Cambridge Game Factory recently sent me a batch of their games, all of which appeared quite interesting. The games are homemade, consisting primarily of cards and poker chips. Each comes jam-packed in zip-lock bags, which certainly saves space, but isn’t the most attractive manner in which to market games.
To their credit, one of their games – Ice Pirates of Harbour Grace – carries a pirate theme. That alone is usually enough to entice me, as I’m still searching for the ideal pirate game. After one playing of Ice Pirates, I’m still searching.
Set in the frigid waters of the Artic, players represent pirates attempting to discover the treasure of the legendary Pirate Admiral. Seems the Admiral has hidden pieces of his treasure map on various islands, but even the location of the islands have been lost in the mists of time. So, players must sail the uncharted seas in search of the islands. Once they have assembled all pieces of the map, they must discover the location of Kelly’s island, unbury the treasure, and carry it away to safety. Of course, opposing pirates will be attempting to accomplish the same task, and will try to steal map piece or the treasure from you. Dirty pirates.
The board is comprised of 30 face-down cards and a handful of face-up cards depicting seven ports and islands. Players begin on the central Bell Island with a ship and three crew members. They then take turns sailing across the iceberg-laden seas in search of the map pieces. How far a player sails is dependent upon the wind. If a player is sailing with the wind, he may move up to two spaces. “Tacking” across the wind limits movement to one space, while rowing directly into the wind costs the player one of his crew. Must be quite strenuous.
As players traverse face-down cards, they are revealed. Most will depict open water, with some sides possibly blocked by icebergs. This could force a player to move in a direction they did not plan, or worse, end their movement altogether. Some cards will reveal shipwrecks, which allow the player to increase his crew by one. Other cards will cause the player to encounter fierce storms, which can end a player’s movement and cause the direction of the wind to change. If a player could have moved further on his turn, he can do so, but only at the cost of expending a crew member. I sure hope the benefits of being a crew member include life insurance!
Six of the ports provide upgrades for players landing there. These upgrades include cannons (extra die in combat), grappling hooks (raid an opponent in same space), ice breaker (move through small icebergs), jib (tack without ending your turn), main sail (move 3 spaces) and a telescope (reveal adjacent spaces before moving). Some of these upgrades are quite valuable, so it is well worth a player’s effort and time to drop anchor at one or more ports.
When one of the lost islands is discovered, a player can drop anchor and secure a piece of the map. Once three pieces are secured, a player must make his way to Kelly Island, of find it if it is still undiscovered. Beware, however, as the game can turn ugly once map pieces begin to be acquired. Pirates being pirates, they can attempt to raid opponents’ ships, trying to steal those valuable map shards. Whenever a pirate moves through a space occupied by a pirate toting a piece of the map – or the treasure itself – he can attempt to raid that ship. To do so, both parties roll a die, and compare either the greater of the number rolled or the total of their crew members. The maximum obtainable is a ‘6’. If the raider is successful, he steals ALL of a player’s map pieces, keeping the ones he needs and unceremoniously dumping the remainder overboard. Nasty.
However, in true pirate fashion, the losing party has the opportunity to swashbuckle. At the cost of a crew member, the losing party may re-roll his die and do another comparison. If victorious, the result is reversed. This swashbuckling procedure can continue as long as players are willing or able to sacrifice crew members in the process. Lost crew members may be regained by visiting Bell island.
A player wins by acquiring the treasure from Kelly’s island, then bringing it safely to Harbour Grace, or sailing off the northeast section of the board.
No doubt, the theme is enticing, and it does provide some appropriately related flavor. Discovery, treasure maps, raiding … all the stuff of a good pirate yarn. While parts of the game are fun – particularly the discovery aspect – the game itself is rather disappointing. There is a huge amount of luck in the board layout, and one can easily find his path repeatedly blocked by icebergs or an ill-wind. The raiding system is also quite weak. While it is clearly intended to be simple and easy, it is actually TOO easy. It could be improved with other modifiers, or just a completely revamped system. As is, it is too easy to simply go back-and-forth stealing maps. We did misinterpret one rule, but playing it correctly really wouldn’t have changed much.
The random board layout can also cause problems. In our game, Kelly Island was revealed to be immediately adjacent to harbor grace. This allowed one player to successfully raid an opponent who was carrying the treasure, and end his turn on Harbour Grace, thereby winning the game. No one else had a chance to steal it. Quite unsatisfying.
Still, my main issue was that the game just lacked that special spark that makes a game truly exciting and fun to play. That being said, the game seems much more appropriate for family or casual play as opposed to serious gamers. Perhaps in that setting, it would prove more popular.
I was beset by problems from the beginning, with icebergs blocking my planned path, and a fickle wind impeding my progress. Robert and Chris found the shipwrecks, increasing their crew and substantially improving their raiding abilities. They also were able to secure several upgrades, including cannons, making them even more formidable. Ray was suffering a similar fate as me, and he was trapped by a proliferation of icebergs in the south.
Eventually, I managed to obtain two pieces of the map. Unfortunately, the dread pirate Miller the Menace was nearby, and proceeded to thrash my crew and steal my maps. I was too weak to give pursuit, and was blocked by those pesky icebergs and wind from reaching Bell Island to replenish my crew. Robert did manage to secure the last piece of the map, and sailed to Kelly Island to retrieve the treasure. On his way to Harbour Grace, he was assaulted by Chris, and the back-and-forth swashbuckling ultimately ended with Chris obtaining the map and ending on Harbour Grace for the victory.
Ratings: Ray 5.5, Robert 3, Greg 3, Chris 2