Throwback Thursday: Pirates of the Cursed Seas
by Alex Vian ·
Not so long ago, Midwest Wargaming reviewed (by battle report) Blood and Plunder, a Historical game from Firelock Games. Blood and Plunder was already a game on my radar, since it has many things I love: Pirates; Opponents of Pirates; Pirate Ships; flipping cards; and little plastic soldiers.
But, the more I learn about the game, the more I focus on what it is not: the Greatest Game of All Time (before 2008)!
Pirates of the Cursed Seas was a constructible card game, made by Wizkids and originally released as “Pirates of the Spanish Main” in 2004. The last set was released in November of 2008, before Topps temporarily killed Wizkids. Immediately it was a heart winner, and hyped for good reason after the game won an Origins Award in 2006. About this time, my good friend brought his cards with him to college from Ohio, and many of us were all immediately hooked. We didn’t play every day, but it was damn near. And my first plastic crack addiction since Mage Knight was born (Ah, WizKids. You captured my young soul. And now you won’t make a game without ‘clix’ in the name.) The game was cheap to buy, at $4 a pack, but hundreds if not thousands of dollars I really should have spent on beer or food instead went into packs of ships.
“Wait, Cards? This is Midwest Wargaming. Not Midwest Cardgaming. GTFO!” Hold on a second. These are CONSTRUCTIBLE card ships. They totally count. The game came in booster packs, like cards, but inside of the booster pack were 2 ships, anisland, and a few crew members alongside a tiny little dice (probably terribly balanced) which wouldn’t break any of your ships. Occasionally, one of the crew members would be replaced by a unique treasure piece that you could hide as a secret boon/trap on an island in the game. But all of the cards were made out of polystyrene, and you popped the ships out and then built them carefully so you could play.
The rules were, like many wargames, simple overall, but modified by a whole mess of keywords and special abilities for each ship and crew member.
Fleet construction was pretty standard fare – ships and crew all had point values. The game was balanced around having a 40-point fleet. Each ship had to belong to the same faction, known as a ‘Nation’ (or be a mercenary). Ships, Cargo, Equipment, and special Events all had point costs in order to add them to your fleet. Like usual, more powerful effects were higher in cost. In addition to their cost, ships had a certain cargo hold value, and crew each took up one of those cargo spots in addition to their points cost. The sum of the cost for crew couldn’t exceed the cost of the ship. Any remaining cargo spots could hold treasure. At the start of the game, each player contributed eight pieces of treasure, totaling 15 gold (plus any uniques you throw in there!), which would be distributed equally on each of 5-6 islands, spread over a 3’x3′ play area, with a few fog banks, coral reefs, icebergs, or other water hazards also included for good measure. After setting up islands and terrain, each person would pick one of the islands to be their opponent’s home island.
On your turn, you gave all of your ships an action. As its action, a ship could either move, shoot an opponent, or board an opponent. Hit points were equal to the number of masts on the ship and then the hull of the ship. Numbers of guns were also equal to the number of masts, with each mast representing a gun. The range and ‘to-hit’ value of each of the ship’s guns was printed on both the ship’s card and the masts when they were placed on the ships: roll better or equal to the gun’s value and you hit. Range for everything was done simply – either Short (S) or Long (L) range.
What were short and long range? Hold up a card. See the flat stretch on the short end? That equaled one short value. Long side was the long value. Every ship has these values placed on their card for ease of use. For movement, many ships had some combination of either multiples of the same value, or combinations of the two, making them both more maneuverable and faster.
Boarding was slightly more complicated, but still simple for a wargame. First, you had move so that your ship hit an opponent. If you did, you could ‘ram’ the ship by rolling a d6. If your result was more than the number of masts remaining on the ship you hit, you dealt a mast of damage to your opponent. Then, after ramming a ship, either the ramming ship or the rammed ship could begin a boarding action. Each side rolled a d6, and added the number of masts the ship had at the start of the game. Whomever is higher wins the boarding party, and can choose and select one crew member on your opponent’s ship to kill (if they have any), or one piece of treasure to steal!
The point of the game was, of course, to collect the most treasure. The game ended either when one player declared a belief that they had over half of the game’s total treasure, or when you had tabled your opponent (and then, presumptively, obtained all the game’s remaining treasure). Treasure was collected by docking on an island, then spending one of that ship’s turns exploring the island, before leaving two turns after you docked on the island. If somebody killed a ship carrying treasure, the two sides split the treasure as evenly as possible – the player who sank the ship got the greater amount if it wasn’t possible to divide it evenly. Players could even invest the treasure they’d collected by spending it on a Fort if they thought it would give them a sufficient advantage through the rest of the game.
The keywords and abilities were diverse – from ‘Captains’ who allowed a ship to move and then shoot using the same action, and Helmsmen who made the ship faster, to more powerful crew who could give your ship multiple actions in the same turn, or even a few who could sometimes control your opponent’s ship through fel magic. In the first few expansions, the abilities of those keywords were usually spelled out, but as further expansions came out, more and more abilities became keywords and you needed previous versions of the game rules to understand these rules. (This is my major gripe with the Batman Miniatures Game, as well.)
The lore of the game was, of course, based loosely on the Golden Age of Piracy and at first there was a LOT of realism in the abilities of the ships. There were ten factions, with four of those factions only appearing in one faction (or appearing in limited edition form in an earlier expansion). By the time the game was taken out of print, each faction could call not only a wide variety ships from ice breakers to submarines, but sea monsters and flotillas to their banner.
Through the game, there are common characters whose abilities and ships improve or change as the expansions go along – many of them based on real people, such as John Paul Jones, or at least fictionalized versions of real people, such as as “Blackheart” (aka totally not Blackbeard). There’s even an entire expansion for the Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End, complete with all of those characters, if that tickles your fancy. And if you really like the game’s lore, they spun off an RPG game based on the setting!
Despite being overall amazing, however, the game was not without its flaws. Chief among these flaws was the fragility of the ships themselves, and the many opportunities the ships would have to break during construction, which involved bending the hull pieces so that the rest of the ships’ parts would fit in. There also was an incredible amount of power creep, starting with the expansion which won the Origin award: Pirates of Davy Jones’ Curse (sic). Once the Cursed faction, and Davy Jones, arrived, ships and crew alike began to get more and more powerful abilities with each expansion, culminating in a version of Davy Jones and a Pirate captain who both had a keyword which was literally called “All-Powerful,” and “Eternal” ships which didn’t die when they were sank, but returned to your Home Island, instead (meaning if they weren’t the last ship to be killed, your fleet could not be tabled. They’re very expensive abilities, and in 40 point games probably cost-prohibitive, but they’re pretty damn ridiculous.
Overall, though, this game was all but my introduction to Wargaming, and remains one of the best wargames I have ever played. You should definitely look up the ships on eBay and buy some. If you need the rules, they come in a booster pack, or else reach out, and I’ll share a preserved copy of the complete rules with you and your group so you can play!
A reformed Warhammer Fantasy player based in the Twin Cities, Alex plays Malifaux, Guild Ball, X-Wing, and Armada. He also is the host of the Malifaux Tactics podcast here at Midwest Wargaming: Lecture Notes from the Breach
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