You’re just a sea dog now, but you have big plans: one day they’ll call you Dread Pirate! But first, you’ll need to hire some crew, plunder settlements, and amass a fortune to bury.
What Is Tiny Epic Pirates?
Tiny Epic Pirates is a game for 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, and takes 45 minutes to play. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge level of $25 for a retail copy of the game. There are several other pledge tiers available, including a $10 print-and-play, $30 deluxe edition, and the $40 tier that includes an expansion. I would say that kids younger than 14 could also enjoy this, as long as they have some experience with modern board games. Thematically, there’s nothing that’s particularly inappropriate for kids, other than, you know, plundering settlements and stealing booty from merchant ships.
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Tiny Epic Pirates Components
Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and may not reflect final component quality. The ship models in the prototype were 3D printed so they’re a bit more brittle. The icons on the map cards will probably be larger. Many of the components may get upgraded depending on whether stretch goals are reached during the course of the campaign.
Here’s what comes in the game:
- 7 Ships (4 player ships, 2 merchant ships, 1 Navy ship)
- 3 Dice
- 12 Sure-fire tokens
- 4 Captains
- 16 Deckhands (4 per player)
- 4 Legendary tokens
- 12 Treasure tokens (3 per player)
- 4 Doubloons
- 20 Order tokens (5 per player)
- Market mat
- 16 Map mats
- 4 Helm mats
- 4 Legend mats
- 4 Captain cards
- 11 Merchant Ship cards
- 16 Crew cards
- 40 Booty cubes (10 each in 4 colors)
- 20 Search tokens
- Booty bag
- 2 Port tokens (not pictured in photo)
The items called “mats” in the component list are oversized cards, similar to those found in other Tiny Epic games, and the items called “cards” are Euro-style mini-cards, about half the size of a typical poker card.
The pirate ship models are fun—each pirate ship can hold 3 of the booty cubes, and the merchant ships can hold 1 cube.
The map mats have ocean in the center and land in the corners, illustrated so that when you lay out the cards, it forms islands at the intersections of the corners. The islands have various little details corresponding to the locations: settlements to plunder, markets to sell goods, coves to hide out, and so on. There are some fun details in the artwork that you’ll enjoy if you look closely. The icons were a little small in the prototype, but I’ve been informed that these will be enlarged in the final game, which will be an appreciated tweak.
The four booty types (sugarcane, rum, coffee, and gunpowder) are represented by the four colors of cubes, but I found that the purple and brown in particular were a little close in color, depending on the lighting. Those colors may change in the final version in order to be a little more easily distinguished, which I think would help. It may also be nice if there is some sort of marking on the cubes for color-blind players, if the final color choices still present any issues. In my gameplay photos, I’ve substituted green and orange for some of the cubes to make them a little more distinct.
The captain and crew cards feature a lot of different pirates with different weapons or other accessories. I’m happy to see a broad range of people represented, including a few Asian pirates! I also liked that the women aren’t all made into stereotypical “sexy pirates.” There are enough crew cards that you’ve got a few that are pretty and handsome and look a bit flirty, and some that look threatening, and so on. Kudos to the art team for those. (Note: the game will include 16 crew cards but the prototype included more that will be stretch goals, and I didn’t have a list of which ones were which at the time of this writing.)
The ship’s wheel on the helm mat has icons for the various actions you can take, but you also place your captain and deckhand meeples onto those spaces. Since the icons are printed in the center of the tiles, your captain and meeples tend to cover up those icons unless you remember to place them off to the side. It might be nice to have the icons shifted a little, with explicit spaces for the meeples, just to make that a little easier.
Many of the components in the prototype are just standard bits, but are likely to be custom pieces in the final version: the captain and deckhand meeples, legendary and treasure tokens, and so forth. If you’re familiar with the Tiny Epic series, you know that they do a great job making the most of what goes into the small boxes, and I expect Tiny Epic Pirates to follow suit.
The Kickstarter campaign page mentions additional components that weren’t included in my prototype version: the Crimson Silver mini expansion included in the deluxe edition, and the Curse of Amdiak expansion included in the $40 tier. My prototype also did not include solo rules, though the final game will have a solo mode as well.
How to Play Tiny Epic Pirates
The game is a race to bury three treasures, with some tie-breaker rules in case multiple players manage to do that on the same round.
