Saturday, September 17, 2005

Review: Plunder

Plunder is a game by Karl and Julianne Lepp from a relatively new company: Laughing Pan Productions. It's a strategic card game for 2-4 players with a strong piracy theme. This is essentially their breakthrough game and if this game is any indication of things to come then things are looking pretty good.
The first thing you're bound to notice about plunder is the treasure chest shaped box that it comes in. The box is small, about 3" x 5" x 2", but they've packed it solid with a surprising number of bits. Inside you'll find a deck of about 100 cards, four fold-out paper playing mats, four fold up cardboard ships, and several punch sheets full of counters: flags, coins, and goods markers. You also get a couple of nice bags to keep the coins and flags in. Given that this is coming from a fledgling publisher, the production quality isn't bad at all. It's not as lavish as some of the stuff we're used to from some of the more established publishers but it's quite serviceable and I completely appreciate having so much stuff packed into such a small package. I wish that all of the games in my collection were so space conscious.
My biggest complaint about the components is with the paper ships. It sure would have been nice if Laughing Pan had included some real ship tokens with the game instead of just paper fold-ups. It's a minor thing but they are the most important bits in the game and flimsy paper just seems a little cheap.
The basic idea of the game is to explore the seas looking for ships you can plunder. When a ship is spotted you can choose to pursue the ship, fight it, board it and plunder it. Prize ships can be taken, cargo plundered, and crew thrown overboard to Davy Jones' Locker. Goods and prize ships can be sold for treasure. Goods and ships can also be bought and sold through more legal means. Political enemies and alliances can be formed. All of this in a card game!
Each player is given a ship and a playing mat which is used to track his or her progress. Each player also receives a hand of six cards and a starting stash of five silver coins.
The cards have multiple uses. Some cards are played on the table and become part of the map. These cards represent open sea, ports, and coastlines. Other cards describe events that can be played to help or hinder the players. And still other cards represent ships which can be purchased at port or plundered on the high seas.
At the start of the game, players begin with their ships on the Tortuga port card. From there, they can explore in any direction in hopes of finding other lands or ships.
On your turn you first have the option of moving your ship. If you have a map card in your hand, and if there is an open space next to your ship then you may add the card to the board, effectively expanding the map of the known seas. Whether or not you played a map card, you may move your ship to an adjacent card. You may move multiple times on your turn. Every time you move your ship you get to draw a card into your hand. If your hand already has seven cards then you can't move. Furthermore, you can only change direction once during your turn and once you make landfall, you must stop.
Next you get to take an action. An action might be playing a card, or it might be purchasing or selling goods or ships. You might encounter a ship at sea and plunder it. You might decide to get a letter of marque from a warring country, aligning yourself with that country's interests and opening up the possibility of having that country purchase your ill-gotten goods, or in other words, having that country reward you for practicing piracy against other nations.
As the last action of your turn, you must play a card (if you have one) on the player to your left. If that player is in an area where the card can take effect then she must do what it says; otherwise she simply discards it at the start of her turn.
Whenever ships come into contact with one another, there may be combat. In order to take a ship you have to overcome certain challenges. First you must be able to catch the ship. Next you must go broadsides and attack the ship with your cannons. Finally you must board her and defeat her crew. Only then will you get to take the ship as a prize and plunder her cargo.
Each of these things is accomplished by comparing your ship's speed, cannon, and crew numbers to that of the ship you are attacking. If any of your numbers are less than the corresponding numbers on the other ship you will fail unless you can produce a card whose number brings you to at least a tie.
This is usually not too hard to do, so long as you have cards in your hand. In this game, running out of cards can be a very bad thing. And since the only way to get more cards is to sail, you had best make sure that you are always near some open seas.
Laughing Pan got a lot right with this game. I love the small box. I love the colorful theme, which is very well done indeed. The way the cards all do double duty and the idea of using sailing as a hand management mechanism are very clever and work pretty well. It's a fun game and it's relatively quick to play.
There are a couple of areas where the game falls short. Obviously there are some production issues. This game was not done completely on the cheap but neither was it lavishly produced. Also, sometimes the artwork makes it difficult to read the text on the cards. Those issues are really pretty minor. More serious to me is how very luck intensive this game can be. Some of the cards are really quite powerful while others don't seem to be good for much at all. Most of the time the winner will be decided by luck rather than strategy. For a game that's mostly about theme, this isn't really a killer. I don't mind a luck heavy game provided the theme is well done and the game is entertaining and Plunder succeeds on both of those points.
My most serious complaint is that the rules are sometimes confusing as written and there were a lot of edge cases that they left unaddressed. If you’re the type that likes to be sure that you're playing the game as the designer intended (and I am) then you may find yourself going to Board Game Geek or to the game's FAQ for clarification on a few issues.
Some of the gameplay issues can be addressed by using the Commodores rules, an advanced rule set that's available as a free download in PDF form from the game's fan site. The Commodores rules make the game a bit more strategic while allowing the game to be played by six players and adding some additional elements like fleets.
In the end the pros far outweigh the cons. Plunder is a darn fine game. It's original, it's steeped in theme and it's a lot of fun. If you ever feel the urge to sail the seven seas in search of fame and fortune then crack open that small treasure chest and go get yerself some Plunder matey!


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