Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Warlock's Review: Pirates vs. Dinosaurs!

(Aside:  Just a few days left to enter my 400th Entry Contest!  Three simple questions separate you from a pair of great PDFs!  Enter now!)

Unfortunately, due to my spring/summer hiatus, I didn't get a chance to do my traditional Origins recap as in past years.  I'm pleased to say that the con went spectacularly, with nearly every Cold Steel Wardens event going off, with players excited to see the book in print!  Plus, I actually got a chance to play my own game for the first time, as the PlatinumChick had an open slot in one of her Saturday "Birds in Flight" sessions.  It's a unique thing to sit down and play your own creation, rather than GM!

Pirates vs. Dinosaurs!
But, I didn't spend the whole convention behind the GM screen; I did manage to pull myself away from the big chair long enough to try out a few new games, including Jolly Roger Games' Pirates vs. Dinosaurs.  Created by revered game designer Richard Launius--creator of Arkham Horror and contributor to Greater Than Games' Infernal Relics expansion for Sentinels of the Multiverse--Pirates vs. Dinosaurs provides a fun little romp through a dinosaur-infested island in search of booty!

The game itself has two primary phases:  the "exploration" phase and the "dig" phase.  During exploration,  your pirates search the island for hidden landmarks necessary to find the treasure dig site.  Exploration phase is marked by Dinosaur encounters (facing off against nasty Velociraptors and the like) and Other encounters (which range from quicksand to cliffs to native islanders).  All encounters are inflicted by your fellow pirates, though you can encounter one dinosaur and one "other" encounter per turn, which keeps any one player from being saddled with tons of encounters.  Encounter cards are also used as personal one-shots granting additional dice, rerolls, or allowing for additional successes on the dice.

Sample encounter cards from Pirates vs Dinosaurs.
Note the bomb icons on certain cards:
Those indicate one-shot discard effects!
Defeating encounters hinges on your relics and equipment (chosen round-robin at the beginning of the game) and your crew, which attack as a series of dice.  While you never "lose" to an encounter, you do lose crew members, which mean less dice to roll--weakening you for future encounters--and limiting the amount of treasure that you can possibly carry during the "dig phase".  I would have liked to see some incentive or benefit gained for not losing crew members, but that would mean numerous changes to the game mechanics.

After finding the necessary landmarks, your pirate enters their "dig" phase, which is a "Press Your Luck" sort of mini-game in which your crew might unearth spectacular treasures, ancient curses, or inadvertently trigger a volcanic eruption.  The "dig phase" is neat concept, though it often ends up that the first player to reach the dig site garners the most treasure, ending up in a win for them.  Treasure is randomized by amount, so that's not always the case, though more treasure chests unearthed almost always equates to more treasure in tallying victory.
The board for Pirates Vs. Dinosaurs.
Not shown are the hidden "landmark" tiles,
which direct your pirate to the dig site (top right).

While Pirates vs. Dinosaurs is nominally a race game, it does include numerous player vs player elements.  In addition to playing encounters on one another, players may even have their crews battle one another, if in the same location, including the dig site itself. Unfortunately, there's just not a lot of incentive to actually fight one another. If you want to stay ahead of the competition, it's almost always a better choice to simply explore or dig, rather than actively fight one another.  If there were a more tangible benefit to PvP, I could see it becoming more viable.

As with pretty much any game by the esteemed Mr. Launius, Pirates vs. Dinosaurs does have its share of fiddly-bits.  Crew tokens, cards for equipment and relics, encounter cards, landmark cards and such seem like they would become overwhelming, though each pirate's placard helps keep these elements organized and straightforward.  I honestly wish that Arkham Horror's character placards were as well laid out as those for Pirates vs. Dinosaurs, to keep equipment and spells organized.  I was impressed with the quality of the game pieces overall, with clear, easy to read cards and easily interpreted symbols.

Most important of all:  is it fun?  Yes, yes it is.  There's really nothing like siccing a charging triceratops on a fellow pirate crew, driving them out of the swamps so that you can explore the area uninhibited.  While there are issues with the endgame--particularly the "first person there tends to win" problem, the game works actively to keep players engaged and interested even when it's not their turn, which is the hallmark of a great game.  Plus, it plays fast:  a single game rarely takes more than 90 minutes, counting set-up and tear-down.

Pirates vs. Dinosaurs is a spectacular little diversion well worth the sticker price.  Pick it up if you're a fan of Launius' other games, pirates, dinos, or any combination of the above!

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