Shuffle the map cards and lay them out in a 4×4 grid to form the playing area, and then shuffle the search tokens and place one on each card. Return the rest of them to the box. Put the port tokens in opposite corners of the map, with a merchant ship at each port facing the opposite port. Put a random booty cube from the bag on each merchant ship. The starting player places the Navy ship in one of the corners that does not have a port.
Shuffle the crew cards and lay out 3 face-up next to the deck. Place sure-fire tokens and dice nearby.
Place the market mat nearby and put one cube of each color in the market spaces in random order. Organize the merchant ship cards in value from lowest (2) to highest (8), and then put one card in each space below the market mat.
Each player gets a helm mat and a legend mat, along with various tokens. You start with 1 gold, tracked with the doubloon token on the edge of the legend mat. Your three treasures are placed at the bottom of the legend mat, and your legendary token is placed on the lowest spot of the legend chart, “Sea Dog.” Shuffle your action tokens and place them randomly onto the five open spaces on your ship wheel. Put your captain pawn on the “0” space of the ship’s wheel (with the anchor), one deckhand on each of the deck assignments (Rigging, Cannons, and Extort), and the last deckhand on the “Corsair” space of the legend chart. Each player also receives a captain card at random, placed next to your mats.
Each player receives a booty cube—the first player receives the cube of the lowest value, second player receives the next cube on the market chart, and so on. In turn order, each player places their ship in an empty cove spot (marked with an anchor on the map).
The ultimate goal of the game is to bury treasure, for which you’ll need to amass gold and then get to an appropriate spot on the map—all of your actions should be driving you toward that, along with raising your legendary level (which gives you certain bonuses but also serves as a tie-breaker).
On your turn, you’ll move your captain pawn, sail your ship, and then take an action. Depending on your captain and crew, you may also get to take bonus actions.
Your captain moves clockwise around the wheel. On your turn, you must move your captain, and it moves one space by default, though you are allowed to skip over the anchor space for free. If you want to move further along the wheel to take a different action, you may spend deckhands from the bottom of your helm mat (from both “Deck Assignments” and “Repair”), placing them onto the spaces you are skipping over. You can skip over previously placed deckhands, but if you choose to land on a previously placed deckhand, it is moved into repair. In the example above, the green player’s captain started on space 3, skipped over space 4 by placing a deckhand there, and landed on space 5.
You may then move your ship—your maximum speed is based on your legendary level (Sea Dogs can sail 1 space) plus the number of deckhands you have assigned to Rigging. Movement is orthogonally from card to card, and you can sail into and through spaces with other ships. Some of the spaces have storms—if you sail into a storm, you get jostled, and must move a deckhand into Repair. (Deckhands must come from assignments first, and then from your wheel. If all of them are in Repair already, then you may not sail into a storm.)
Then, you take the action according to the space your captain is on: Plunder, Trade, Crew Up, Search, Attack, or Hide.
Plunder (crossed swords) allows you to plunder a settlement, marked on the map with crossed swords. You’ll gain either 1 or 2 cubes (depending on the location) at random from the bag and place them on your ship, which can hold up to 3 cubes. If you have too many, you decide which cubes to jettison (returning them to the bag).
Trade (hand) allows you to sell booty at a market, marked on the map with the hand icon and a resource type. You can sell any number of cubes of that particular type, earning gold according to the good’s current market value (shown on the market mat). The cubes are returned to the bag. The good you just sold drops to the lowest price in the market, pushing the others up.
Crew Up (face) can be done at any location, because there are always people lounging about wanting to join a pirate crew. Choose one of the three face-up crew cards and put it next to your player mats. You may (once per turn) spend a gold to clear the crew market and draw three new cards before taking one. You may only have 4 crew cards (in addition to your captain), and may discard crew members to make room for new crew as desired. Also, once during the game, when you take the Crew Up action, you may mutiny, flipping your captain card over to its opposite face.
Search (telescope) lets you pick up a search token from your location if available. Some search tokens give you an immediate reward of gold, booty, or a sure-fire token. Others are kept to be spent later, providing a 2 speed boost or allowing you to sail into a storm without getting jostled.
