Gentlemen of Fortune
Pirates are all the rage. Something must be in the water. Brine. Rum. Scurvy.
Dead Reckoning is John D. Clair’s attempt to leach the lemon juice from our water supply. Don’t take that as an insult. It’s a scurvy joke. Because scurvy is caused by vitamin-C deficiency. To keep their gums from becoming bleeding pits, sailors would drink lemon juice. It’s also where we get “limey,” because the British Navy forced its sailors to drink lime juice, except lime juice doesn’t have enough vitamin-C to offset scurvy, so ha ha, the British Navy was drinking lime juice for nothing.
What were we talking about? Oh, right. Dead Reckoning.
I want to begin by asking a question. Not a rhetorical question. An actual question with actual answers. Feel free to jot down some thoughts before we continue. Here it is:
What should a pirate game feel like?
You can answer however you’d like. Personally, though, my answer is informed by a lot of things. Old pirate movies about swashbuckling heroes and villainous baddies. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, whose Jim Hawkins was a stand-in for a million adventure-starved boys. Black Flag, the Assassin’s Creed game that finally put some joy into the series. Black Sails, the TV show Starz produced to try and replace Spartacus, but without even trying to reproduce any of its predecessor’s charisma. That ride at Disneyland — and not just the ride, but its smell, its dampness, how it thrilled me as a kid, how I loved to eat at its attached restaurant with the occasional shooting star overhead and the fake chirp of crickets and the distant screams as the boats went down that first waterfall. Muppet Treasure Island. Probably Muppet Treasure Island more than anything.
Dead Reckoning is about pirates. Perhaps more accurately, it’s about explorers, traders, builders, ferrymen, shipwrights, and merchants who sometimes raise the skull and crossbones. From humble beginnings, you take to the seas, flip tiles with islands on them, conquer those islands, build structures on those islands, harvest those islands for goods and gold, and then pester the islands of any nearby foes. It’s a scattershot game, unfocused, with a gaze that lands anywhere but on the experience of being a pirate.
With one enormous, fantastic exception.
By my count, Dead Reckoning is Clair’s fourth attempt to turn AEG’s Card Crafting System into a name we wouldn’t have to look up to remember. I never had the pleasure of playing Custom Heroes or Edge of Darkness, so I shouldn’t draw too many comparisons lest I speak out of school. I’ll put it this way: the system has come a long way since its debut in Mystic Vale. A deck-builder at heart, Dead Reckoning never asks you to add a card to your deck. Or even subtract a card, at least until its first saga expansion. Instead, you begin with twelve cards — card sleeves, really — and will end with twelve cards. Along the way, these will be transformed one rotation and insert at a time. In the first case, every card comes with a starter that can be rotated and flipped as the card levels up. In the second, out among the seas are translucent inserts that can be purchased or raided, sliding into your sleeves to add new functions and bonuses.
Rather smartly, each card represents a member of your ship’s crew. It’s an abstracted approach, to be sure, but their persistent nature personalizes them in a way that, say, Dominion’s Bureaucrat and Bandit cards could never reach. Their upgrades are made in between turns, a knowing concession to the game’s significant downtime, but leveling up a card is a nifty way to pass the time, and five minutes is enough room to make a decision, experience sales regret, and settle on just the right member of your crew. The upgrades themselves are sometimes straitjacketed: you can’t build forts and colonies until you get the First Mate to his second level, your Gunners don’t initially have access to cannons, and the Bosun can’t perform ship upgrades until level three, at which point you might as well wait a turn to gain access to the advanced upgrades of level four.
But for all its attendant irritations, this system fosters a real sense of connection. If not at an emotional level, then as a sign that you’ve planned ahead. There’s a sense of relief to be found in drawing a much-needed Deck Hand when you’re too laden to sail, a leveled-up Crew when supplies have run low, or that jerk the Buccaneer when it’s time to flip an island’s control into your favor. Even better when you’ve stumbled across inserts that make their powers all the more impactful.
