Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Pirate Den, By Bo Radakovich

Pirate Den cover (not final art)Ahoy mateys, and welcome to the Pirate Den. I'm yer captain, JRrrrrrrr, and I'll be watchin' from the mainstay while ye and yer mangy chums scrub the decks... and plunderin' treasure from ships floatin' about the vast blue sea. Yo ho! 

Pirate Den is on Kickstarter as of March 10th. The designer, Bo Radakovich, is a friend of mine and asked me to review it. We played Pirate Den on launch day for the campaign, and filmed an episode of Back It! to go with it. After one game I was hooked, and I can't wait until I'm playing this at my friendly local game store with all my buddies.

In Pirate Den, 3-5 players take on the role legendary pirates, competing to amass the most wealth before the game ends. Each turn players select an action card and play it face down, then those cards are revealed simultaneously and tokens are taken from the center piles, stolen from other players, or buried and scored permanently.

Players are trying to complete sets of tokens, either in the form of 10 of a single color (red, yellow, or blue) or 3 of each color. When buried, these sets are worth 10 points each and cannot be stolen. The game ends when a player buries his or her 5th set, at which point the pirate captain with the most treasure - points from sets, plus one point per leftover treasure token - proudly flies the Jolly Roger as the most feared captain of them all!

Pirate Den has simple rules that lead to elegant game play, and I'm a BIG fan of games that let me bluff, connive, convince, and persuade my way to victory. This is such a game, and has the added quality of being very, very easy to learn.

Players start with a hand of 11 cards, each of which has a number, and 10 of which have at least one of the colors. The number indicates the order in which the cards resolve in a round, and the colors dictate which of the tokens players get to take onto their ship (a player mat) during the round. Additionally, players receive 5 random tokens drawn from the bag.

Pirate Den player mat with rules summary.
Not final art
Each round begins with a handful of tokens (18, 21, or 25 for 3, 4, or 5 players respectively) drawn from a bag and separated by color (red, yellow, blue) in the middle of the table. Players then choose a single card from their hand, lay it face down on the table, and simultaneously reveal once all players have selected an action. The cards are resolved, then are sent to the discard pile.

Each round the cards resolve from low to high:
0: Bury treasure - the player immediately turns in as many sets of tokens as desired, then returns this card and his or her discard pile to his or her hand.
1: There are three cards, one for yellow, red, and blue. The player takes the entire center pile of tokens of that color.
2: There are three cards, one for yellow & blue, blue & red, and red & yellow. The player takes all tokens of BOTH colors printed on the card.
3: Take all three piles of colored tokens. This card resolves last, but allows players to claim all tokens in the center pile.
4: There are three cards, one for yellow, red, and blue. The player steals ALL the tokens of the color from the player who has the MOST tokens of that color. If two or more players are tied for the most tokens of that color, or if the player who is stealing has the most of that color, nothing happens.

By playing these cards players are selecting from three basic actions: protecting themselves (burying treasure), attacking other players (stealing their treasure), or attacking ships at sea (taking tokens from the table). The great drama of Pirate Den is in figuring out when to play it safe and when to take risks, how much treasure is too much for your compatriots to ignore and how to bait them into stealing from you - and getting nothing after you safely put your treasure underground.

There's a tradeoff between getting tokens of multiple colors, and getting tokens before any other players. If you play your "1" card, you get to take all the tokens of a single color, and your only risk is that you'll tie with another player (in which case you split the booty down the middle). Any player who played a "2" card with that color, or the "3" card, gets nothing. But, if you think your opponents are all burying treasure in a round, or stealing from each other (because you've got a small pile), you could play your "3" card and luck into taking the entire pot.

Bo has done a wonderful job of matching theme with mechanics with Pirate Den. Playing the game successfully requires more than just a quick wit and good guessing - you've got to keep a keen eye on the cards your opponents have already played (discard piles are face down) and have a good sense for who's going to do what, and when. Good play is as much about instinct as it is about prediction, and keeping the other players on their toes takes a mix of tall tales and bluffing your hat off.

Bury your treasure before your friends find your loot!
When we say "you" bury, you know what we mean. Leaders gotta lead!

I love this game, as it lets me do a lot of the things I love in life: tell stories, brag about my plunderings, and bemoan my losses to kindred spirits who only listen because I may drop a hint as to where I'll sail next. If you're a fan of bluffing/bidding and light, elegant games that play quickly but have high replayability, then Pirate Den is likely a great fit for you.

At $25 for the base game, or $50 for the deluxe game with stones instead of cardboard tokens, this is a reasonable value for the components. You'll play this game a TON, and it's easy to break out in between games, or at dinner with your friends (at a Thai restaurant while waiting on a to-go order, in our case). At the very least, give the Pirate Den campaign a good look and decide for yourself if you've got what it take to be a legendary pirate!

JR and Bo on Back It!: 

See the Pirate Den Kickstarter page for a detailed description of the project and a game play video.

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. 

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