Author: Reiner Knizia





A game with a rather strange history came in 2005 from a publisher from whom you would have expected it last. The game I am talking about is Pirates! from RAVENSBURGER, a family boardgame developed by Reiner Knizia which astonishingly so far is not available in Germany.

Due for unknown reasons, the german publisher RAVENSBURGER had decided against publishing this game in Germany, but this decision somehow did not prevent the international branch of RAVENSBURGER to publish a multi-language (german, english, french, italian, dutch) version of the game and to release it in the Netherlands! To my knowledge, this kind of publishing strategy - not to release a game in the country of the company seat - is rather unknown from any games publisher, and thus you might imagine that I was rather curious to get some first-hand impressions on the playability of the game. Having missed the oppurtunity to buy the game from a small dutch dealer at the SPIEL 05, I thus endeavoured to place an order with a games store in Belgium and about two weeks later I got my hands on a copy of Pirates!.

As the title undeniably suggests, the game is about the golden age of Buccaneers in the Caribbean, and each of the players sets out with a ship to plunder colonial fortresses and enemy ships. A player`s ship has a total of six holding spaces (each is assigned a number from one to six), and at the beginning of the game a player decides how he wants to equip his ship by placing either a pirate or a cannon figure at each of the holds. To finish preparations, a total of 10 fortress markers is randomly mixed and one marker is placed face down on each of the fortresses on the gameboard. Once the players have positioned their ships in the common Pirate Harbour, they may host sails and start on a voyage to acquire riches and fame...

A player`s turn is split in two action phases. In the first phase a player may either move or attack, while in the second phase he may either attack or repair.

  • When deciding to move the ship, the player is allowed to move it as many spaces as he has pirate figures on his ship, representing the fact that a well-manned ship is better at navigating. A ship with no pirates left may only move one space by floating along the waves. Spaces occupied by other ships mean no obstacle, since a space can hold any number of ships.
  • An attack may be made either against a fortress in a neighbouring space or against an enemy ship in the same space, but only if the player who wants to make the attack has at least one pirate figure and one cannon left on his ship. When making an attack against a fortress, the fortress marker of that fortress is revealed (if it had not been revealed already) and a number of cannons and soldiers (the garrison of the fortress) and treasure chests as shown on the marker is placed on the fortress.
    The attack against a ship or a fortress then is resolved by first the attacker and then the defender rolling a number of dice corresponding to the number of cannons left in possession of the dice-roller, and for each dice the correspondingly numbered hold either on the attacked ship or fortress is checked. If such a hold still contains a figure or a cannon, that piece is hit and removed.
    The combat is won by the party who is the last to have both at least one cannon and one crew member left, but it should be noted here that an attack only lasts for one full round so that no winner may be found at all. However, if there is a winner, that party is allowed to take all treasure chests from the losing party and place it on his ship (even a fortress may acquire additional chests this way). The only restriction here is that a ship may carry only a maximum of six treasure chests, and that - once at least one chest has been loaded - a ship loses its sixth hold since all treasure chests will be placed there. Thus, if a ship has loaded six treasure chests, it may take no more and must return to Pirate Harbour to unload the chests to the player`s secure depot.
  • Finally, a player also may opt to repair, and this is option is useful when a ship has lost its crew or cannons during previous battles. When in Pirate Harbour, a player may initiate a total repair, re-filling his ship with his choice of pirates and cannons. On sea, the resources are more limited, so that a player may only re-fill two empty holds or exchange the contents of up to two holds from pirates to cannons and vice versa. This also gives a player on sea to adjust the basic balance of his ship between more speed or more firepower, although it takes up an action phase to do so.

The game comes to its end instantly upon plundering the tenth and final fortress, or once a player has acquired the majority of treasures available in the game. The game then is won by the player who has most treasures either on his ship or in his depot at Pirate Harbour.

The game comes equipped with a nicely designed gameboard and playing pieces (the pirates being used in Um Ru(h)m und Ehre as well), but I guess the most interesting question about Pirates! is whether this game is a "Reiner Knizia game"? Even by reading this review a player with knowledge of other Knizia games must have come to the conclusion that the rules of Pirates! are considerably lighter than those of most other Knizia games, and thus I would call this game at least quite atypical because of its relatively high element of luck due to the solving of battles by rolling dice.

However, it would be a bit too easy to found a final evaluation on this element of luck and thus call the game a "typical family boardgame", since an element of strategy creeps into the game through the facts that a player constantly has to decide on the outfitting of his ship and on the course of action he wants to take. Thus, it may be a good choice to start raiding a fortress when no other player is around, but the presence of other ships in the vicinity might also discourage a player from plundering a fortress since there is a constant danger that a player`s ship will get so damaged that it might fall easy prey to another pirate.

I have seen players concentrate on intercepting other ships, and although this way of action is not enough to guarantee a full victory, a well-timed interception at some point of the game quite effectively can turn around a game which had seen a clear leader. Also, especially multiplayer games with four to six participants tend to get quite a lot of direct player interaction due to the relatively small gameboard and sea battles arising once the closer fortresses have been raided, and it is especially this element of direct confrontations between the players from which the game draws much of its attractiveness and playing fun.

To answer the raised question: No, this game is not a "Reiner Knizia game" in its usual sense. To be honest, while reading the rules I got an impression that I somehow knew the game without ever playing it, a factor which I would associate to the fact that the rules are assembled from a collection of ideas which are absolutely not new in gaming terms. Thus, the game misses the special "Knizia touch", and may in so far best compared with Knizia`s electronic boardgame King Artur which was also released by RAVENSBURGER. However, here the similiarites end, since Pirates! offers a far greater deal of strategy, player interaction and fun than King Arthur. While playtesting I enjoyed especially the good competitive spirit in the game, and thus I do not regret that I took the task to track down a store who actually sells the game. It will stay in my collection, both for its playability and the fact that it is somewhat an oddity for its release being limited to the Netherlands.

Looking for this game? Visit Funagain Games!

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Copyright © 2006 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany