Pirates: Constructible Strategy Game Online Review

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Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Developer: SOE Denver

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: 1.4 GHz processor, 512 MB RAM, DirectX 7 compatible video card with 64 MB video RAM, 300 MB HD space, broadband internet connection, Windows XP or more recent operating system

Roam the high seas in search of booty, plunder islands for their gold and harass others who would do the same! Actually, the ships are cardboard (or an electronic representation of cardboard), and the treasures are tokens, but there's still plenty of piratical fun to be had (and without the scurvy or gangrene that might have troubled treasure hunters of the period).

Kyle Ackerman

Collectible games have been a mainstay of the hobby (non-electronic) gaming world. Be they cards, miniatures or anything that can be constructed from cardboard (such as sailing vessels, cars or rocket ships), collectible games are great for both gamers and game companies. The publisher of a successful collectible game is assured there will be constant income, unlike a board game, and gamers get a dynamic, constantly evolving system to enjoy.

Of course, there are a lot of issues that go hand in hand with collectible hobby games. The biggest of these is that (outside of tournaments and conventions that can require travel) it can be very difficult to find people with whom to play. That's where these games can be vastly better online. Not only is there always a community of players available for matches, but the computer can take care of all the difficult details, instantly resolving arguments about tabletop measurements, ranges and whether die rolls really count.

The only downside to the online game (other than losing the tactile pleasure of assembling and moving the pieces) is that you don't actually own the pieces yourself. As the license agreement (that you agree to every time you play) states, "YOU WILL NOT ACQUIRE ANY OWNERSHIP INTEREST IN THE DIGITAL OBJECTS, THE SOFTWARE OR THE GAME. YOU UNDERSTAND THAT IF THE GAME SERVICE IS SHUTDOWN FOR ANY REASON (IN OUR SOLE DISCRETION), YOUR LICENSE TO USE AND PLAY THE GAME AND/OR ANY DIGITAL OBJECTS IN CONNECTION THEREWITH EXPIRES WITHOUT REIMBURSEMENT OR REFUND"

Approaching Critical Mass

The Pirates: Constructible Strategy Game Online is still in its infancy, and like the online counterparts of several collectible hobby games, has a slowly growing audience. It is, however, an excellent and dutiful implementation of the tabletop constructible strategy game from WizKids. Players construct fleets of ships, monsters and crew and compete to collect the most treasure from a series of islands (or simply eliminate the enemy fleets). The online game faithfully transports the game to the online realm and can look great on new machines or look just fine (and still work) on older machines.

While there is a series of tutorials available that will handily teach the basics of Pirates play, the tutorials fall short of complete instruction and the electronic interface will ruthlessly enforce the strictest interpretation of the rules. Old hands with experience playing the physical game will have no problems (after, perhaps, a few misplaced clicks), but green deck-swabbers may find that it takes a long time to adapt to the basics of towing other ships, ramming and transferring treasure (or crew) from vessel to vessel. Fortunately, novices can learn a lot from the animated tutorials at WizKids' site for the tabletop game.

Many Strategies, Few Players Yet

Once you get the client installed, purchase a few packs and get yourself acclimated, there's a lot of fun to be had in Pirates. And plenty of fun to be looted from other players. The glory of the game is that it offers myriad strategies. In standard play, the winner is the person with the most gold, even if all his ships are sunk, while in Guns & Gold the winner is the one with the most gold (or he who sinks all his opponent's ships). This means that a nearly unstoppable fleet of warships can easily lose to a swift treasure hunting fleet with few guns and large hulls, while that same cash-collecting crew might easily fall victim to a fleet with strong boarding abilities or treasure-stealing traits. The many special abilities possessed by various ships and crew make it possible to generate fleets with incredibly varied abilities. Small fleets, in particular, are interesting because whether you have few ships or have spent a fortune on game packs, you have to make difficult decisions and tantalizing trade-offs.

Sadly, while it's usually possible to get a game started, it won't necessarily be the game you want. Games are typically played with 40-, 60- and 80-point fleets (with tournaments of the hobby game tending toward the lower point value games). Right now there are few players online at any given time (usually 20-30) and the most common online games seem to be 80-point deathmatches. As often as not, you'll face a foe with submerged (unassailable) sea monsters waiting for you to sail your fleet into the maw of his monsters. And since it's a deathmatch, there's no option to win the match by snatching treasure. It's an ambush in more than one sense.

Despite that complaint, there are many players interested in exciting conventional matches. And those same players are often friendly and eager to help inexperienced players learn the interface. Hopefully, as more players join in the online fun, there will be a lot more opponents interested in every style of play. All of the online versions of collectible hobby games have experienced a similar start, and Pirates is a deep strategic game with plenty of fans and fun to spare. There is good reason to expect the best and dip your toe in the piratical waters.

Numerous Ways to Drop a Buck

Collectible online games are often difficult to rate comparably to conventional games, because you aren't paying a flat fee for the game experience. The more cash you sink, the more ships and crew you'll get and the more options you'll have for fleet construction. You might not have more fun by spending more, but you will win more often. Fortunately, most players can have a grand time with a starter pack and a game pack or two (followed by a bit of trading and haggling with other players).

Right now, Sony Online Entertainment is offering game packs for just under $4 or 18 game packs for $65. Players can also purchase one of four starter packs that include a fleet of three ships for just under $10 apiece. Of course, before those options are available, you'll need a registration package. For just under $7, you'll get one game pack and access to the board game. For just under $15 you'll get one of the starter packs, two game packs and access to the board game. Finally, for almost $40 you'll get all the starter packs and four game packs.

Take the Helm

So, as you can see, for the price of a conventional PC game ($30 to $50), you can purchase enough ships to have plenty of fun seeking gold and battling other players. And if you're just not sure, try out the free game client. There are a few issues with the game that will likely be fixed in the future. The client crashes occasionally, and while the sound design is appropriate, the limited number of sounds can become painfully repetitive. If you don't turn off the sound, you'll hear "A pirating we go!" an awful lot. Also, there really isn't a sufficient player base for tournaments at this time. Conventional tournaments are fun, offering a more organized alternative to play, and sealed deck tournaments are the preferred play style for penniless veterans.

Sealed deck tournaments have all players starting with a random assortment of ships, taking away the advantage that extra cash ordinarily offers. Event passes cost $1, but events lie in the future. On the other hand, so do more expansions for the game, as SOE has more fodder to load its guns with. As can be guessed from a quick gander at WizKids' hobby game, there are additional ships (and other features, like forts) that should make their way into the electronic version soon. Lastly, if you want a truly even game (that isn't the simplified "practice" game), there's the Pirates: Quest for Davy Jones' Gold board game. It uses the basic rules of Pirates, but in a simple board game framework that has everyone starting off in a similar position.

Overall, the Pirates: Constructible Strategy Game Online solidly changes the hobby game from WizKids into an electronic game that can be played at all hours, from any PC. The game's community is growing (and needs to grow further), and suffers from occasional technical glitches, but is doing remarkably well (especially given that for most of the launch period, the developer was under drifts of snow). Fans of the hobby game should dive in, knowing their pastime has been pleasingly ported to the PC. Novices should consider buying a pack or two, to see if the game meets their taste, and then enjoy "crossing the T" to meet mates in online battle.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on January 5, 2007 3:28 PM.

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