Pirates (just Pirates, not Pirates! or Pirates of something) is the Sony Online implementation of the WizKids miniatures game. Pirates are fun. Who doesn't like Pirates? How can you make something Piratey that doesn't put a grin on your face?
Aye, and thar be a tale...
Wizkids launched Pirates Constructible Strategy Game at GenCon two years ago, and it was immediately heralded as the Next Big Thing (tm). WizKids, a company built entirely on the back of the ridiculous-yet-fun MageKnight collectible miniatures game, needed a drug. I admit it, I bought into the hype, and left GenCon with a box of little plastic ships, clevery designed to be made from and returned to little plastic credit cards. They're still sitting in my closet, where they've gathered dust. My daughter breaks them out once in a while to enact pretend naval battles. (The fairies always win. Always. Pirates, it turns out, are no match for Fairy Wrath on the High Seas).
I'm not going to dig deep into the real-world WizKids game -- there are much more exhaustive reviews of the core game. It's a tabletop miniatures game. You create small fleets of ships, each with certain cargo, combat, and movement characteristics. Your fleet battles it out, while trying to loot gold from nearby islands. It's DeathRace 2000 on the high seas. Hilarity ensues.
What makes Pirates worth revisiting is not that the game is new, it's that it's a new implementation. While many franchises have bridged the gap through adaptations in both directions (e.g. Warhammer), there are precious few (outside tired old standbys filling up the Yahoo! games of the world) that try and take a physical game and bring it accurately and completely online.
It's more interesting to look at the serious gamer games in this genre of conversion, than a casual effort like Uno. Games with lots of rules, lots of options, and lots of opportunity for arguments. These are the geek-games that Germans buy in droves, and which every hobby-game shop is trying to sell. The electronic penetration of these types of games is scattered and low-budget for the most part. There are dozens of bootleg versions of Settlers of Catan, the best selling German-style game of the last 20 years. There's one officially sanctioned German web site -- Brettspielwelt -- that produces near-perfect implementations of the new-hotness every day of the year, but you have to be willing to learn German, navigate the world's worst Java application, and dedicate substantial time just to learning the interfaces.
More relevant is Magic the Gathering Online. Magic, the king of Crack Card Games, made the move online in 2002. The "real" video game industry bent over in laughter because Wizards of the Coast had the gall to bring the twisted business model directly to the virtual world: 16 cards for 4 bucks. Whether the game has been a success is difficult to gauge: the players are still there; the releases keep coming out; support remains strong. The business model defies traditional "units sold" analytics.
What is known is this: it's damn close to perfect, as an implementation. While not without the occasional hiccup, Magic Online not only faithfully reproduces the real-world experience of playing the game, but makes the process of collecting, building decks, and finding games vastly more efficient and more fun. If you like Magic as a game, you can play more of it, in more formats, in less time, and with less gamer-smell. Most importantly, the game enforces rules with an iron hand, and handles the most outrageous combinations of thousands of cards with ease. From a implementation perspective, it's a home run -- it's better than playing in person in almost every single way.
So it would seem logical that WizKids would try to horn in on the Wizards of the Coast action and start bilking folks like me for virtual ships. They learned from Magic well. The Pirates Online experience is very clean. Once you've got your Sony Station account up and the client installed, getting started, making fleets, buying packs, and playing games are all very straightforward. From a play perspective, the game is nearly indistinguishable from the offline version.
Here's how the game looks on the table:
And here's a similar situation online:
As you'd expect, everything is shiny and colorful. The ships are all true replicas of their plastic counterparts -- even virtual sea monsters maintain the weird goofy shape of their plastic dopplegangers.
And like Magic Online, what makes the online version of Pirates worth a look is that it makes playing the game easier. In a normal miniatures game, movement is annoying and subject to interpretation, and near-miss fistfights. "Hey, you moved half an inch to far!" "Awweee come on, that's totally in range!" In the virtual world, the game does all the measuring and moving for you, drawing pretty little circles so you can plan and move with complete precision.
The more complex game mechanics are equally improved. So much so that you can essentially forget about them. I found myself regularly flipping back in my paper rule sheet to remember how something works on the tabletop in order to make sense of the interactions the computer just took care of for me.
So what's not to love? The game.
Pirates, on the tabletop, has always been marginally creative and challenging as an intellectual pursuit. Its interest lies more in the fact that the bits are cool, and the theme is great. Who doesn't love putting stuff together and talking like a pirate? The Magic-the-Gathering-like orthogonal strategic design is there, to be sure: at least half the game is before you ever sit down to play, putting fleets of ships together in cool new ways that screw your buddies. But while reaching for the same core player base as Magic, Wizkids made Pirates too simple. The combinations aren't interesting enough. The ways of playing are ultimately bland and predictable, not lending themselves to the sweeping archetypes and grand gambits of Magic. Even the turn-by-turn gameplay itself is uninspired.
But the tabletop game still has legs, because each game is an excuse to dive into the theme. Pushing little make-believe ships around and making pirate jokes with your friends is just fun, damnit. Pirates, like many minis games, is much more about telling a collaborative story than it is about raw movement and numbers. If this were not the case, than many many more people would play Advanced Squad Leader, and the most popular minis game -- Warhammer 40K -- would be lost amongst the weeds. That it thrives is a testament to the incredibly rich and detailed mythology, and dare I say art, that Games Workshop brings to the game, year after year. A game of 40K, with 100 painted figures moving over a blasted landscape, is a story.
And the fantasy-pirate genre is one that should be fun and full of story. Alas, playing Pirates Online has none of the briny depth and avast-me-hearties flavor that even a simple game like Sid Meirs' Pirates! exudes (a ton of fun for a dozen hours or so.) It's not for some effort on Sony's part. The game features plenty of pirate dialogue and is graphically well themed, but sitting alone in front of a screen, becomes more annoying than immersive.
Sony has done its assigned task too well. Putting Pirates online with such detailed accuracy has served only to heighten the fact that the game -- the root game -- just isn't that great.