Monday 22 February 2016

Review - Dread Pirate: Buccaneer's Revenge

Dread Pirate: Buccaneer's Revenge

Dread Pirate: Buccaneer's Revenge
Published by Front Porch Classics
Designed by Dan Tibbles
For 2-4 players, aged 8 to adult.

Dread Pirate: Buccaneer's Revenge game box

Ahar, Me Hearties.

Uh, no. Wait...

Avast, ye scurvy landlubbers,

No, that doesn't work...

Ahoy, Mateys.


Batten down the hatches, splice the mainbrace, shiver me timbers, and... uh... Roger the Cabin Boy?

Nope. Screw it. Let's start again.

Once a week, my daughter does ballet. (Wow, sometimes even I don't know where I'm going with this stuff.)

My daughter's five now, and she still falls over standing still. I don't think she's ever going to be a Black Swan.

But she loves ballet. And so, once a week, I take her to her class.

A little while back, I was waiting outside, and one of the mums turned to her friend and said, "I don't think I'll be bringing Susan to ballet anymore. She's never going to be any good."

That sort of thing annoys me.

It annoys me because we're talking about five-year-olds here. We have no idea what the future holds for any of them.

But more so, it annoys me because you should never - not ever - define someone, least of all your own child, by what he or she is unable to do.

That kind of attitude is so brutally negative it can only be harmful.

When did we as a people start to assess everything, not on what it has or does, but on what it lacks?

So I was annoyed.

But then I started thinking, and I realised I do it too. Not with my daughter. I do it with games.

I look at mass-produced family games that are clearly targeted at a casual gaming market with the intention of getting parents to interact with their children, and I roll my eyes, and snort a derogatory laugh through my nose.

Because Monopoly isn't Super Dungeon Explore.

Because Trivial Pursuit isn't Tajemnicze Domostwo.

Because Risk isn't Battles of Westeros.

And that's wrong. It's evaluating the merits of a game based on what I think makes a good game, and not what the game is trying to achieve. It is deriding a product for what it isn't, and what it is unable to do, without even considering what it has to offer.

It is difficult for me, as a reviewer, because I know what I like, and I know if a game isn't hitting the mark for me; but I need to force myself to think beyond my personal tastes if I want to make a fair assessment of a product.

After all, every game has a market.

Well, most games.

Because there are some games, like Dread Pirate: Buccaneer's Revenge, where I'm really not sure what market the designer was going for. I mean, it says it's a family game, and it really kind of is; but...


Okay, let's try this one more time. I can do this pirate thing. I know I can...

Avast, ye scabrous sea dogs, let's set sail for the high seas and even higher adventure, swab the porthole, tickle the brass monkeys, and poop on the deck, as we delve into this family game of plundering, murdering, and murderously plundering.


Dread Pirate: Buccaneer's Revenge playing pieces

First of all, I have to say, this game looks amazing. It has a beautifully illustrated board depicting a treasure map divided into squares for movement, 60 glass gems in four different colours (in a drawstring bag), plastic coins with really nice embossed art, and four plastic pirate ships with a single removable flag to indicate the current "Dread Pirate" (or Westley, as we liked to call him in our gaming group).

Everything looks lovely, and its all very tactile. Even the cards are really thick, with good quality printing.

Opening the box gives a very good first impression, and is the main reason I picked up this game in a local charity shop. In fact, the quality is so nice, the whole package has a very "premium" feel, which seems strangely at odds with its "unplugged family entertainment" tag (and the picture of a happy, smiling family on the box). I'm not saying a family game should have tiddlywinks and paper money; but it's just... well... you normally get tiddlywinks and paper money.

Dread Pirate: Buccaneer's Revenge coloured gems

The gameplay is incredibly simple, with each player controlling a single pirate ship that goes out on missions to gather loot.

Interestingly, there are three routes to victory (I know, in a family game!). You either collect 20 gold, 12 gems of a single colour, or four gems of each of the four different colours. That makes a refreshing change for this type of game, and it helps that there are plenty of opportunities to change your strategies on the fly based on your current stock of treasure.

Anyway, you start the game with two missions, which are the ways in which you get gold and gems. These missions are generally pretty uninspiring, involving moving to a specific area on the board, attacking other players, or (bizarrely) losing a fight.

