Review: Pirate Dice – Ramming Speed!
Pirate Dice: Voyage on the Rolling Seas is the newest Kickstarter offering from Eagle/Gryphon. Not only did I get an opportunity to play a pre-production copy of this game, but I had a chance to speak with the designer, Clint Herron, on a soon to be aired edition of House Rules. Pirate Dice is a wonderfully engaging game that limits down time while creating a spectacularly fun atmosphere.
(All pictures are my pre-production copy. The final version will have upgraded components.)
The Basics. Once upon a time, Pirate Dice was known as RoboDerby Express, and was essentially a revamped version of RoboRally tuned for 2-4 players. After it was picked up by Eagle/Gryphon, it then went through a few cosmetic and rules changes to become Pirate Dice. However, the core of the game remains essentially unchanged. Players simultaneously select actions and then ram into one another.
Players each command a pirate ship. The goal is to get to the other end of the map, grab the treasure, and then bring it back to the starting tile. The player who does so is the victor. However, it isn’t as simple as all that. Players also have five dice. The dice are not identical and each side might, say, move forward one to three spaces, move backwards, turn right or left, drift right or left, or have vicious skullduggery (more on that later). Each player rolls his five dice, places at least one on his board, and then re-rolls. Again, at least one must be placed and the rest can be rolled.
Once all players have selected their rolls, they perform them simultaneously. So if I played “turn right, move forward, drift right, move forward” as my four dice, then that’s exactly what I’d do. Most of the time, since players are a few squares apart, the moves can be taken simultaneously without bumping into one another. When players are close, though, they can easily collide and push one another all over the map. Because the actions are selected in advance, being pushed even one square to the right can cause a carefully plotted course to turn disastrous.
Your ship can also be damaged. You can be rammed by other players or shot after each turn (sometimes in the middle of a turn). You start at 6 health, but as you lose health bad things start to happen. Once you hit 4 health, your last action selection becomes “locked,” meaning you no longer pick it up and roll it. Instead, you will perform that action every turn until you heal. With 3 health, your last two actions become locked, and so on until you hit 1 health and all actions are locked. Get to zero and you’re sunk. Repair is easy, though, just skip a turn to heal three points.
And then there is Skullduggery. Not every die has skullduggery on it. They are rare because they are powerful weapons, and there are two kinds. When rolled, the anchor can be placed and pointed at an opponent. Instead of doing whatever he had placed in that action slot, he does nothing instead. Somehow or another, his crew accidentally dropped anchor. The more vicious skullduggery roll, though, is the rum barrel. The player it points to must pick up the die that he was going to use in that action slot and re-roll it. He must accept the result. Drunken sailors forget their orders. Either form of skullduggery one can throw a set course way out of whack.
Finally, when the treasure is picked up, the treasure ship must make its way back through its opponents as those same opponents try to fire cannons and ram them all the way back. Sink that ship and someone else can pick up the treasure. The treasure bearer heals damage less well, and takes damage for picking it up, but they are the only one that can win.
The Feel. Shockingly, surprisingly, fun. I’m not a fan of dice games in general. They tend to be clunky and have too much luck for my taste. But Pirate Dice is a particular treasure. The game is full of laughs and threats of revenge. It is amazingly fun to shoot your friend in the face with your pirate ship. It’s even better to rum his first action and send him spinning off into a whirlpool or current that takes him who knows where. And, you know what, it’s fun when it happens to you, too.
Pirate Dice is highly interactive. Not only are you trying to outmaneuver and shoot each other on the board, but you are also bashing into one another, targeting your foes with skullduggery, and immediately seeing the impact of your decisions. Unlike some strategy games where it can take several turns to realize your plans and sink your opponents, in Pirate Dice the carnage is immediately manifest.
And the laughter! Pirate Dice really provides a fun environment for a group. Sure, you might get sent careening away on a particular turn, but you come back and do it to someone else. And, just when you think you are about to pick up the treasure, the dice roll up in a combination that prevents it. Similarly, when you think you are too far back, the dice are suddenly kind and away you go. Plus, by having to pick up the treasure and bring it back, it avoids a runaway leader problem. Even if I get to the treasure first by a mile, I still have to make it back through my opponents in order to win.
