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Review: Piratoons

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Piratoons Box

Pirates are always after one treasure or another. It’s in the job description. Most pirate games take you on the adventure to find the treasure, or at least steal it from someone else. Piratoons, however, gives you the chance to experience the very beginning of a pirate adventure: The assembling of a ship and crew. You’d think this would be akin to a game about accounting. Boring and lacking adventure. After all, the adventure is in the journey, right? Not necessarily. Piratoons sets out to prove that the beginning of the story is just as much fun as the quest.

How It Plays

Your goal is to recruit the best crew and assemble the most amazing pirate ship so that you can sail away on an adventure to unravel the legend of the Pelican’s Tooth. Is there great treasure and glory to be had? You won’t know unless you win the game and have the best ship and crew with which to chase down the truth of the legend. Of course, all of your fellow pirates want to build the best ship, too, so you’re going to have to be fast and smart to outdo them.

The game is played over eight identical rounds. At the beginning of a round, players “load” the treasure chest by placing six equipment tiles and three boat tiles into the chest face down. The cover is then placed on the chest and the whole thing is flipped over. When the cover is removed, the tiles are now face up and the plundering begins.

The sand timer is flipped over and players simultaneously place their crew members on the tiles they desire. (You can only use one hand, not both, to place crew members.) You win a tile if you have the most crew members on that tile when the plundering is over. Ties cancel each other out and neither player wins that tile. When the sand timer runs out, any player may call, “Stop,” at any time and plundering immediately ends. Note that stop does not have to be called as soon as the timer runs out. The timer acts as a minimum amount of time, not a maximum, so until stop is called, plundering continues.

Piratoons Chest
The empty treasure chest (top and bottom pieces)

After the plundering, players receive one coin for each crew member unplayed during the plundering. Think of it as social assistance for the unemployed.

Players then take the tiles that they won. Any tiles not plundered are tossed overboard to float next to the chest. These tiles are now available for auction. Note that boat tiles are only available for auction immediately following the plundering phase in which they were tossed overboard. (They’re heavy and sink fast, you know.) If they’re not claimed during that auction, they are removed from the game. Equipment tiles, however, float forever and remain next to the chest until they are claimed or the game ends.

To begin the auction, all floating tiles are placed face up in the chest. Players secretly place the number of coins that they want to bid in their hand and hold their closed fist over the chest. Players simultaneously reveal their hands to each other. If any players are tied (they bid the same number of coins), they are all out of the auction, as are any players who bid nothing. The remaining player with the most coins in hand gets first choice of the tiles and pays his coins to the bank. The player with the next highest amount gets second choice and so on until all players have claimed a tile. If you win an auction and are allowed to take a tile, you must do so, even if the tile you want has already been claimed. If no tiles are left, the player simply keeps his coins.

Piratoons Starting Setup
Starting boat tiles and workers. This ship’s just itching for some bling.

Now players build their boats with the tiles they acquired. Ideally, you will fit your boat tiles together so that the icons on each story match because that will earn you more points at the end of the game. However, that may not always be possible so you can place it anywhere and try to move it later.

Equipment tiles must be placed on their respective spaces so, for example, a porthole tile cannot be placed on a mast space and a gun port tile cannot be placed on a quarter space. Any equipment tiles that can’t be legally placed on your boat during a round are tossed overboard to float until the next auction comes around. Equipment tiles and boat pieces can be moved around on your boat at any time until the game is over and your ship is ready to set sail.

The game ends after the eighth auction. Everyone has one final chance to optimize their boat by moving tiles and placing newly acquired tiles. Then points are counted. Players earn/lose points from the following items:

Piratoons Feature
One wacky boat (with an adoring meeple audience).

Majorities: Players with the most sail tiles, money, or largest boat earn five points while the player with the second most in any category earns two points.

Connections: Correct connections of ship parts are worth two points each. Incorrect connections lose two points each.

Empty spaces: The player with the most empty spaces overall loses two points. The player with the most empty spaces of each type (porthole, deck, gun port, etc.) also loses two points.

Sets of tiles: Players earn varying amounts of points for each set of three matching equipment tiles, having three different equipment tiles placed on the same type of space, and for each pair of identical equipment tiles.

The player with the most points wins and sails off into the sunset.

Is This Buried Treasure Worth Keeping or Should It Be Tossed Overboard?

I wasn’t sure about Piratoons when I agreed to review it. On one hand, it looked kind of silly and fun. On the other hand, I worried that the fun and silliness might come at the expense of a decent game. But I’m a sucker for pirates, so I gave it a try. I’m not sorry I did because Piratoons turned out to be a pleasant surprise. 

Indeed, it is a bit silly. The artwork depicts crew members that I’m pretty certain aren’t fit to crew any serious pirate voyage. The ships you end up building look like something that a kid would build out of Lego and aren’t realistic at all. You’ll sometimes end up with masts everywhere, sails in places where no wind could possibly catch them, crew members hanging out of the windows, and a boat that looks like it would sink as soon as it left the dock. But that’s not the point. Fun is the point.