Dread Pirate: Buccaneer's Revenge mission cards

When you complete a mission, you get some treasure. Additionally, some missions have a special bonus that stays in play for the rest of the game, such as a combat or speed boost. Some even have a permanent ability, and an even more powerful secondary ability that you can employ by discarding the card. Having a card with a dual purpose, and weighing up the benefits of a permanent bonus against a really powerful single-use ability, is quite an advanced gaming concept, which again, feels a bit out of place in a family game.

If you have less than two active missions when you reach a major city, you have the opportunity to draw a new mission. This continues until you have amassed enough treasure to win the game.

So, with those missions in mind, you roll two dice and then move around the board. If you land next to another player's pirate ship, you have the chance to attack, This involves one player shouting "Surrender!" and another player shouting "Death first!" (at least in my gaming group), and then each player rolls two dice. Fortunately, you don't fight to the death, only to the pain, and the player that rolled the highest just steals two treasures from the loser, which can be any combination of coins and gems.

Dread Pirate: Buccaneer's Revenge coins

Oh, and the first person to win a fight becomes the Dread Pirate and gets a little flag for his or her ship. The flag confers a bonus when fighting, which is a nice little runaway leader mechanism that shouldn't be in the game at all. However, if you manage to beat the Dread Pirate, you become the Dread Pirate, because, you know, the real Dread Pirate has been retired for 15 years and is living like a king in Patagonia.

The only other thing to mention is that each player has some action cards. These are little one-time boosts, such as adding to an attack roll, or stealing a treasure. The in-game effects vary from powerful to useless, but the most interesting thing about each card is that there is a bit of genuine pirate lore at the bottom of each one, giving you some fascinating facts about what real pirate life was like.

That's right, Kids. It's an educational game! It's edutainment.

To be honest, I actually find the lore one of the most interesting aspects. I think learning more about life on the open waves while playing the game is a lovely idea, and is one of the few things this game gets absolutely right, because it doesn't interfere with playing the game at all. If you want to read the lore, it's right there. If you aren't interested, ignore it.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely you are going to be interested in much of what happens in this game.

You roll dice, move, fight other players, play a few action cards, and eventually complete some missions.

And that's it.

Dread Pirate: Buccaneer's Revenge game board

And, you know, it all works. It's all functional.

But it's just not fun.

It is chaotic and random and boring, and your fate is largely determined by luck of the dice, and the missions you draw.

For example, you may draw a mission that asks you to sail to Port Diablo, where the trees are actually quite lovely. However, you may get a a mission that asks you to roll a 12. One is a basic travelling mission, that requires plotting a route and avoiding other players. The other is just randomly chucking dice until you luck out.

And the action cards are horrible. I mean, really horrible. They allow you to steal gems from other players, or become the Dread Pirate as you wish, or immediately draw a new mission, or teleport across the board, or swap your current treasure stash for treasure of a different kind. And in every case, there is nothing anyone else can do about it. You can win through pure luck, simply by drawing the right cards at the right time.

Dread Pirate: Buccaneer's Revenge action cards

So, all told, what do we have here?

I think, we have a game scuttled by the designer's inability to decide on a target audience.

It's a game pitched at families. But it has premium components, a long playing time, multiple paths to victory, "take that" actions, power-ups that you can use for a permanent boost or trash for a single extra powerful action, a central mechanism that involves chasing other pirates down and killing them, and lots of in-game text to read.

Young children may struggle with reading all of the action cards, or knowing the best time to play those actions. They may also get upset when dad constantly hunts them down to steal their gold or beat them up. And with so many opportunities to "bash the leader," this game has the potential to go on forever, while giving Monopoly a run for its money in causing family feuds.

I just can't see a family gathering around to play this game.

Unfortunately, I don't really see gamers playing this either. Lots of the actions are mundane, allowing you to instantly steal stuff from other players while they just watch and gnash their teeth, and the central mechanism of moving to a space, discarding a mission card, drawing a new mission card, and then repeating the cycle, really isn't going to provide enough interest.

It isn't that it's a bad game. It's just bland, and it is never going to be the game that gamers pick to play when they have so many better options available.

And that means you are left with a very beautiful product that doesn't do anything particularly well.

I suppose you could tweak the rules. You could remove the action cards for younger players, or come up with some more strategic elements for gamers; but really, what's the point?

It's like I said to my friend: "I don't think I'll be bringing Dread Pirate to the table anymore. It's never going to be any good."

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