Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Review: Pirate's Cove

Pirate's Cove is Days of Wonder's revamped version of Paul Randles' and Daniel Stahl's Piratenbucht. The original 2002 edition of Piratenbucht was published in German by Amigo. When Days of Wonder licensed the game for last year's (2003) U.S. release they gave it the traditional Days of Wonder once over, cleaning it up, adding lavish artwork and first class production values, and putting in several minor rules variations suggested by the board gaming community. It sold out and the eagerly anticipated 2004 re-printing has just reached stores.

In Pirate's Cove, players become bloodthirsty buccaneers and compete to be the most fearsome pirate ever to sail the seven seas! To achieve this … um … lofty? goal, players must rig their ships, hire a crew, man the cannons, search for buried treasure, and generally rule the seas. All of this must be accomplished in twelve short months (turns).

At the beginning of each turn, a treasure card is revealed on each of five islands around Pirate's Cove. Each card describes the booty and fame that will be the reward of the lucky buccaneer who succeeds in plundering the island. The reward for plundering an island is divided into four categories: fame (victory points), doubloons (used to improve your ship), treasure chests, and cards (various benefits). In addition, each of the five outer islands offers a different bonus action such as improving one aspect of your ship or letting you buy cards at the tavern. The inner island: Treasure Island is where pirates may bury their treasure chests and spare doubloons to achieve still more fame. There is also a small island called Pirate's Cove where vanquished and damaged pirate ships go to lick their wounds and repair their ships.

Once the treasure has been revealed, all players secretly chose an island to sail to. All the destinations are revealed simultaneously and the ships set sail. If any island has more than one pirate ship at it, then the pirates must fight it out to determine which one will claim the right to plunder. You may opt to flee from the battle or you may be forced to flee when your ship is crippled, but either way, the remaining pirates are going to score fame points when they see you turn tail, so it's best to be victorious.

In addition to the other players, you must be wary of famous pirates such as Blackbeard and Captain Hook who also sail the seas. End up at the same island with one of them and you may find yourself out gunned. But if you succeed in vanquishing a famous pirate then you will score several fame points.

On the surface, Pirate's Cove appears to be a relatively luck heavy game. Combat is decided with dice and the die rolls are few enough that an outgunned ship has a reasonable chance at catching a lucky break. But although the combat is very luck heavy, the game itself is really more of a battle of psychology and wits. Players who can correctly deduce where their opponents' ships are going to sail and then act accordingly are going to almost always come out ahead. There are several tradeoffs to be made here. Do you go after doubloons so you can improve your ship or do you instead concentrate on avoiding the other players and collecting treasure chests and fame? Do you spend your doubloons on your sails, allowing you to strike first in combat? Do you invest in cannons and crew so you can strike harder, although you may be striking late? Or perhaps you invest in a larger hold so you can carry around more treasure and not have to burry it quite so often?

Pirate's Cove is listed for 3-5 players but to really enjoy the game at its fullest you're going to want a full compliment of five. That's because the game is most fun when there is a high likelihood of two or more players choosing the same island. More combat generally translates to more fun. The game is still fun with three players but it's definitely more enjoyable with five.

Pirate's Cove is a very good game. It's perhaps a little heavy on the luck but there is still enough strategy to keep serious gamers interested. The theme is just plain fun. Honestly, what kid hasn't dreamed of sailing the seven seas with Long John Silver and Squire Trelawney in search of buried treasure? The production quality is first rate, with gorgeous artwork and fun sturdy pieces. On a scale of one to ten, I'd rate it a solid eight.


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