June 25th, 2006

Pirate - Calico Jack's flag

Pirates: Still Better than Ninjas

A local gaming shop brought in kukla_tko42's acting troupe Saturday afternoon. Riding on the release of Pirates of the Caribbean 2, they decided to declare a "Pirate Day" and fill the store up with pirates, while setting up demos of pirate-themed card games, board games, and so forth on every horizontal surface. As someone who's very, very seriously into Caribbean piracy of the period 1560 to 1800, I was cheerfully invited by Kukla to come along. I didn't so much get paid as fed, but what the heck -- pirates. Including pirate babes.

And, not having been inside a gaming shop in probably most of a year, I ended up buying a pirate-themed game myself. Having seen a demo of it, I might have been more tempted by the cardboard miniatures game Pirates of the Spanish Main, were it not for the fact that the store only had the latest expansion to it, "Pirates of Davy Jones' Curse," which celebrates the aspect of pirate lore that I hate the most -- the fantasy and magic aspect of it. And to be fair, Eris only knows when I'd ever actually get around to playing it, not least of which because it seems to take so long to play.

No, I ended up buying something sight unseen and without knowing anything of the game mechanics -- something I almost never do. That it was a Steve Jackson Games game didn't count in its favor or against it; I've had very mixed experiences with that brand. No, I admit that in a moment of weakness I bought it for the packaging, figuring that it was worth the asking price (minus the tiny discount I got as a performer) for yet more of Phil Foglio doing soft-pore corn. That's right, I bought SPANC: Space Pirate Amazon Ninja Catgirls. And it really is soft-pore; about the same level of risqué as his famous Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire series ever gets, if you're familiar with it. (And if you're not, for the love of God and all that's holy, get familiar with it. Good science fiction humor with a broad appeal is scarcer than hen's teeth, and yet even with that caveat, this is the funniest and most fun and most creative science fiction humor ever written, let alone drawn.) I did hear one fair complaint about the artwork: all, and I mean all, of the women have the same figure that Phil Foglio draws for all of his female characters, whether Dixie Null from What's New? with Phil and Dixie or Louisa Dem Five in Buck Godot or Agatha Clay in Girl Genius. If that bothers you, skip this game; there's no point in buying this game if the artwork is going to aggravate you.

That being said, to my pleasant surprise, it actually plays pretty well, too. The basic plot of the game is that each player represents a four-girl crew of felinid anthropomorphic space pirates. In their universe, each ship learns at more or less the same time about yet another fabulous treasure. To reach each treasure, they have to bypass four randomly drawn challenges, each one of which will employ either their skills at "piloting vehicles, carousing, using big guns, persuading by force" (space pirate skills), or else "intimidation, outdoor survival, swordfighting, persuading by charisma" (amazon skills), or else "sneaking, wearing black, using daggers and shuriken, climbing, disarming traps, persuading by fear" (ninja skills), or else "fashion sense, unarmed combat, persuading by sex appeal" (catgirl skills). So, for example, flying the ship through a scary asteroid field might require one of the crew to make a difficult Space Pirate skill roll (as opposed to cutting in line in a luxury starship's buffet, an easy Space Pirate roll). Or it might involve trying to sweet-talk some information or gizmo out of a small and stubborn child, a difficult Catgirl skill roll (or the same information or gizmo out of a group of teenage boys, a very easy Catgirl skill roll). Many challenges also grant extra treasure or they grant "Toys" which act as weapons to boost a crew member's skills. When only one ship reaches the treasure and nobody else does in their next turn, then a new caper of four challenges is dealt until somebody has ten treasures. One special Toy, a personal cheering section ("Poolboy") counts as a treasure, too. If two or more ships' crews reach the treasure in the same turn, they have a chance to Catfight, where each winner gets to try to steal a piece of loot from one of the other winning crews (if they use space piracy) or knock out one of their crew and make them draw a new one at random (amazon attack) or steal one of their toys (ninja attack) or steal one of their poolboys (catgirl attack). Then a new four-challenge caper gets dealt.

Considering that a single caper can win anywhere from two to six treasure (although in the early game it makes some sense to spend treasure on toys) and it only takes ten to win, once you know the rules a game hardly takes any time; four or five capers of four challenges each is enough to finish most games, and once you know the rules that's easily an hour or less. Action moves fast, because while there's some strategy to planning which of your team to use this turn and which toys to equip them with, it's not terribly hard to decide, and a single die roll on 2d6 settles every challenge. And a significant percentage of the fun, even once you've read all of the cards, is seeing the plot line of how a caper turns out, and narrating it as a story. "Okay, the Dread Pirate Roberta rolled a 6 and got everybody through the asteroid field. That's as far as anybody's made it yet, so what's the next challenge? Okay, next she has to sneak everybody past the Overfed Lions, an Amazon skill roll but an easy one. Want to let her continue and risk getting her knocked out of this caper, or pass to the next player and try again with a stronger Amazon next turn?"

As toy bonuses rack up, it is a little bit susceptible to the Iron Law of Distribution ("them that has, gets"), but with games going fast, it'll be your turn soon. And in the meantime, it's got a lot of the madcap zany feel of games like The Awful Green Things from Outer Space without that game's aggravating random imbalances. So in many ways, in addition to being an interesting strategy game, it does come off as a kind of randomly-dealt Phil Foglio SF farce every time. So I feel like it was absolutely worth it.

(P.S. As an aside, I got to glance at the piece of unmitigated crap that White Wolf is passing off as the latest edition of Mage: The Ascension and oh, my ghod, what an inexusable nuclear whale abortion it is. I declare the White Wolf fad officially done. Whoever the heck is writing their stuff these days has not even the slightest understanding of what it was that made their game universe's previous edition at all cool or interesting.)