Because, really, isn’t that what pirate stories are about? Not upgrades, silly — the crew. So many pirate games mistakenly leave out the people manning the ships. Pirate stories aren’t only about sailing open waters and pillaging settlements and improperly lacing up corsets. They’re about personalities working in tandem. That’s the entire concept behind a crew. And it’s what Dead Reckoning does best.
By a large margin, in fact. The card-crafting is so well done, providing such high winds, that the rest of the game is direly becalmed by comparison.
Most of the time, your ship is a glorified ferry. Your crew generates goods at your home port. You pick up those goods, sail out onto the seas, and use them to purchase inserts. While you’re out there, you take control of islands. These generate coins to ship back home.
Of course, there’s some rough sailing along the way. Not literally — the map is bland, with little sense of geography apart from the occasional “trade wind,” a span of empty ocean that increases the income of nearby islands. Rather, in the sense that opposing players will likely squat in your path, either as pirates or by setting up cannons on their islands. That first option is something of a disappointment, a means by which you initiate battle on your off-turn. Cannons, meanwhile, are irritating, but they’re irritants that can be largely ignored, dealing a pip of damage and locking you out of interacting with their island. There are also cannons’ big brother, forts, which transform islands into real tough nuts to crack. In both cases, these exist mostly to force battles so you can resume the game’s dull but essential tug-of-war for control. The lion’s share of your endgame score will come from control. This is a pity, since it’s an area majority contest that’s closer to a chore than an adventure. Returning to an island to splash a few extra cubes onto its beach is about as interesting as swabbing a deck, but at least your shipboard tasks have been rounded out of the design.
It certainly doesn’t help that combat is slapstick in its vacillation. I don’t know what it is about pirate games that turns combat into a capsizing rogue wave, but that’s the case here. Both combatants drop cubes of their color into a cube tower, where they’re spilled onto a grid that assigns plunder and damage and victory. The rules tell you to drop the cubes from a specific height. I’ve experimented with various heights and degrees of force and pre-jumbles of cubes, and the result is nearly always that the cubes are scattered as far as possible and there’s no telling who will emerge triumphant. I don’t mind some pepper in my combat systems, but when one or two cubes regularly beat five or six cubes, I get the sense that there are no odds to play. It’s a bad sign when a game leaves me wishing for a simple die roll.
The game settles into a numbing motion, in and out, in and out, like the tide if you had to keep tucking cubes into tide pools to keep the tide from halting. Apart from adding cubes and dropping cubes, there isn’t much to do. Hauling goods isn’t interesting; with only one type available, there’s no sense of beating a rival to fill an important order or nab a surplus from an overcrowded market. There’s no smuggling. There are no nations to interact with; it’s a pirate game without anybody to pirate from but other pirates. There are no pirate-hunters or Spanish treasure galleons or winds or storms. There are favorable islands, but usually only because they yield more points at the end of the game. It isn’t that these all need to appear in every pirate game. It’s that there are very few of what I call “gameplay verbs.” This is reflected in the encounter cards, which may appear on the map in lieu of the usual inserts. In the base game, there’s only one encounter type, a merchant vessel, which you can either purchase or attack, effectively repeating two of the game’s three verbs without deviation. The saga expansions add more encounters. Some of these are more adventurous, burying special items in a deck or trickling new encounters into later games. Others attempt to inject some narrative into Dead Reckoning, complete with snippets read from a booklet. These are uneven, often resulting in yet another cube-spill of combat, but welcome nonetheless. Unfortunately, this slow drip of encounters presumes I want to play Dead Reckoning multiple times to see its best ideas — a request not sustained by the underlying play.
What should a pirate game feel like? I’m not strict about it. At times, Dead Reckoning sails into the proper range, putting its crew front and center, letting me dodge cannons and brave the unknown. I want to love this life. To breathe it in. To embark on its adventure. Too often, though, I’m untangling rigging and patching sails and peeling potatoes. For all the calmness of its seas, Dead Reckoning proves uneven.
A complimentary copy was provided.