What would the ultimate (space) pirate game look like?

One of the most epic experiences of my gaming youth was playing Sid Meier’s Pirates on the Commodore 64 and other platforms. Some of the elements included:

  • Sailing the Caribbean.
  • Wars between nations.
  • Choosing which one(s) to side with, and changing allegiances.
  • Attacking merchant boats.
  • Fending off or fighting pirates, or pirate hunters, or naval boats.
  • Boarding ships and taking them over.
  • Having a strong enough ship and crew to take over a town and declaring which nation you want to give it to.
  • Keeping your crew happy.
  • Searching for hidden treasure.
  • Searching for missing family members.
  • Perhaps coolest of all, tracking down the Treasure Fleet and the Silver Train and getting all the gold!

The game was buggy and it was hard to stick with as a result, but you could get married, climb in rank, retire wealthy… it was as epic adventure as you could hope for in 64B.

Today, pirates are obviously a popular theme for games in all formats. Go to boardgamegeek and there are 11 pages of pirate game titles, which is really pretty incredible. Surely, it’s been done right somewhere, right? Well…

Pirates of the Spanish Main, I’ve never played, but it feels like a scaled down version of Powersail. You actually put boats together, and use the table and your cards to measure out the distance, then fire cannons, etc. It reads like more of a nitty-gritty ship-to-ship combat game, not that that’s a bad thing.

Libertalia is another of Z-Man Games’ really good games, but it’s more a game of intrigue and treachery and resource management than a true, pirates-sailing-the-seas-in-search-of-glory type of game.

We used to play Dread Pirate or something similar. Great, great components. Lousy game, all dice rolls.

So that leaves us with the more recent Merchants & Marauders, which appears to be the top-rated pirate game on bgg. I own the game and it’s good, probably as close to Sid Meier’s Pirates as you’re going to get in a tabletop game. It just misses on a few things, in part a lack of ship variety, and in my opinion, a lack of balance between the pirate and merchant paths to victory. Also, the merchant path to victory works well enough but it isn’t exciting. It should be more encouraging of the pirate life and of combat, in my opinion.

Still, I could only make it incrementally better and in so doing, add to 11 pages of pirate games, a game that’s basically M&M but maybe slightly better. Juice doesn’t seem worth the squeeze. Meanwhile, I love the idea of space pirates, even the idea of Ice Pirates, like the movie. There are other games going for this idea already, including one called Space Pirates (nice name) but that one has very little activity and appears that it never really got going.

Xia: Legends of a Drift System (pictured above) already borrows heavily from Merchants & Marauders, with cargo, missions, bounties and NPC ships that have their own AI. It is so close to being the great space pirate game and space’s answer to Merchants & Marauders, but it misses in a few critical areas: There is no persistent character, no captain, and no crew. You are just your ship, and your ship changes, making it hard to feel any sense of identity. Plus, the map is very crowded and claustrophobic. While that holds some benefits for game purposes, it goes against the genre of of pirates, which is sailing a vast, empty sea, occasionally interrupted by life, or by others like yourself. The space genre has always had a lot of similarities to the ship at seas. Nearly everything we think we know about space from movies, TV, novels and games is vast and empty, and only occasionally dotted by life. Going against this the way Xia does… well, you just can’t do it and maintain the feeling of space, or of sailing, let alone pirates. Xia could also have more variety in its missions, and it doesn’t really have any pirate lore (not that it’s going for any, but it’s just another reason it isn’t the ideal space pirate game).

Firefly: The Game is actually pretty darn close to the perfect space pirate game, and is a great game for Firefly fans, but therein lies the rub. Are all your gaming friends Firefly fans? Because a lot of the game turns on the “Aim to Misbehave” cards, and they all draw heavily from the TV series. Separate from that, it isn’t really a game of piracy. While you can smuggle illegal cargo and do illegal and immoral jobs, you can’t actually lead a pirate’s life of taking other ships over. In fact, and most critically, there is no ship-to-ship combat in the game at all. If it had it, I would just go with Firefly: The Game as the space pirate game of choice despite it being steeped in Firefly lore.

So I don’t think the perfect pirate game is quite out there. Merchants & Marauders comes closest, IMO, but too much unexciting merchant-ing and not enough fighting and pirating.

Here’s what I’m looking for:

  Keep Drop
Merchants & Marauders
  • Missions
  • Rumors
  • Pirate lore and themes
  • Cargo – the card system is an interesting game w/in a game
  • Captains & Abilities
  • Roving pirates and naval ships with AI behavior
  • Event cards
  • Bounties
  • Ships and ship upgrades lack diversity; not a thought-out system
  • Ship-to-ship combat just ok
  • Merchant life dull
  • Pirate life too hard; imbalanced
  • AI of pirate and naval ships doesn’t work well enough
  • Fixed map (but doesn’t bother me really, it is the Caribbean)
Firefly the Game
  • Jobs are varied and complex
  • Great detail with captain, crew, abilities and gear
  • Also has captain and crew relationship, including “disgruntled” status
  • Roving Alliance and Reaver ships
  • Warrants
  • No real piracy, just smuggling and illegal jobs
  • No ship-to-ship combat (at all!) so no weapons upgrades
  • Limited to Firefly theme and limited appeal to non-Firefly fans
  • Fixed map w/ limited replay
  • No pirate theme
  • Ship upgrades
  • Ship-to-ship combat
  • Roving NPC ships with effective AI behavior
  • Fame points and epic nature
  • Interesting cargo demand system
  • Missions
  • Random map
  • Bounties
  • Map too crowded
  • D20 randomness drives too much of game
  • No captain, no crew, no abilities
  • Lack of diversity in missions
  • No pirate theme


Which is your favorite pirate game or favorite space exploration game?

One comment

  1. roman says:

    Here’s a list of other pirate games that people really like:

    Rum and bones
    Sea of Clouds
    Skull Tales: Full Sail
    Black Fleet
    Dead Men Tell No Tales
    Walk the Plank
    Pirates Cove
    Blood and Plunder
    Dark Seas
    The Pirate Republic
    Pirates of the Caribbean: Master of the Seas
    Pirates of Nassau

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *