Sunday, June 25, 2006

Review: Buccaneer

Looking for a nice way for three to five people to spend 30 minutes together? Why not try Buccaneer, the latest game from Stefan Dorra and Queen games? Because nothing quite says family fun like a handful of blood-thirsty pirates!

In Buccaneer, players work together to form pirate crews which they then use to board and loot merchant ships. Whoever finishes the game with the most booty wins.


Inside the box you'll find an oversized deck of fifteen cards. Each card represents a merchant ship and is appropriately decorated with a lovely picture of a sailing ship along with some other game-related information. The artwork is well done and suits the swashbuckling theme very well. You'll also find twenty-five large colored wooden disks (five each in five player colors) and two sheets of stickers that need to be applied to the disks. The stickers are illustrated with some of the most cheerful, family-friendly pirates you've ever seen. Rounding out the components are several sheets worth of sturdy cardboard coins and sturdy cardboard loot counters. The components are all first rate. My one gripe is that although the coins come in three different denominations, they are all the same size. It's a minor gripe and one I'm happy to overlook because it doesn't seriously affect the game play.

Game Play

Each player starts the game with 10 coins and five pirates. Each of a player's five pirates has a different rank. Four of them are ranked two through five and one is marked with a question mark (?).

The cards are shuffled and three merchant ships are turned face up in the middle of the table. Each merchant ship has an associated value and it also lists how many pirates must be in the crew that attempts to board her. The smallest ships can be boarded by as few as two pirates while the largest must be boarded by at least six. Each ship also carries with it at least one category of loot (barrels, chests, cutlasses, etc.). The richer ships carry two categories of loot.

On your turn you have two possible actions: either you recruit pirates to serve in a crew or you use one of your crews to board a ship.

If you choose to recruit pirates, you take one of your pirates (or stacks of pirates), place it on top of an opponent's pirate (or stack of pirates) and place the combined stack in front of you. You should try and remember what pirates you've covered because once you've covered them you are not allowed to look through the stack. Part of the game is trying to remember which pirates are in which stack. Since each pirate is a colored disk, it's easy to tell at a glance which player's pirates are in each stack, but it's up to you to remember what rank they are.

If you have a large enough stack of pirates then you could choose to board a ship. If your stack is at least as large as the stack indicated on the card then you take the ship and claim the loot. You collect the number of coins indicated on the card and you divide the one or two loot chips associated with the card. As the captain (owner of the top disk), you'll get your first choice of loot chips. Your first mate (the owner of the next disk in the stack) will get the other chip if there is one. Now you must pay your crew. Each pirate in the stack that doesn't belong to you gets paid a number of coins equal to his rank. The pirate marked with a question mark (?) is paid a number of coins indicated on the card (the amount ranges from one to six and is different for each ship).

Players take turns either recruiting pirates or boarding ships until all three ships have been plundered. Then three more ship cards are turned over and a new round begins. After all fifteen ships have been plundered, the game ends. Players who control a majority of each loot type are awarded bonus coins and then whoever ends up with the most coins wins the game.


Buccaneer is a simple family game that can be learned in about five minutes and played in less than thirty. The swashbuckling pirate theme is well supported by the artwork and works well with the simple game mechanics. The mechanics are fairly well balanced. There are enough different ways to score points (being part of a lot of crews, making sure you loot the best ships with the cheapest crews, and positioning your pirates so that you can collect a majority of loot chips) that scores tend to be close. There are also plenty of opportunities to play spoiler by taking someone's crew just before they intend to use it or forcing a player to take a ship with an overly expensive crew.

This is a light game and the strategies are not too terribly difficult to grasp. While there's very little true randomness in the game, a lot depends on what the other players choose to do. It's very easy for another player to throw the game or play "kingmaker". An inexperienced (or malicious) player can very easily ruin your strategy so don't go into this game expecting to be able to execute a brilliant plan. Still, the thirty minute playing time means that if your strategy doesn't work for you this time, it's very likely that you'll have time to try it again soon. This is a very fun game and it's not uncommon for people to finish a game and then ask to play it again right away.

Give Buccaneer a try. You'll be glad you did matey!


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