New Game Weekend: Corsairs


I’ve spent the last month or so reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island with my younger son, and it still amazes me how pirate stories continue to engage people long after the romantic swashbuckling days of yore have faded into history and myth. Just this past year, the rollicking fun NBC show Crossbones starring John Malkovich set sail in primetime. Even though the show was cancelled after a short run, it’s amazing the retelling of the exploits of the famed pirate Blackbeard found a home once again in a 21st-century crowded with zombies, superheroes and retro advertising executives behaving badly.


Sample galley cards from Corsairs

The pirate theme, as I’ve noted before, also continues to have a tight grasp on gamers. This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, I had a chance to play through the now out-of-print Corsairs produced by Rio Grande Games in 2000. Playing best with four players, Corsairs involves the simple idea of raiding and capturing ships by playing provision and pirate cards, rolling dice and double-crossing opponents. Four heavy cardboard ships (or galleys) begin on the table. Each galley card depicts the point value at the top, the die value needed to capture the ship and a mix of required provisions needed before an attempt can be made to capture the vessel.


Sample provision and pirate cards from Corsairs

Players begin by being dealt a hand of six cards each. The color-coded cards depict provisions – bananas, beans, bread, meat, rum, or water – or a pirate with a face value of  2 to 4. In turn, players place a total of two cards on the available ships. Matching types and amounts of provisions are played on ships face up along with any pirate cards face-down. After two cards are played, a third is discarded before redrawing back to a six-card hand. Play passes in turn until a player has enough required provisions to attack a ship. Rolling two dice and adding available pirate bonuses, players attempt to exceed the required value to seize the ship. If successful, all players lose the provisions on that ship and the player takes the card. If unsuccessful, the player loses their provisions on the ship and play passes to the next player. A player who attacks on their turn misses their next turn when they can redraw their hand. Once the final galley card is played and seized, the game ends and the player with the most points wins.


 A game of Corsairs at Metropolitan Wargamers

As with any good pirate game, the opportunity to out-scalawag your opponents is where the real fun comes in with Corsairs. With cards played on a ship, a player may attempt a “broadside” attack once per turn by rolling two special dice with provision colors on each face. A successful result enables the player to steal the provisions for their own use or simply to prevent another player from using them first. Capturing several ships of the same colored border also allows a player to double-up on points, so stealing a ship away from another player before they snatch it also comes into play.

I managed to win my first play through Corsairs by doubling-up on two high point purple ships, snagging two other valuable galleys and then foiling some other players by stealing their provisions through broadside attacks. Corsairs moves fast like a ship on the high seas and requires no reading, making it a great game to play with kids. And what kid – young or old – doesn’t like pirates?

Collector’s Note: You made need a treasure map to find a copy of the out-of-print Corsairs, but you can fdig them up on eBay occasionally for upwards of $50-60.

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.


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.


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.


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!