Over the previous week I've played a couple games of Pirate's Cove, a board game wherein you play the part of a pirate captain struggling to become the most infamous pirate of all time. Fair enough, although if I was making a pirate game you'd be more interested in maximizing loot than building your own legend. I like loot. A lot. But anyway, you get fame by raiding the different islands, by fighting off other players, the royal navy, and the legendary pirate, who varies from game to game but tends to be someone like Blackbeard.
Quick aside; if there already is a legendary pirate, isn't the "most famous pirate ever" role already taken? I mean, you can claim that you're more famous than Blackbeard, but for that to make any sense at all Blackbeard has to be the most famous. (It's the whole "exception proves the rule" thing. Claiming you're more famous than the legendary pirate really just means that the legendary pirate is still the most famous.)
The game is largely based around an Iocane powder mechanic. Think about that scene in the Princess Bride, what with the choosing cups. There's probably a better name for that sort of mechanic; I'm looking for something that describes how you have to guess what your opponent is planning in order to plot your strategy. Since you know he's from Australia, you can figure he's probably a criminal, and since criminals aren't used to being trusted you clearly cannot trust the glass in front of him. Or you, I can't quite remember how that logic ended up. But the point is, if he's going to guess rock then you play paper, and so on. In this case, you gotta figure out where your opposing pirates are going to sail to so you can either go somewhere else and avoid a fight or go there and blast them.
Y'see, each pirate sails to one of six islands every turn. The islands all have unique functions, four of which are associated with upgrades to your ship. You want some better sails? Head on over to sail island. Only watch out for anyone else who needs to upgrade their sails. Hmm... maybe I should explain how the ships upgrade and all.
Ships have four stats: Sails, Crew, Cannons and Hull. The person with the most Sail goes first in combat. More cannons allow you to more easily blast your opponents, but you need enough crew to man the cannons. Hull allows you to hold more treasure. Ok? Combat works by attacking other people's stats. If their hull is particularly low you target their hull, and a hit drives it lower. Players lose combat when one stat is driven to zero, forcing them to retreat. Straightforward enough, right?
There are a couple things this system does right, and a couple that it does wrong. Let's start with the "right". The best thing it does is it gives you a way to build up something amazing. Generally, that's a really fun thing to do. It's fun to watch your ship go from a dinky little barque up to something that'd make an ironclad think twice. If ironclads existed at the time.
Another convenient factor about that is that you don't have to track separate hit points; your ship doesn't need extraneous stats to track damage, it changes stats that you already have reason to care about. This saves player attention (how many things they have to keep an eye on. Even for very clever players it's advantageous to not have to worry about more factors than is strictly necessary.) It also provides a realism boost in that it corresponds pretty well with how a ship would actually take damage. As a whole the system is pretty intuitive.
The other thing this combat system does really well is that it gives you legitimate choices in your attack. You can shoot his cannons down so he can't attack you, or you can shoot his sails down so you get to attack first next round. Or maybe you want to hold off on finishing him so you can damage his hull and deprive him of his precious precious loot. Only if you do that you run the risk of him getting a hit off and evening the battle up. It means combat is more than just a formality.
Combat is really great--as long as you're on the damage dealing end. And now we're into the "things the game does wrong" section. The problem with combat is that when you take damage you do a lot worse in combat. Suppose your opponent gets the first shot, and a lucky one at that. He cuts you down from four cannons to three. Already you're firing at 75% strength, if you take another hit you'll go down to only two shots per round. If he still has four or five cannons, you're pretty much screwed. Well, not really, you can still do damage with only two cannon but you're facing two to one odds.
The problem is that combat is swingy-- that is to say, a few lucky rolls can decide a battle. Playing it the other night I felt great when I took down two legendary pirates one after another (you beat one, they get replaced) in lucky battles. Playing it a few nights before that I felt terrible when I my parrot got killed in a lucky shot by the royal navy. Yeah, I should probably explain the parrots.
You can acquire a parrot in the game, which grants you special abilities. Twenty points of sail, or an unlimited capacity to carry treasure chests. They're pretty awesome. They come associated with a particular stat, and if that stat takes two points of damage in a single battle your parrot dies. You lose the ability, you lose two victory points, and you get annoyed. Partly because it's a parrot; I attach more emotional weight to the loss of a faithful animal companion than merely to a powerful ability. Even though I beat that stupid royal navy ship I wasn't very happy about the outcome of that battle.
And that's the other problem; when you attack the stats directly (or the parrots) then you're tearing down the dreadnought I've been working so hard to build. My ship won that fight; I was still the better ship and still the favorite in that particular matchup. But I was still unhappy about the outcome of that battle (Call it a Pyrrhic victory) because the game tore down the ship I had carefully constructed over several turns.
In summation, the high points of the system are that it lets you build something amazing, it's intuitive, and it gives you interesting choices in combat. The low points are that combat is swingy, and that it tends to tear down your "something amazing".
Right here is where I'm supposed to say "If I was building the game this is what I'd do differently." Unfortunately, I'm not at all clear on that. If they changed combat so it didn't reduce your stats when you're engaging in it then it wouldn't be so intuitive and it wouldn't provide the same interesting choices. It might provide other interesting choices, but as I said that's difficult to do.
But think of the dead parrots! Surely we can do something to make losing battles less random and painful. Well, we could, but should we? This is a question of what you want out of games. I tend to prefer games that are less random; that let a player get ahead on skill more than they do on luck. There's another type of gamer that positively thrives on the luck. I tend to think of these as high octane gamers; they like their highs high and their lows low and whatever else happens that the games have a lot of action. I just spent a while explaining why I think the upside of combat is too "up" and the downside too "down". For your high octane gamer that's all upside; the gamble wouldn't have the same bite if it didn't risk something important.
So in the end, all I can conclude about the game is that it wasn't really designed for me. I won't mind playing it again as the situation warrants, but it's not going to be my favorite game. And you know what? That's fine.