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John Lopez
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Pirates of the Spanish Main is the latest from WizKids in their line of collectable miniatures games. Like prior WizKids efforts (notable exceptions being Crimson Skies and Shadowrun, both now discontinued) the purchaser buys sealed packages with unknown contents. In this case, instead of plastic miniatures in a box, the product on heavy pastic cards that are punched out. Each package (roughly the size of a collectable card game pack, but thicker) contains two random ships, a tiny black die, rules, a random assortment of "loot" and random crew members.

The rules are a small booklet. There aren't that many (if expanded to non-flyspeck type sizes I doubt they would fill four pages) but those that exist leave some critical rulings unanswered. A visit to the forums left a bad taste in my mouth as the officials were fighting among themselves about rulings and only a few rules were blessed "from on high". Those that were blessed from on high were often reversals from those given by the purported rules arbitrators. Fortunately there are not a huge number of these kinds of problems in the rules and it turned out that our gut reactions were on the mark. This may seem insignificant, but as a collectable game, official rulings are critical to prevent disputes: espeically since this game wants each player to ante up half the treasure: the player only keep the treasures they win during the game (this harkens back to the old ante in Magic the Gathering). Since treasure is fairly plentiful, this is less painful than in Magic, but still creates a rules lawyer's heaven.

Setup is easy: throw down some islands (6 recommended) alternating between players. Then you choose your *opponent's* starting island, which provides a nice incentive to not make any one island a really good starting island. Finally you sprinkle treasures among the islands and place your ships docked at your starting island.

Now we will look at each of the components and how they are used.

The most impressive and critical part of the game are the ships. Ships come on two cards: one provides the statistics and special abilities for the ship (and the deck), the second is for the masts and base of the ship. Assembly is quick and easy: simply flex the base pieces into the deck plate, push on the masts provided and finally finish off with the flag. In this game there are no "generic" ships: all ships have names and some special ability. The flags represent one of the three sides of the game that are available in this initial set: the English, the Spanish and the Pirates. The masts represent both hit points (masts are removed when an opponent successfully damages a ship) and cannons. Ship cards also have movement stats, point cost and cargo capacities listed. Ships can be given one of four orders each turn:

Fire Order: Cannons are fired from the masts of the ships, and to be successful two conditions must be met. First, each mast shows a die in either white or red. White represents "short" range and red "long" range. These correspond to colored bars that are printed on the ship cards. To fire a cannon, the target must be within range from the center of the firing mast to *any* part of the target ship. This surprisingly includes flags and maidenheads of ships. Line of sight is blocked by other ships and your own masts. If in range with line of sight, the player throws a six sided die and must roll *higher* than the die face shown on the mast. On success the target player chooses a mast to remove. If a ship is given a fire order, all masts may fire so long as they are in range. The majority of ships appears to have short range guns on the bow and stern, with long range guns on center masts. There are exceptions to this, but this means that most large ships can fire a killer three or four mast broadside and a weaker single or two masts to the forward and rear arcs.

Move Order: Movement is determined by the card the ship was punched from usually designated "S+S" (short and short again) or "L" (long). These are measured using the same colored bars as firing ranges are. In the case of a "L" move you simply place the measuring bar at the tip of the bow and lay the bar along the table in the direction to move. To move "S+S" you do this twice, with placement of the second "S" bar not needing to follow the direction of the first. This movement system creates on of the first annoyances in the game: on most surfaces the miniatures are exceptionally prone to movement when bumped and the distances measured are very small, which exaggerates any errors. If you attempt to use the bars on the cards you will find often that other ships obstruct placement of the card on the table. Movement itself is fiddly as the ship bumps the measurement card around. In the end we used a hex mat that was textured and had to make "T" shaped sticks with the measurement bar on the bottom and a stick to hold the bar with. Even this results in less than satisfactory results, but it is serviceable.

There are two reasons to move in the game: to obtain firing position and to race for the treasure. In our test games we found the latter was useful, but the former was a bust. Without the ability to move and shoot (provided by the captain crew, discussed below) your target normally moves away if you did not provide them return fire opprotunity, or they fire first and reduce your combat potential if you did provide such an opprotunity. In the end we found ourselves using guns more to threaten an area than actually firing. This makes the move order your primary order in the game, followed by exploration.

Explore Order: The real goal of the game is to collect treasures from islands. During setup, these are randomly assigned among the islands. To obtain these treasures you must move to an island and "dock". Next turn you may issue an "explore" order. You place a penant of your colors on the island to indicate you have performed your initial exploration and may look at the treasures on the island and take *one* and put it in your cargo hold, observing the ships cargo limits. On return visits to the same island, you may dock and immediately take a treasure. The explore order is also used to move crew between ships and ships and islands. Once you have treasure on your ship, returning it to your island scores it for your side. If you obtain over 50% of the starting treasure's worth, you win the game.