There is one major area of concern, though, and that’s game length. Two and even three player games go relatively quickly. But a four player game can be more … substantial. Now, the rules do include a sinking limit. After you sink three times you are out. Since I detest player elimination, I tried a game without it. Now, we were very aggressive and we constantly sunk one another. But that particular game went 3.5 hours! That’s 210 minutes for those of you keeping track at home. Way long. Way, way long. I suggested calling it long before that time, but others wanted to continue and darned if I’m going to spoil the fun. And, as a reminder, we did not play with the player elimination called for in the rules. Had we done so, the game would have been shorter.
But, you know what, it was fun. Maybe not every one of those 210 minutes was fantastic, but certainly a good majority of them. And not just at the beginning. Even after I started to feel like the game had gone on too long, there would be tense struggles and furious battles. There would be hilarious misfortunes and bold moves. The game would become exciting. Then, go on longer. Then more excitement and laughter. It’s very hard to imagine a 3.5 hour dice game being any fun, but Pirate Dice was.
I spoke with the designer afterward and the rules are still going through final playtesting. There are already improvements to the game that will shorten the time with four players. So, thanks to some brave play testers out there, you will be spared. With the final rules, a four player game should now last no longer than an hour or so.
Components: NA. My copy is pre-production. The dice are generic and have simple stickers to mark the sides. The Kickstarter proclaims that the real dice will be beautiful wooden cubes. My maps have great artwork, but are thin. With Eagle/Gryphon behind the project, I know that this thing is going to have some serious component quality. So, I don’t feel comfortable giving it a components rating based on my pre-production copy.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 3.5 of 5. That is a darn high score for a dice game. Even though there are gobs of luck in the game there are a lot of decisions and opportunities for the players. Unlike RoboRally which gave you a hand of cards you were stuck with, Pirate Dice allows you to re-roll those bad boys. So, at worst, you get one bad action slot and then you can re-roll the rest to try to improve your position. Though the game has a lot of unpredictability, the player never feels completely out of control.
Mechanics: NA. Once again, the rules are currently being refined. So I’m not completely comfortable giving a score. At best, I’d be telling you what my experience was like on beta-version rules. If I had to pick a score, I’d give it a 3. All of the rules make for an enjoyable, exciting, and often tense experience. But the game length with four players was a major drawback. However, this should be much less of an issue by the time the game actually prints. Still, it would be nice to have some minimal method of dice manipulation to help with the really crazy rolls.
Replayability: 4 of 5. Whatever else Pirate Dice is, it is immensely replayable. The maps can be arranged in all sorts of configurations and swapped out for varied experiences. Plus, with the uncertainty of the dice, you never know what path will prove to be the one that leads to victory. While there are general tips for gaining the advantage, ultimately, each game will prove to be unique.
Spite: 4 of 5. There are lots of “take that” moments in this game. Ramming speed, shooting opponents, skullduggery, it’s all there. Even a single anchor or rum barrel can completely foil the best laid plans of an opponent. Of course, they are a rare and must be rolled, and you do have the option to use them as a shield to protect you rather than a sword to attack opponents. But, ultimately, you will be targeted for piratey destruction.
Overall: 3.5 of 5. Despite the game length, Pirate Dice provides extremely enjoyable experiences (alliteration FTW! (FTW is still a thing, right?)). Laughter, trash talk, destruction, kaboom noises shouted with excitement from grown men. Yes, these are the results of Pirate Dice. Pirate Dice had some of the belly laugh generating appeal that you usually only find in the best party games. And that feel was put into a strategy/luck game package. For those reasons, Pirate Dice is incredibly fun and should be played and enjoyed by everybody. Once the rules fix the game length issue, I can see this score easily jumping up to a 4.
(A special thanks to Clint Herron for providing a pre-production copy of Pirate Dice).