The game comes in a handsome wooden box, cruising casually through the sea of cardboard that otherwise populates my shelves. Once you crack open the hinged little chest of goodness, out pops a perfectly printed linen game map, loaded with images of islands, sea monsters, and other neatly illustrated images. Underneath the map is a little plastic cover that keeps the other contents from spilling adrift while sailing the rough seas over to a friend’s house in your Jeep. Once you remove the cover, you’re met with myriad little bags loaded with gems (meaning little glass beads) in 4 colors, a ton of the nicest metal stamped coins I have ever seen come in a game, four well-detailed metal schooners that serve as pawns, the Dread Pirate flag bearing the Jolly Roger’s visage, a bunch of decent looking cards, 4 bad-ass wooden dice, and finally, a lovely little rulebook that is quite well put together and eminently readable. All in all, these folks put a lot of time and money into making this game look razor sharp and just opening the box makes you want to stab someone through the liver with a boarding saber while chugging some rotgut.
You start at one of these ports with a ship, a gem bag, 10 gold doubloons, and 10 of gems of the color of your home port. These home ports have no intrinsic value to the player except for the fact that you may not raid your own home port, but you don’t have to defend them, either. Each port starts with 12 gems of its color that act not only as victory points, but as a game timer as well. Once all of the ports are devoid of their gems, the game ends and the winner is determined by the amount of gems and doubloons they’ve collected during the game. In the case of a tie, the player who has the most gold is the winner. It’s really a very simple roll-and-move game, and the gameplay is quite brisk, as I will now illustrate.
The starting player takes two wooden D6 dice and rolls them, moving their player up to the shown total of the dice, with the only exception being that when doubles are rolled a player can split the two dice into separate turns, allowing an extra raid or attack in between moves. If you become adjacent to an enemy ship, you can skirmish with them. This really only amounts to rolling dice and comparing totals, with the winner taking treasures blindly out of the loser’s bag in the amount being determined by the value of the winning roll. If you end a turn adjacent to a port, you can either raid them, which is the same as skirmishing except that if you lose the raid you do not lose treasure, or you can barter with them by buying their gems with doubloons. This too is semi-random, because both parties in a trade roll to see how much they have to spend to trade. The only hard-and-fast rule with port actions is that you may not attack or trade with the same port without performing another action first, such as raiding a different port or skirmishing with an opponent, which eliminates the camping that might otherwise occur.
While travelling, if you happen to cross a shark icon or Triangle, such as the Abyss Of Doom, you must take a card and read it aloud, then resolve it. In many cases it’s a simple “Lose A Turn”, “Lose Some Treasure” or other pedestrian action, but in some cases the cards give you boons such as an attack bonus or extra movement. The cards feel as if they were tacked onto the game after the game’s central mechanics were decided upon, but they still add a bit more Ameritrash to the game due to the sheer randomness of the card actions. None of the cards are game-breakers or overpowered, so at best they are an inconvenience.
The final aspect of the game is the Dread Pirate Flag and Dread Island itself, which are also the most fun aspects of the game. Once a player has the requisite 4 gem colors in their bag they are able to cross the barrier to Dread Island and claim the flag, which actually sits inside a holder in each ship, as well as take a quantity of doubloons from the island as determined by the player rolling a die. Again, no anchors may be dropped at this port, forcing you to go out and stir up some trouble elsewhere before coming back for more free booty. The critical point of having that flag flying above your deck is that being the Dread Pirate not only gives you an extra die to roll for movement, it gives you a persistent bonus to all combat rolls, making you faster and deadlier than all of your opponents.
Finally, there is an “advanced” game version that uses the fourth D6, which is not marked with pips as most are, but is instead labeled with the cardinal directions of a compass and 2 null symbols, which allow you to double the higher single die of your movement rolls provided you do not travel in the direction rolled on the die. This is not that much of a departure from the normal game, but it does add a hair more strategy to the normal roll-and-move formula.
All in all, this is not a great game in any way, shape, or form, but it is a decent one with incredibly good components. I got mine for seven dollars some years ago at a Barnes and Noble store during their fabled game sale, and I have certainly gotten my money’s worth. The components alone are worth three times that. This might have been a better game if it had more depth, but in reality, this is simply a family game by all definitions and is one of those “Thanksgiving Time Killers” that you can drop in front of your bloodthirsty tweens when Grandma doesn’t want to hear Halo or Gears of War being played anymore or when Grandpa is watching football.
Things I Really Liked:
*The components are absolutely beautiful, and are a real treasure
*The theme is really adhered to well, making you yearn for the days of dropping enemies into shark-infested waters
*The game is backstabbity as hell if you play with the right group, and especially so with your no-good kids
Things I Was Mildly Put Off By:
*The gameplay is brisk but rather repetitive, with few truly interesting decisions
*There aren’t many pirate jokes out there, so the table chatter always ends up with “Arrgh” and “Shiver Me Timbers”
*The game is not even close to as bad-ass as the box would have you believe
While not a bad game, it’s not a good game either. It is simply a game to play with your kids or to table when everyone around is too drunk to play a more interesting game. That being said, this game is well worth bargain-basement prices because the components are so absolutely brilliant.
Learn more about Dread Pirate here: