This review was originally written for my bi-weekly board game editorial site Player Elimination.
Trick-taking games have never really been my thing. Give me a Space Marine with a boltgun and you can keep your card with a suit. So now that we’ve set the stage, you may be surprised to discover that I’m crushing on Pirate Tricks.
Out of the blue came a kill-crazy crew
Whose motto was stomp on the weak
Tis true, this genre of tricks and trumps has been growing on me. I was a fan of the quirky Spy Tricks and last year became enamored with Tichu, which while not a trick-taker exactly, it’s still a kissing cousin.
So let’s talk about Pirate Tricks. This is newcomer Soaring Rhino’s second published title, their first being the interesting Shifting Realms. I say newcomer with a smile, as co-owner Craig Van Ness designed so many top-shelf titles in the first decade of the millennium that my fingers may develop carpal tunnel if I dare to list them. His brother Jeff is the second half of the duo, co-designing and publishing these recent works. Jeff is likely sick of hearing people like me talk about Craig in Soaring Rhino articles so I will move on.
Pirate Tricks is simple as a coconut*. A player leads with a card, others follow, high card takes the trick. There are only three suits and Red is trump. Now even you can play Pirate Tricks.
With bones in their hair
They was hungry as bears
And their leader was King of the freaks
Except you can’t, because everything else is what defines the experience.
One of the big issues with this style of game is that draw beats skill. You luck into a solid hand and those baby seals at the table are getting clubbed. Not anymore.
Here you deal face-up hands to the table, one per player. Then we go around and bid with loons, the game’s currency which also deliciously functions as victory points. This twist of bidding on hands is marvelous and so simple. It’s a closed fist auction so it’s resolved quickly and keeps the game moving.
Furthermore, there’s still some element of mystery as each auctioned hand includes two face-down cards which supplement an additional five random ones dealt out to each player. So in reality, half of a player’s hand is public knowledge and acquired through auction.
They was… Space Pirates
The lowest scum of the yellow sun
Now we’re getting to the real shake-up. The value of a particular card and suit shifts round to round due to a public selection of scoring cards. These goals are varied and throw a wild curve-ball into the proceedings.
The first set of scoring objectives concern the makeup of your hand. Maybe one awards loon for having two of a kind or a three card run. One particular nasty option is allowing you to steal currency from your neighbors for each 12 you possess. These additional vectors for scoring are a bit B-A-N-A-N-A-S as you now must wrap your head around multiple factors and evaluating an overall strategy for the auction.
So maybe the first hand already includes a pair of 10s, offering some juicy loon from the scoring card. There’s also a nice selection of red cards and a high blue. But, the next hand allows you to complete a three card run when combined with your private hand. Thus, you bid nadda on that first auction and go a hard four on the second.
More wrinkles. Two other scoring cards are revealed each round that determine the benefit of actually winning tricks. A trick on its own is worth nothing, unless these final two cards dictate otherwise. They may award bonus points for each red card you’ve taken or straight up throw a bevy of loon at the player with the most tricks won. Sometimes they want you to lose hard and award the player with the least amount of tricks. Sometimes they even cost you points for possessing certain color cards at the end of the round. Bananas.
Out of the blue came this mind-blowing zoo
A collection of mutated crud
Back to that earlier bid.
That second row of cards may allow you to complete a run and bank some big bucks, but it also contains some high trump cards. In this particular round you lose points for winning tricks. So what do you do?
What do you do, indeed.
Beyond all the hubbub, the game scales very well. At player counts of 3-5 everything is smooth, bidding develops in interesting ways, and the game flies along at a breakneck pace. Interestingly enough there’s even maneuvering room for a meta-game to develop. Over multiple plays you may notice patterns in bidding and valuations, and it’s certainly possible to exploit that. This adds a surprising amount of strategic texture to a half hour game.
You may notice I also haven’t even mentioned the setting of the game. It’s because it’s not really there beyond some art and an intro paragraph in the rules booklet. This is a trick taking game so this is no surprise. Move along.
Skulls lie white on the martian sands
They was… Space Pirates
The only trick to this one (yeah, I went there), is that it may not go far enough for some. Since you still receive a partially random assortment of cards, you can luck into a nice scoring hand. In a three player game that 12s steal objective came out and one player ended up with all of them. One he was dealt off the bat and the other two he acquired through his hand at auction–with one of them buried in the two face-down cards in the open hand. It effectively decided the game on the spot as he stole six loon from each of us. Thankfully this is not a regular occurrence and the dramatic swings are slightly more contained.
It’s also humorous that the most interesting aspect of the design is not in the trick-taking. That element feels completely incidental to the experience which may be a turn off for some. Of course, this is one of the game’s greatest strengths in my eyes.
Across three rounds and 30 minutes, Pirate Tricks sings like a sweet drunken sailor. That translates as ‘quite beautiful’ where I come from. By its very nature this is not the sort that’s going to land as my top release of the year, but with its own modest confidence it truly presents a compelling experience. This is the best trick-taker I’ve played and it takes the skull of something like Diamonds.
*Yeah, that’s not a thing; the game’s simple yo.
In addition to Player Elimination, I also write for Geek & Sundry, Ars Technica, and Tabletop Gaming Magazine. For a list of all my work you can head to this Geeklist.