Enjoying this game means taking the title literally, to some extent. It’s called, “Piratoons” for a reason and (I assume) that reason is because the game is akin to watching an old Looney Tunes cartoon. It’s slapstick, funny, unrealistic, a bit juvenile, and entertaining nonetheless. If you can approach it with that mindset, you’ll probably have fun.

Piratoons Tokens
Point tokens and coins.

The plundering phase of the game is the most fun, in my opinion. The combination of the timer and the simultaneous placement of crew members leads to both tension and silliness. Everyone is moving fast, flinging workers onto the tiles they want, while also watching what other players are going for. Workers end up bouncing around, hands get bumped, and you’re trying to keep up with who placed what where.

There are “good conduct” rules for the plundering phase, but if you’re playing with argumentative people or people who take this game too seriously, you may still get into fights over whether someone stopped in time, whether or not someone broke the one handed rule, who bumped whose pieces, etc. I’d suggest not playing with these people, but if that’s not possible, make sure to go over the good conduct rules in advance to try to cut down on the arguments.

The fact that the timer doesn’t automatically end the plundering phase adds a new quirk. In most timed games, the timer is absolute. When it runs out, everything stops. Here, it’s up to a player to call, “Stop.” You have to evaluate whether you should try to end the plundering as soon as you can, or let it go on a bit longer. Even if you want it to go on longer, another player may end it, anyway, since anyone can call stop. You have to balance the idea of dumping all your workers as fast as you can with the possibility of holding some back to see how things go, but knowing that you might get shut down before you can make your play.

Piratoons Loot
Some of the equipment tiles.

There can be a bit of meanness in this phase as someone snatches the tile you want out from under you, or intentionally causes a tie to deny you a tile. It’s all in fun and tends to even out over the rounds, but sensitive people might not like it.

I also enjoy the building phase. It’s fun to see what you’ve got and to try to work it all onto your boat in such a way as to maximize your points. Sometimes you will get exactly the tiles you want and have no trouble finding spaces for them. Other times, you’ll get something you didn’t plan for and have to try to find a home for it. These unexpected tiles can be a pain, but they can also force you to change your strategy and sometimes lead to something better.

Further complicating the placement of tiles is the fact that, since there are so many ways to earn/lose points, there are several strategies that might win you the game. Do you build a big, sprawling ship and hope to fill it up and make a lot of connections, or do you try for a compact ship with all spaces filled but few connections? Do you forget the overall construction of the boat and try to grab as many majority and set bonuses as you can get? No strategy always works because it depends on what your opponents are doing, which tiles come out, and whether you can make use of them. This makes the game highly re-playable. Win or lose, at the end of the game, you have a wacky ship and the satisfaction of having built something. (Whether it’s seaworthy or not is another story.)

Piratoons Chest 2
The treasure chest, loaded and open for plundering.

The scoring phase of the game is both a strength and a weakness. The negative is that it can take a while, especially as you’re learning or playing with newbies. It’s not difficult to check over everything and add/subtract your points, but it is time consuming because the scoring system is so broad. The time required increases the more players you have.

However, there are so many ways to score points that even complete newbies can end up winning the game. Even if you can only remember one or two of the ways to score and work only on those, you may still come out okay. The handy player aids do make it easier, though, to remember how you can score. Eventually, you internalize the entire scoring system and start working on specific strategies, but even then I find that it’s rare that someone completely dominates the game. Even die hard gamers may not be able to maximize a strategy thanks to the unpredictable tile availability.

If you want to appreciate Piratoons, you have to go into it with the understanding that it is a very light game designed for some fast, lighthearted fun. I won’t say that it’s not for gamers because it does function very well as a filler or for pirate-themed game nights. However, it is not a heavy, thinky game that will occupy your entire evening.

Piratoons Player Aids
Handy player aids. One side is a scoring reference, the other is a turn and building reference.

Yes, there are some decisions to be made and things to think through, but much of what happens to you is out of your control. You may be outbid on an auction, no matter how carefully you thought through the options. Your most desired tile may be swiped out from under you by another player. You may get stuck with some tiles you can’t place at all and you may place a tile hoping to move it later but never get that opportunity. This lack of total control and chaotic play will drive some people bonkers.

However, if you can approach it as a beer and pretzels game, as a game for families, or as a game for non-gamers, Piratoons really shines. It’s easy to learn and quick to play. It scores high on the “let’s go again” meter as the losing players often want to try again right away. It’s interactive and leads to a lot of trash talking and silliness around the table. It’s also the sort of game that can grow with you, at least up to a point. You can play just to play, but as you gain more experience, you can start milking the scoring system for every single point. This ability to progress makes it an excellent gateway game. I definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a lighter gateway game.

iSlaytheDragon.com would like to thank Stronghold Games for giving us a copy of Piratoons for review.

  • 8.5
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Summary

Pros

Lighthearted fun.
Quick playtime, easy to learn.
Accessible for new gamers, families, and gamers.
Neat quirk with timer acting as minimum rather than maximum time allowed.
Cute art, great components.
Satisfaction of having built something at the end of the game.

Cons

Can be mean.
Can breed arguments.
End game scoring is time consuming.

8.5 Very Good

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I’m also one of “those people” who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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