and I think you do a good job of bringing that sensibility to games criticism as well!

  1. Pingback: Review: Plunder: A Pirate's Life:: Blunder: A Pirate’s Life (a Space-Biff! review) – Indie Games Only

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