Gaming The High Seas

bbpicFor as long as there have been people putting boats to sea, there have probably been pirates close behind. Even though the classic high period of piracy perhaps only spanned a few decades in the 1600 through 1700s, pirates have loomed large in popular culture from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island all the way through to the Johnny Depp-fuelled blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise. Piracy will also be the theme of the latest release in the Assassin’s Creed video game  series next month, and the game is already being lauded as a potential game of the year for its historical high seas combat.

Naturally, pirates find their way to gaming tables. I like checking in on the UK-based blog Shed Wars for a fellow gamer’s incredibly elaborate pirate miniatures gaming. While I’m rather certain pirate miniatures gaming is never going to be my thing, I have played my share of pirate games over the past thirty years.

broadsidesIn the early 1980s, Milton Bradley launched their Gamemaster Series. While Axis and Allies would be the one game to catch on, the series also included other historically-themed wargames packed full of some nifty design, tons of plastic miniatures and varying levels of gameplay. The two player Broadsides & Boarding Parties featured a card-based maneuvering “broadsides” combat phase of the game which then led to a close-quarters “boarding parties” series of turns. During hand-to-hand attacks, each player moved their pirate, canon and captain figures among the two large ship models in an attempt to capture the opposing captain. Like many of the games in the series, Broadsides & Boarding Parties was a great looking game, but the play was a bit simplistic and it wound up collecting dust on my game shelf.

pirateconstJust over 20 years later, WizKids introduced the Pirates of the Spanish Main constructable miniatures game. This still-popular game consists of collectible packs of ships in plastic credit card-sized punch-out packs. Each pack contains a whole game with a couple ships, rules, islands and playing tokens. The system went through a number of expansions with additional ships from varying eras and nations along with special island island fortesses and even sea monsters. Along with the movie series, a Pirates of the Caribbean series was also released with the ships, characters and story pulled right from the films. The ships looked fantastic although proved to be a bit brittle during gameplay which involved trade, combat and double-crossing across an open tabletop board. Although the game was officially shuttered in 2008, a huge secondary market continues for unopened packs of game cards.

lootWhen my two sons were younger, we played the heck out of the 1992 card game Loot. This surprisingly engaging and award-winning kid’s game by Gamewright allows for play as a merchant or pirate. Pirate cards come in four colored “suits” with a captain card for each suit. Each pirate card carries an attack value denoted by a number of skull symbols. Pirates compete to attack merchant ships carrying different gold values, and an Admiral card shows up to protect merchant ship. Each player manages their hand through a series of draws, plays and discards as gold is collected and attacks by other pirates are thwarted. While the original Loot features cartoonish graphics, an updated more historically-themed version was introduced in 2010 under the name Korsar. Whichever version you get your hands on, Loot is a pretty simple but engaging card game for crews of all ages.

This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brookln, NY, I had the chance to get my sea legs with two more pirate games: Cartagena and Merchants & Marauders.

cartagenaCartagena is a quick game recreating the late-17th-century pirate jailbreak in Cartagena, Colombia. This wordless, diceless, easy-to-play game sets each player with five pirates making their way along a dock game board toward an awaiting getaway boat.

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Each player begins with six cards featuring hats, bottles, swords, keys, pistols and Jolly Roger flags. Playing a card allows a player to move one of their pirates along the board to the next empty space featuring that symbol. Players may double and triple-up placement on a space, and additional cards may be drawn from a face-up row of cards by moving backwards along the dock. Moving back to a space with one other purate gains a player one card, while moving back to a space with two pirates gets a maximum two-card draw. Players move forward and backward, acquiring cards and playing them as they progress toward the boat. Strategy comes in planning out your card moves with available spaces on the board, blocking other pirates and stealing in-demand cards from the draw row. The simplicity of Cartagena makes this a great choice for little pirates in your life while it also holds interest for some aggressive adult play like my first game this past weekend with some club members.

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Merchants & Marauders from ZMan Games is a beefier boardgame akin to the Viking exploration and conquest game Fire & Axe. Set among the islands and seazones of the Caribbean, the game allows players to play as merchant traders or dastardly pirate captains set on acquring gold, completing missions, following rumors and scoring points toward victory.

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Players begin with their ships at a home port island with each port offering varying bonuses to different types of players. In each turn, players may take three actions of movement, scouting or  port activities. While in port, captains may trade or sell goods, repair damaged vessels, acquire special crew and outfit or upgrade their ships with additional weapons and equipment. Each port shows goods that are in demand like tobacco, rum or spices, and trading in-demand goods scores extra victory points and special Glory cards that can add to a players effectiveness in particular situations. Pirates acquire goods agressively at sea but risk becoming wanted by the various nations looking to go to war with seafaring criminals.

There’s a lot of flexibility in the heading to victory a captain charts. Players may focus on trading or seizing goods, completing missions to other ports and attempting to chase down legendary rumors amid the islands. Attacking other ships can gain goods and gold but players run the risk of damaged or sunken ships that can set them back a few turns. Event cards at the top of each round inject additional elements to the game with storms and other sea-bound pitfalls reducing speed or even wrecking ships. Games of Merchants & Marauders typically run a couple of hours, and players must balance their own captain’s focus with what are other players are doing.

Like the legends of piracy, there’s a lot of variety to be found in pirate gaming. Aside from the games I’ve played and the many miniatures systems available, their are dozens of other pirate-themed games to suit an level of interest. The storied history and mythology of pirates yields a bounty of treasure for any gamer looking to raise a crew under the Jolly Roger and set out in quest of adventure, booty and intrigue on the Seven Seas.