Repair Order: Normally performed at your home island, this allows you to replace masts that were previously lost on a ship. The shipwright allows it to be performed at sea.

So with the ships out of the way, let's discuss the treasure. With one order given to each of your ships each turn, play proceeds between the players in a race for the treasures that were placed on the non-starting player islands. I use the term race advisedly as with twelve packs of ships we found that we did not have the resources to actually mount combat. As described in the move order section, it is simple to simply sail away during your turn when a ship is threatened. This means that your heavy cannon ships seem more useful as a picket force to prevent your opponent from docking easily while your fast ships run for treasure and and return the loot home. It also means that large ships are not as useful as they would seem as a force of tiny ships can grab a lot of treasure while avoiding any retribution. While this is interesting in its own right, we found ourselves making agreements to duke it out in later games simply because the loot runs were growing boring. Part of the boredom that set in for us is that the treasures rank 1-6 points each and first to the island picks the best loot. This caused us to decide to avoid placing loot worth more than three points, but although the game took longer to decide, it still came down to moving quickly to the treasures. One thing that was amusing is the "special" treasure cards. I enjoyed the implications of "Rum": "This treasure is worth 6 points, minus the number of crew".

Which brings us to crew. Crew is critical to getting the most out of your ships. Crew are aligned with the same flags as the ships and only function on a ship of the proper flag. They may freely move between islands and ships of other nationalities, but they serve no function in this case. The fact that "generic" crew (i.e., crew that is available for all nations) have flags is clearly related to a need to push booster packs and not a game function: the captain serves exactly the same purpose for all nations. In the case of the captain it serves a critical purpose at that: allowing the firing of guns *after* a move order. The effectiveness of this is still subject to debate as we have not acquired a single captain in twelve packages, but it appears that a fleet with captains would be able to crush one without simply by moving all ships into range and tearing a ship apart per turn. However, there is a tradeoff. First, crew such as the captain takes cargo space that you can't use to move treasure. Second, each crew member has it's own point cost. Since larger ships cost 10-20 points and smaller ships 5-10, a three point crew member is obviously an expense to your forces. (The rules suggest a 30 point game, so that crew is 10% of your forces right there.) However, even though they are expensive, we found ourselves loading ships up with crew to get the most potential. In our case the critical crew was the helmsman, as he gives an additional +S to movement. Since the game is primely a race, this is almost mandatory for any ships that will actually collect treasure. For picket forces the shipwrights ability to repair the ship makes the picket just that much more effective.

Overall there is a good game hidden in here, and I'm willing to give it a chance as expansions become available. However, after investing what I would in most normal games ($46 US) I find that I don't have components that would seem critical. In a run of bad luck I have three of the same exact tiny Spanish ship and exactly zero Spanish crew to man it. Crew seems to be in short supply compared with the ships you want to man them. With enough investment I'm sure I would have one of every crew I need, but it seems simply greedy to make base crew aligned by flag. I have no such issue with the unique crew, as clearly they should be aligned with sides they makes sense to use with.

To play the game well you will need to make your own measuring sticks and ensure you don't attempt to play on bare tables. Choice of opponent also appears to be critical to the success of the game: if you play with a mini-max freak you will find each turn degrades into moving to the exact position to threaten a ship with fire without providing a return fire opprotunity. This devolves into measuring a potential move and measuring resulting arcs. I finally ruled that you can place your ruler down once and you couldn't measure firing arcs until your next turn (from any ship). This seemed to help with the nitpicky movement, but that caused us to avoid firing alltogether. Finally, don't expect a combat game here without serious investment as the pieces you need to actually fight appear to be as rare and precious as the treasures your pirates seek.

My rating as the game I have so far: 4 (Not so good). My rating as the game this could be if I drain my wallet: 7 (Good game). Here is hoping that WizKids releases a good FAQ that will clean up some of the rules issues. Visiting the forums as they stand simply shows how unorganized the support for this game is.
 
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John Lopez
United States
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The explanation: Impossible Triangle + TW (my company initials) = my logo.
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Re:User Review
Godeke (#48062),

Bah, it took a while for this to actually get posted and in the meantime I noticed an error: I specified a rule the way we *play* the game, not as it is written. Per the rule book you may load your cargo bay to capacity (less crew). We found this made the game very uninteresting and changed it to the rule shown in the review: loading *one* cargo per turn. This gives the opponent an opportunity to "scare off" a smaller ship with a bigger ship or a couple of small ships. Sorry about that.
 
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Michael Van Biesbrouck
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Re:User Review
Godeke (#48572),

This rule is ambiguously worded. Different interpretations have been made in the forums and by WizKids demo people.
 
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