All Shiver, No Timber

I'd make fun of this for looking like a dating sim, except the game does have dating and family, so, uh, I'll just swallow my tongue.

Michal Vitkovsky’s Shiver Me Timbers is a sandbox pirate game. To answer your question, yes, it’s similar to Christian Marcussen’s sandbox pirate game Merchants & Marauders. In more ways than one. Both see you helming your very own pirate ship, unashamedly trace their genealogy back to Sid Meier’s Pirates!, and, since Board Game Geek is basically a dating app for board games, they both catfish you into expecting a two-hour playtime when really you’ll be stuck at the table for four. Tsk tsk.

But even though the parallels are difficult to avoid, this isn’t a comparative review. Shiver Me Timbers is more interesting for the ways it stands apart.

That would be pretty nifty, though. A pirate sandbox game where you build the early map through exploration? Hmm!

No, it isn’t similar to Star Trek: Ascendancy.

Shiver Me Timbers is best when it’s producing first moments.

Like the first time you see its weird map, with its hubs and lanes, its layovers and merchant vessels ripe for plundering, its top-heavy standees for loudly announcing which goods or services are for sale at each location. It looks like the attractive, organic, play-as-you-go maps of Star Trek: Ascendancy, minus the organic and the play-as-you-go, which at least leaves attractive. It’s just nicer to look at than some boring chart of the Caribbean. How often do ships wander away from charted shipping lanes, anyway? Not very often, if Shiver Me Timbers is to be believed. As a map, it produces bottlenecks and short jaunts and long hauls. Certain passages are prime opportunities for would-be traders hoping to turn sugar and rum into doubloons. Dodging a pursuing vessel isn’t as easy as staying one move ahead. It’s a question of setting into port, avoiding pirates, maybe going the long way around. As maps go, it’s one of those abstractions that comes closer to approximating reality than more realistic portrayals can manage.

Or the first time you tinker with those modular ships. Sure, we’ve seen sails that peg into the hull. Even the underwrought Plunder let us add cannons. What about splitting your hull down the midsection and adding an entire cross-section for hauling extra cargo? Admittedly, this isn’t visual design at its keenest — the cannons are properly placed, so you can’t eyeball an approaching ship’s firepower without handling the ship or asking outright and therefore letting its owner know you see them bearing down on you — but it does manage to put all the information about a ship out there on a the table instead of pushing it into their player area.

Or the first time you board a vessel and find yourself fighting a dueling minigame that feels like the bastard offspring of BattleCON and a tug-of-war rope. Or when you find a wedding ring and propose to your beloved, only for her to insist that you first need to conquer some fortresses. Or finding your long-lost sister. Or summoning a sea serpent and getting into more of a tussle than you were expecting. Or when you limp back to port, your ship slightly broken from the last fight, looking to beg the governor for new missions so you can upgrade all over again.

10 points to whomever gets a "phone call" from their "partner" and "has to leave early because the toilet is flooding."

Each game features its own objectives.

Shiver Me Timbers revels in those moments. Not only that, it spits them out with the generosity of a pirate tavern dispensing watered-down rum. At its heart it’s a game of picking things up and delivering them to distant destinations, whether the goods being moved be cocoa or your own combat prowess. Unlike many pick-up-and-deliver games, it doesn’t want you to wait for the good stuff. There’s no scrimping and saving for an hour before you can afford your first major upgrade. A single run with your starting hold will take a few turns, but it also turns a tidy enough profit to bootstrap you toward fulfilling greater ambitions. Money matters, but it isn’t often so tight that you can’t splurge now and then.

What is there to splurge on? Plenty. That’s part of the joy of being a pirate. There are goods to haul, upgrades to accrue, missions to undertake, treasures to dig up, crewmates to pay (but only when they use abilities), and black arts to master. All in the service of fulfilling ambitions. Everything awards some amount of points at the end, but the ambitions are where the game will be won or lost. Drawn at random each game, these provide avenues to chase. Sometimes you’ll want to reunite your family, squirrel away treasures, and crack open fortresses. Other times you’ll need to send as many ships to the bottom as you can manage. Reputation is a race. Fortunately, there are enough finish lines that it isn’t too common to find yourself competing too directly.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Like I said, those first few times really are. It isn’t until they’re repeating for the fifth time, the tenth time, the fifteenth, that the luster fades. Repeat enough times and the luster begins to seem sickly. You can only pick up the tavern clap so many times before you start to wonder if maybe your bits aren’t supposed to look quite so bruised.

This system has so much potential. I don't like to talk design, but (1) have it happen less often, but (2) let us add cards to our own dueling deck over the course of play! That would be rad!

Combat is slick — the first twenty times.

