Avast ye maties, thar be a pirate game! In Pirates Cove (Days of Wonder) players compete by plundering islands for treasure, battling legendary pirates like Blackbeard and the Flying Dutchman plus one another for high seas supremacy, teaming up with famous parrots (I also had no idea there were famous parrots), and upgrading their ships; all with the goal of being the most famous pirate that the Caribbean has ever seen. The game takes place over the course of a year (12 game turns) and at the end of the 12th turn the pirate that has accumulated the most fame points is declared the winner. Seems simple enough, so let’s get to it.
The components of the game are pretty good, but nothing mind blowing. The small plastic ships used by each player serve their function well and have a decent amount of detail, but the single color of each kind of makes them seem bland. The board is nice though. A little on the small side (which I don’t mind), but each island has detailed drawings that add some fun and personality to each of the game’s seven islands. With the rowdy party going on there, Crew Island seems like the hottest spot to be, but that may be just me. Cannon Island seems a bit threatening. The most interesting game component is the navigation wheel that each player gets and uses to chart their course of looting and battle. There are also the standard cards, dice, and punched out pieces of gold. The instructions are very easy to understand, which is always a bonus. I read through them before playing and felt like I really got it, and then when we played I barely needed to consult them (though I suspect we may have done a couple of things wrong the first time).
It is in the game mechanics that Pirate’s Cove really comes into its own, really standing out amongst the turn based resource harvesting model that prevails among the world of gaming. One of the aspects that I really enjoyed was the non linear game turn. Rather than having a set order of play each turn, play progresses based on which island each player has sent their ship to. There are five islands that yield variable amounts of treasure and fame and a sixth that allows the pirate to bury the treasure they’ve plundered for fame points (the seventh island, Pirates Cove, is a secret hideaway that pirates flee to and repair ships at). Every turn a card is flipped over for each of the five islands that reveals what booty they have that turn. Each player then, using their navigation wheel, secretly picks the island they are going to. Should you find yourself as the lone pirate on an island the booty is all yours. If another pirate is there you must fight them using your cannons and crew, perhaps aided by some Battle and Volley cards. There are also the Legendary Pirates that move around the board and generally are beasts in combat and best avoided until later in the game. Actually, it’s pretty much suicide to attack a Legendary Pirate by yourself in the first half of the game, which results in a bunch of players usually picking the same islands in order to avoid the Legendary Pirates and duking it out with each other early on. The loser gets sent to Pirates Cove to lick their wounds and vow revenge, while the winner celebrates their victory.
Combat is quick, simple, and random enough that the battles are all pretty competitive. Pirates target one of the four parts of their opponent’s ship (sails, crew, cannon, and hull) with each volley and attempt to cripple the ship. The interesting aspect of this is that it is a bad policy to ignore any one part of your ship since it will constantly be targeted by your fellow pirates and make you an easy target. Players roll d6’s in combat until someone is defeated or flees to Pirate’s Cove.
All in all, Pirates Cove is an excellent board game that should be a hit with most gaming groups. It’s relatively quick (90 minutes once you know how everything is supposed to go), easy to play, and has enough personality and twists to keep things fun. It also lends itself well to taunting and gloating, which is sort of the point of games. Having now played the game a couple of times I have come to see how well balanced the game is. Every time that we have played has been a close affair, with the winner not being settled until the final turn. The game designers clearly made an attempt to keep it balanced and competitive and it shows. Even when a pirate loses a fight there is something to be gained by ending a turn at Pirate’s Cove, otherwise a couple losses early on would doom a fledgling pirate to mediocrity and watered down rum for the duration of the year. I like this game a lot and am looking forward to playing it more and checking out some more of the Days of Wonder catalogue.