Collector’s Note: Broadsides & Boarding Parties is available on eBay and elsewhere starting at around $50, Pirates of the Spanish Main is set to re-launch soon, but older expansion packs are likewise available via eBay in the $5-10 range and even cases of some card sets are available. Scalawags and bucaneers will find plenty of fellow pirate card, boargame and miniature action at most major gaming conventions. Arrrrrgh!

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New Game Weekend: Letters From Whitechapel

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This fall will be the 125th anniversary of one of the most famed unsolved crime cases in history and a story that continues to fascinate to this day. The Jack the Ripper case, also known as the Whitechapel Murders for the section of London where the killings occured in 1888, involved the gruesome homicides of (at least) five prostitutes by a still-unknown perpetrator. Much like today’s high-profile crimes, the case held Victorian London in a state of rapturous horror as an anxious police force, press and citizenry obsessed over the murders and hunt for the suspect. Graphic crime-scene photos, mysteriously cryptic letters and speculation on potential suspects – from butchers to surgeons to members of the British royal family – combine to make to make the lore of “Ripperology” a thing of modern legend.

Jack The Ripper in Pop Culture

From a pretty early age, I had a macabre interest in Jack The Ripper. Aside from the countless true-crime books on the case, Jack The Ripper has made it to the big and small screen dozens of times over the years. I love the moody 1928 silent picture Pandora’s Box starring Louise Brooks as a wayward innocent who falls into a life of prostitution before becoming a victim of Jack. The 1979 movie Time After Time adds a sci-fi spin on the case with Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells chasing Jack The Ripper through time to modern day San Francisco. My favorite by far has to be the 1988 Golden Globe-winning TV miniseries Jack The Ripper with Michael Caine chewing the scenery as the real-life Scotland Yard chief investigator of the Whitechapel Murders Inspector Frederick Aberline. Made on the centennial of the case, the series focused on the theorized link of the murders to the British royal family and re-introduced the case to a new generation of Ripper-obsessives like myself.

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Time After Time

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fromhellcoverOf all the movies and books I’ve encountered about Jack the Ripper nothing can hold an oil lamp to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell‘s 1999 graphic novel masterpiece, From Hell. Orginally released in a 10-issue serial and now available as a bound edition, From Hell is one of the most dizzyingly complex stories I’ve ever read. This is also Moore at his most obsessive with nearly 600 pages of slowly-building detail ultimately pointing to a grand and ancient conspiracy. The muddy black-and-white ink drawings of Campbell perfectly capture the grime of the streets of 19th-century London and the unhinged mind of a serial killer. The depth of research and detail in the characters and places surrounding the case really can’t be described, and it’s this complexity in the book that has driven me back to re-read it a number of times over the years. Johnny Depp starred in a 2011 film adaptaion of the story, but honestly I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch it given how much I love Moore and Campbell’s original series. A new book, The From Hell Companion, goes behind the scenes to the story and visual development of the book, and I’m certain I’ll be picking up a copy very soon.

Letters From Whitechapel

With a long-time interest with Jack The Ripper, I was thrilled to get a chance to play Fantasy Flight Game’s Letters From Whitechapel recently at Metropolitan Wargamers. The game presents a historically-accurate map of Whitechapel with its intricate cobblestoned streets and alleys on which a group of police officers attempt to track down and apprehend Jack The Ripper before his murderous spree comes to a bloody end.

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In the game, one player is elected to play as Jack while the other players take on the roles of patrolling London policemen. Behind a special screen, Jack denotes his hidden home base on a special sheet before placing tokens on the board at the location of possible victims. The police players then secretly place the starting locations of their patrolling officers. Then, all starting places for the police and prostitutes are revealed and markers are placed on the board. Going first, Jack then decides whether to kill his first victim or delay for time. Once the victim is murdered, a red token is placed to denote the scene of the crime and the police pawns are moved up to two black squares at a time.

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Jack the Ripper then moves each turn in secret between numbered spaces, marking the locations on his sheet away from view from the police players. A carriage token allows Jack to move two spaces and slip by police potentially blocking his path. An alley token lets jack slip through a dark back passage within any given city block. After each move by Jack, the police move and choose to investigate nearby areas or speculate on and adjacent location of Jack and make an arrest. If a player investigates a space where Jack has been, a clue is revealed and marked on the board. Turns alternate with Jack moving and the officers attempting to string together his movements through discovering more clues. Jack attempts to get back to his secret hideout before being found out by the inspectors within the set time of the round. If Jack is successful, the next round begins with a reset of the board and a new potential victim being placed.

Letters from Whitechapel is basically a cat-and-mouse game with the police players attempting to decode Jack’s possible routes of movement in order to close in and capture him. In my first game, it took us two rounds to track down a very elusive Jack who ran devious circuitous routes back toward his hideout. After the first round, we felt fairly confident we had narrowed his home base to one of three areas of the board, and we finally caught him in the second round by focusing on those areas. The game involves a lot of discussion among the police players with various theories of Jack’s whereabouts bandied across the table throughout the game.

For gamers with more than a little Jack The Ripper interest coupled with a desire to play out a game of hidden movement of the opponent, Letters From White Chapel is incredibly satisfying. With 125 years of the unsolved Whitechapel Murders behind us and probably many more to come, having a go at bringing Jack The Ripper to justice makes for an intriguing couple hours of play.