I’ll give the game’s strongest example: combat.

There are two types of combat in Shiver Me Timbers, loosely speaking. Very loosely. Really there’s one, plus a way to soften up a target before you actually engage it. When you see a ship that’s too tough to tackle head-on, you can use an action to shoot at it first. There’s nothing to it. If the ship is a merchant, they take damage. If it’s a player ship, they roll to see if they take damage. There’s very little point to this damage unless you plan to board the ship. Like I said, it’s all pretty loose.

Combat, on the other hand, is portrayed as a duel. Relative strengths are compared to place a pair of dueling captains somewhere on a track, with the stronger player closer to knocking the weaker player off the “plank.” Both sides draw a few cards and play them in turn to take simple actions. If I play a high attack, you can either block it with a high guard or accept the damage to retreat farther down the track. Retreat off the edge and you lose. If not, it’s now your turn to attack me back. Special cards sometimes let you shout insults, throw sand, or swing from a rope, which translates to extra ways to block, draw cards, or force a discard.

It’s an excellent system. Simple, quick, not too prone to big swings, but still interesting enough that occasional upsets or missteps are possible. Because you’re dealing actual blows, dodging attacks, or messing with your opponent’s hand, it’s more tangible than the dice combat of Merchants & Marauders. You’re in command! You’re doing cool stuff!

Except you’re going to fight something like ten duels per player. It’s unrelenting. Attack another pirate? Fight a duel. Board a merchant vessel? Fight a duel. Attack a fortress? Fight a duel. One of the fortresses requires you to fight two duels, for seemingly no other reason than because that’s the punishment for stumbling upon the Caribbean’s wimpiest fortress. It isn’t long before duels suffer a downgrade. What was first thrilling and tangible soon becomes the topic of some muttering. Oh, you’re attacking another merchant? You’d better have the combat modifier to wipe it out entirely. Or this had better be your third action so the next player can begin his turn. Otherwise I’m gonna roll my eyes, sigh loudly, and see if anything has happened on Twitter since the last duel.

Also, everyone has THAT FRIEND who will drop something on the floor, and these gears roll like bastards.

The modular ships are a delight — the first twenty times.

This isn’t an isolated case. The same extends to everything in Shiver Me Timbers. Whether you’re playing the treasure hunting minigame, flipping through missions, searching for whichever pirate token is hiding a long-lost family member, or whatever else, Shiver Me Timbers is so generous with its portions and so flabby in its duration that it begins to resemble an endless family dinner. Yeah, roast turkey is great, but three meals a day for an entire week? Hurk.

The problem isn’t only that it’s long, although that contributes. Longer games can hold our attention by providing commensurate stakes. Here, you’re carrying out the same tasks after four hours that you were doing in the opening thirty minutes. It’s like a symphony that begins with a crescendo. After all that noise, there’s nowhere to go. I mean, maybe there is. Maybe, like a cardboard Shepard Tone, the rising action could continue forever. Shiver Me Timbers doesn’t even try.

Which is a pity, because on the whole it’s so very close to being an incredible sandbox pirate game. It’s adventurous. It knows when to be tangible and when to be abstract. It’s even jovial at times. Sadly, it’s all shiver, no timber. Or not timber enough. Or so much timber that it’s impossible to swallow. Either way, yo ho no.


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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on November 29, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Good read! Guess I won’t be selling my copy of M&M any time soon.

    One question, near the beginning you said,

    “Unlike many pick-up-and-deliver games, it doesn’t want you to wait for the good stuff. There’s no scrimping and saving for an hour before you can afford your first major upgrade.”

    But you end with,

    “Here, you’re carrying out the same tasks after four hours that you were doing in the opening thirty minutes. It’s like a symphony that begins with a crescendo. After all that noise, there’s nowhere to go.”

    Do you think a slower build up would’ve given the game a better arc? Or are the pacing issues and repetitiveness too foundational for that?

    • I suspect the problem is the latter. What Shiver Me TImbers does well, it does very well! But I wish it changed more over time. More danger, more friction between players. Better merchant ships eventually appear, but since you can nearly always bypass them they’re hardly a threat. The game never pushes back or incentivizes players to compete directly over anything. That’s a big miss from a game that uses not only the Caribbean as a setting, but as a mystical entity (rituals, sea serpents).

  2. So how much timber was SeaFall again?

    • Like zero timber.

      Oh, I dunno. I liked its first few sessions well enough. It went off the rails at some point. I can’t even remember what happened, but we soured on it HARD.

  3. I’m still hoping to play SeaFall… day.

  4. It’s a pity it doesn’t really work out, as “Sid Meier’s Pirates: The board game” is an excellent concept.

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