Pirates. Don’t you just love those dastardly sea-faring rogues? If you answered in the negative then stop now, landlubbers. Read no further. Dead Man’s Doubloons is most assuredly a pirate-themed game. If I haven’t lost you, then I’m guessing you must share my fondness for nautical naughtiness and treasure seeking on the High Seas. You’re in good company because, after space exploration and zombies, piracy is probably the most ubiquitous board game theme – sailing ahead even of the seemingly unending surge of Viking themed games.
And, shiver me timbers, there’s a lot in Dead Man’s Doubloons: literally, in terms of components as well as in the various elements that make up the game play.
X marks the spot
Players in Dead Man’s Doubloons each control a pirate ship and a captain. The ship and crew are circling a treasure island and engaging in combat with each other; the captain is navigating his or her way around the island racing to be the first to reach the “X” that marks the spot where the buried treasure can be found.
Dead Man’s Doubloons makes use of action cards that, in effect, programme the multiple actions that each player will be taking on their next three turns. These cards are played initially face down so they can be revealed simultaneously, although they are resolved in turn order. Some of the cards dictate mandatory actions (for example, to sail the ship in a particular direction) and all offer a choice between at least two further actions to be taken. Map tokens are collected in order to advance along a track on the island, and players can choose which path to take. Like ski runs in a winter sports resort, each path’s colour designates its difficulty: the red route is the shortest but it is the most perilous…
Aside from the map playing board (with its two alternative sides), each player has their own playing mat which shows their individual special ability and on which they track their reputation, ship hull damage and crew casualties. Players each start with a crew of four but for every crewmember lost, the player suffers a penalty; for example, having to take a reduction in hand size or loss of the player’s special ability. Expect combat aplenty, but players have to have their ship appropriately positioned in order to fire on an opponent: either behind them or, for a broadsides attack, in the same quarter of the board. When players are able to launch an attack, they will also roll a custom six-sided die that can add to the damage inflicted or may reward the attacker by stealing a doubloon from the ship that is under attack. Doubloons can also be stolen by boarding a ship that is sharing the same location, provided the boarding party satisfies the requirements set out on the action card.
No-one ends up in Davy Jones’ Locker
Already you can see that Dead Man’s Doubloons is a game with much to and fro, and a high degree of player interaction. In play, you will find even the most introvert of players gradually falling into role. Expect much “argh”ing. Older players will be slipping into Robert Newton Long John Silver voices; younger players will be trying to sound like Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow. Definitely a game to play on 19 September (International Talk Like a Pirate Day).
As each player’s captain progresses along paths on the island, they pick up tiles which impose effects that are permanently applied to anyone subsequently arriving at that same space. Typically, the blue and yellow route tiles grant bonuses and benefits while the red route tiles impose a penalty: so much so that you may find players abandon any attempt at using the red route unless they are bent on suicide (see below…). The captain who is first to reach the spot marked X where the treasure is buried is rewarded with gems (worth 3, 4 or 5 points, depending on the randomly drawn gem type), although, with a thematic disconnect, runners’ up prizes are awarded to captains who are close behind.
Despite all the hull damage dished out, there is no player elimination in Dead Man’s Doubloons. Instead, a ship whose hull is reduced to zero becomes a ‘ghost ship’. Ghost ships lose manoeuvrability (they cannot turn about) but they gain attack rolls on the special die and they are immune to further damage. This means they operate as a catch up mechanic. The snag is that ghost ships lose a substantial number of points in end game scoring. If your ship does become a ghost ship, you’ll most definitely want to seek ‘redemption’ (reversion to normal non-ghost status) before the game ends. Redemption is achieved by collecting and paying five doubloons, so isn’t too hard to achieve. A redeemed ship automatically reverts to having two crew and a hull strength of 7. That means that if your ship has taken so much damage that it is limping along with no crew, it can be tactically advantageous to put yourself through the ghosting and redemption process. With that in mind, you might deliberately choose to attract damage to your ship by moving your captain along the island’s red path.
There be treasure!
The designer (Jason Miceli) and publishers (Thundergryph Games) obviously expect the ghost ships to come into play because the game comes not just with a set of six all-different robust plastic pirate ships but also transparent plastic ghost versions of each of those ships. These are great looking minis, adding a lot to the table appeal of this game. When you open up the Dead Man’s Doubloons box for the first time, you may be disconcerted to find the ships fitting tightly into a moulded insert. The ships have sails and masts that look delicate, so I was reluctant to tug at them to prise them loose from the insert. I need not have worried, however. I’m not claiming that the plastic ships are unbreakable but they certainly stand up to much more physical manhandling than the brittle minis that come in many other games.
Credit too to the publishers for going the extra mile in supplying wooden captain meeples with printing rather than the stickers that are supplied in many other games. Again, these add greatly to the Dead Man’s Doubloons’ visual appeal.
Aside from the large-format action cards, you’ll find tons of cardboard too for the various tiles, tokens and doubloons used in the game. In addition, there are optional rules and extra components for a half dozen variants and included mini-expansions, so Dead Man’s Doubloons is a game that’s been designed with replayability in mind. And I haven’t even mentioned the semi-randomly set up ‘water tiles’ that modify play in each quarter of the sea. The various special abilities that the players start with are all quite different (which means you’ll almost always look enviously at those of other players, thinking them better than your own) but they are lost when the crew falls from 4 to 2 so are unlikely to survive much beyond the halfway point in the game.
If you like ‘take that’ games, then you can expect to have a great deal of fun with Dead Man’s Doubloons. Although there are an awful lot of moving parts which add to the game’s complexity, this is not a game involving deep strategy. Indeed, there’s quite a high quotient of randomness, which is probably in keeping with the theme. That’s especially the case if you play with the full complement of six players. You need to view Dead Man’s Doubloons as essentially a fun game with a few fiddly rules that you just have to learn to get going. The rulebook is well designed, clearly laid out and features a detailed glossary explaining every tile, so, happily this is not a difficult game to get to grips with.
The high quality of the components help Dead Man’s Doubloons to its 6/10 rating. It would score more if it weren’t for the fact that players are very likely to find the action card programming a frustrating feature. Often, especially with just two or three players, you’ll plan to attack an opponent by moving forward only to find that the ship you’d plotted to target has also changed position. Of course, that’s only to be expected, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. But there I go, trying to strategise when I should just be playing this game for fun.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.