Land Ahoy! Grab your shovels and cutlasses boys, there’s treasure to be a digging and throats to be a cuttin’! I’ll lead a party ashore to pillage, explore and return with all the booty I can carry, you lads on the ship, follow the code and keep those filthy pirates at bay! Dead Man’s Doubloons from Thundergryph Games is a pirate adventure game of island exploration, naval battles of action programming and a doubloon-laden trove of take-that style mechanics.
Game: Dead Man’s Doubloons
Designer: Jason Miceli
Publisher: Thundergryph Games
Artists: Matthew Mizak
Player count: 2 – 6
Runtime: 40 – 60 mins
Doubloons and cannon balls will fly back and forth as easily and as frequently as the curses and name-calling. Each player will be desperately racing for the treasure buried at the peak of mount Zotétmon, once it has been claimed it’s all hands on deck as you either try and sail away as quickly as possible or send the wretch with all the gems down to Davy Jones’ Locker!
Right out of the docks I’m going to tell you some straight up facts about this game.
1. The artwork and components (especially the deluxe versions photographed here) are flippin brilliant.
2. The gameplay is ruthlessly take-that: sensitive souls beware!
3. The rulebook and insert are worse than a rum-infused hangover where you spent the night in a hammock in a cramped and smelly boat on rough seas.
Dead Man’s Doubloons tells a story over two game phases, the first; finding the treasure, followed by getting away with it. Using your rather lovely captain meeple you’ll slowly explore the unnamed island, judging and picking your route to spot marked “X”. There are various routes to the top, some more perilous than others, and some more rewarding. You’ll have to choose your way according to your needs and desperation; the blue coastal path is by far the longest but the safest, in contrast, the most direct route, red route, has a steep cost but will let you play catch up to the other captains.
You see, you’re not alone looking for the treasure, in fact, your not the only pirate with that piece of the map. At the beginning of the game the map fragments are dished out to each player, and over the first few turns when taking the Quest action you’ll find additional fragments to better aid you in uncovering the treasure. Now, whenever you take a quest action to advance along a route on the island, any pirate who also has the same type of fragment you have declare you are following, well, they also get a free move. This quickly becomes an interesting choice, as you desperately try to keep your opponents back but advance yourself, send them blindly forward to suffer a cost you then don’t have to. It’s perfectly possible, you just need to pull off the right action at the right time against the right opponent. Which is about as easy as getting a bunch of sailors to clean up their language.
All the actions are managed using a programming mechanic with a slight variability via the multi-use cards. You’ll start the game with five cards and providing your crew doesn’t get pinched or killed you’ll stick with five cards, three of which you’ll use each turn, placing them face down in front of you. These cards present a simple set of actions, you’ll perform. The top of the card is your ship movement, and then you have a range of choices such as questing, attacking, repairing your ship or boarding one of your opponents. Each player, in turn, will complete a card’s action choice before play moves onto the next player, so you have those scant few moments of having a quick look around the table, mainly at the pirate you’re hoping to attack, trying to work out if, how and when you will launch your attack.
This tandem play keeps engagement up, since one phase of the game is not reliant on the other, however, neither can be ignored. Once a route on the island is mostly explored playing catch up can be very safe, likewise if your ship is sunk it returns as a ghost ship, unable to take any more damage, but able to dish out extra – further to this it means that any doubloons or gems are cursed, but it turns out un-cursing yourself is “easy” it just requires five of those fateful coins.
Once the treasure is found, all players who are at the big X or even near it get to dig for some gems, then its all back to the ships and off you go. At this point the Captain Cards are shuffled into the deck, these when used advance the game end condition. All those landmark tiles that previously marked the route on the island, well they are now ‘exploits’ throwing them at your opponents, or should you need a little boost keeping them for yourself. It’s in this second stage of the game that there is quite a dramatic shift of pace. The player who thinks they’re in the lead just needs to stay away and stay afloat until they can cause the game end. For everyone else, it’s a free for all.
As is fitting for the theme, this is a cut-throat game from the off you’ll be firing, boarding, stealing, pillaging and it won’t stop. In fact, it gets worse. So, player beware, if you don’t like this style of game this isn’t for you. I had a blast, and thoroughly enjoyed my second and subsequent playthroughs of this game.
I didn’t enjoy my first game though, and if this were a “First Thoughts” style review it would read very differently. The rulebook is utter shite. I could sugar coat it, but I’d be doing you, dear reader, a disservice. My first playthrough was more or less out of the box with the rulebook open – because I was excited to play it – that excitement faded quicker than a wotsit when a sailor realises too late that that mermaid is actually a manatee. There is no anatomy of a player board, no indication as to what separates a Captain card from the seemingly identical action cards, the two-player variant is hidden at the back of the book as the third possible game variant – with no previous clue as to it even being there (making this game very flat in a two player game in my humble opinion).
Regarding my other irk about this game, the insert…well it’s clear the good folks at Thundergryph games tried really, really hard, but they missed the mark by a clear margin. Yes, it holds everything nice and safe. Too safe, getting those delicate looking ships out of the plastic insert…well, you know that feeling when you tear a cardboard counter when punching it? Now imagine it is a unique fragile plastic pirate ship. Removing this from the insert and putting them back is also an exercise in holdings one’s breath.
But, these “problems” are easily passed once you’ve dealt with them once, so you can get on enjoying this game, preferably at the higher player count, with a gaming group that is going to enjoy dishing out and taking damage. At two and three players though this game does suffer somewhat. You see as you lose crew, and you will, often and frequently, your hand size is reduced, from five to four, and then shortly after to three. At this point you are really on the back foot, you have no choice over how your ship moves, which, means the multi-use aspect of the programming become moot. With fewer ships on the board, you can often find yourself just sailing around not doing anything. Which, is pretty rubbish, because you’re still in the game but your role is perfunctory, not something you want in a game.
There are a number of modes of play, which in some ways feels a little like there is too much going on, as if designer and/or publisher couldn’t decide what should be cut, or kept having cool ideas that just bolted on to the game, but few of them feel truly at home. The Curse of the Black Gem feels a little unbalanced, and the “advanced” alternate Island board is a hot mess which might be fun if you can decrypt the rules for it – I gave up halfway through and house ruled it because I was sick of trying to figure it out.
All that being said, however, Dead Man’s Doubloons can tell an exciting story, and it does so in a very fun way. It is very easy to fall behind in this game, so providing you are ready for that type of game and know that when you start sliding down that slope you have to immediately claw it back. Dead Man’s Doubloons is simply (once you’ve figured out how to play), pretty and a lot of fun. Refreshingly this game comes in around the £40 mark, which is absolutely bang-on for this type of game.
This review was based on a full priced Deluxe Kickstarter edition paid for out of my own money from my own pocket. As such, some of the contents may vary from retail editions of the game.