Tabletop Review – Pirates of the Spanish Main

It’s been a while since I’ve posted.  Time to get something new up here for you to enjoy.  It’s a tabletop game review!

PotSM 7-smTonight we met up at a local tavern with a friend to play a new (to us) tabletop game called Pirates of the Spanish Main.  It’s a play on the fantasy of when ships sailed the Caribbean, plundering gold and making port on their own secret island hideouts.  While the game is currently out-of-print, it’s still a great game and has a cult following.

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An example of a ship card. From left to right across the top: number of masts, cargo space, movement, and cannon power.

The game begins with setting up the playing board.  Islands can be placed all around the table, some of which may hold treasure for players to capture.  The players then choose a set of ships and crew, using a pool of points to “buy” them.  The amount of gold placed about the game, as well as the number of points used to purchase ships and crew, can be varied to change the length and difficulty of the game.  Ships are them placed at each player’s home island.  The ships and crew came in the form of playing card-sized punch cards.  Once chosen, players would pop out each piece and assemble each ship, placing crew members next to the now-empty punch cards to indicate to which ship each crew member is assigned.  Each ship and crew will have a special ability.  Some ships get advantages during attacking, while others might get a disadvantage.  For example, captains might allow both movement and attack for a particular ship each round, making them particularly valuable.

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Closeup of a ship assembled from punched out pieces. Note the die on the forward mast to indicate a cannon placed there, as well as the pirate flag on the rear deck.

Ships and crew members were sold in packs, almost like trading cards.  So you never knew what you’d end up with until you opened the pack.  Now, you can find various sets and individual bits on the internet.  Ships and crew members each belong to a specific country (such as Britain, Spain, etc.) or they were pirate ships and crew members.  These are indicated on the upper-left portion of the ship cards, or by crew names.  Each ship also has a small flag to indicate its loyalty.  Crew placed on each ship must match that of the ship.

Once everyone is ready, players place their ships at their home island.  Each round allows each ship a single action, unless crew members state otherwise.  (i.e. the Captains)  The ships will state their speed, cargo, and attacking power on their respective cards.  Movement is measured using the ship’s card edges.  The “S” and “L” represent the short and long sides of the cards.  If a ship shows a movement of “S+L”, then you can move (in straight lines) one length of the short edge and one length of the long edge.  Movement can be done in any direction, and is measured from the bow of the ship.

Attacking can take multiple forms.  The most common attack is using cannons.  On the ship’s card, a white die indicates a short-range cannon, and a red die is a long-range cannon.  As with movement, these distances are measured from the respective masts on each ship using the long or short edges of a card to make sure the enemy ship is within range.  Then a die is rolled to determine the outcome.  The roll must be higher than that indicated on the card to hit the enemy vessel.  A hit removes a mast from the enemy ship, and thereby removes one of their cannons, as well.

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Card for a crew member. the numbered circles are treasure coins to be popped out and placed on various islands during the game.

There are various rules for ramming, boarding, pinning, and plundering other ships, as well as killing enemy crew members.

Later editions of the game also introduced terrain obstacles, such as reefs and seaweed.  Small ships can safely navigate reefs, while large ships can plow through seaweed.  There may be penalties incurred if other ships try to navigate these areas, making them risky shortcuts.

To win the game, one player must secure enough gold such that no other player can win the game.  This is done by moving ships to various islands that contain treasure, loading it up, and taking it back to that player’s home island.  But, they must beware.  If other players damage their ships, they may be dead in the water.  A ship that has no more masts is considered “derelict” and cannot move.  Players may attempt to tow that ship back to their base, securing whatever treasure it contains and incorporating it into their own fleet.  But the original owner has the opportunity to scuttle that ship, making sure no one will ever take that treasure.

Ships starting at their home island.

Ships starting at their home island.

Overall, the game is excellent and requires quite a bit of strategy.  Placement, attacking, and blocking other players’ movements will play heavily in the outcome of the game. However, care must be taken when setting up the game to ensure players and treasure are spaced evenly and fairly to avoid trapping someone between other players at the start of the game.  We ran into this situation, and I saw the brunt of it.  Nevertheless, it was still lots of fun.

We all had a great time playing this game.  I enjoyed it so much that I may have to see about finding a copy for myself.  It might not be easy, but I could definitely see adding this one to our game library.

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