Attack (cannon) is used to fire at either a merchant ship or another player in your space. (The Navy is invincible and cannot be attacked.) You roll dice (either 2 or 3, depending on your legendary level) and compare them to the dice shown at the top of your captain and crew cards. Each match is a hit, plus each deckhand you have assigned to Cannons is a hit. (If you have two “3” values showing on your crew, then a “3” die result would count as 2 hits.) You may then spend sure-fire tokens to change a die to whatever face you want. To defeat a merchant, you must roll higher than its strength value. To defeat another player, the defender rolls after the attacker and the higher total hits wins.
If you defeat a merchant ship, you get the booty it is carrying, plus the gold value from the card, and potentially go up in legendary status (also based on the merchant ship card). The merchant ship feels to the port farthest from you and gets a new booty cube. The corresponding merchant card is discarded and replaced from the deck. If you defeat another player, you do not take anything from them, but you go up in legendary status. Whenever you go up in legendary status, you gain the windfall bonus immediately.
If you tie with a merchant or another player, you get a sure-fire token. If you lose to a merchant or another player, you get a sure-fire token and are also jostled, moving a deckhand into Repair.
Hide Out (anchor) allows you to hide if your ship is on an empty cove space (marked with an anchor). Place your ship into the cove, and you are now protected from all attacks until your next turn. You may then reassign all of your deckhands into Rigging, Cannons, and Extort. (Each space may have any number of deckhands.)
Your captain and crew may provide bonus actions. After completing your primary action, if your captain pawn is on a space that matches one of your crew member’s trigger, then you may take the bonus action shown (even if you didn’t actually use the primary action). For instance, in the photo above, the crew on the far right allows the player to move the merchant ships 2 spaces each if they’re on the Plunder action.
The captain card also provides one more important action that isn’t present on the wheel: Bury Treasure! To bury treasure, you must be at a space marked with a treasure chest, the Navy must not be present, and your captain pawn must be on the Search action so that you can earn the bonus actions. Spend 12 or 13 gold (according to the map icon) and place one of your treasure chests over that icon. Nobody else may bury at that spot now. (There are also some crew members that provide bury treasure as a bonus action based on other primary actions.)
At the end of your turn, you check if your captain pawn crossed over the ship line (between 5 and 0) on your turn. If so, then two things happen: first, you gain 1 gold for each deckhand assigned to Extort. Then, the merchant ships move, and the Navy moves. The player to your right moves the ships. Merchant ships move 2 spaces, and always sail toward the port they’re facing—if they reach it, they turn around and face the other port. The Navy ship moves toward the active player (who just finished their turn), and its speed is determined by the number of treasures that player has buried. If the Navy ship enters the active player’s space (and they’re not hiding in a cove), it attacks, jostling all of their deckhands into Repair. You don’t get a sure-fire token when the Navy hits you.
Once a player has buried 3 treasures, that triggers the last round of the game. Each other player will get one more turn, and then the game ends.
If only one player buried 3 treasures, they win the game! If multiple players have buried 3 treasures, the player with the highest legendary status wins. In case that is tied, the player with the most gold left wins.
Why You Should Play Tiny Epic Pirates
I’ve played every Tiny Epic game that Scott Almes and Gamelyn Games have cooked up so far, and although I feel like some are better than others, each one impresses me in at least two ways: first, the amount of gameplay that fits into a compact box; second, the way that each game uses very different mechanisms and not just different themes. This is now (if I’m counting correctly) the 11th new game in the series, excluding expansions, and it uses some ideas that have not been present in previous games.
But let’s get back to my first point. You probably know from my other reviews that oversized boxes are one of my pet peeves. To be clear: I’m not against big boxes themselves—I’m against boxes that are much too big for the game they contain, that have more room for expansion than will ever be needed, that take up way too much precious shelf space in my (okay, yes, ridiculously large) collection. The Tiny Epic series is one of the few that goes in the other direction, making the small size a selling point, and that’s part of the reason they get my enthusiastic support. Their boxes are small, but they cram it full, and the game itself can still rival big-box games once you break everything out. The map for Tiny Epic Pirates is basically a full-sized game board, just broken down into cards; since each player has two oversized cards in this game, this may be one of the bigger table hogs in the series.
I know the games aren’t for everyone, though. Some people simply prefer a folding board and sturdier player mats, and I know there are those who aren’t fans of the tiny custom meeples that are often used for resources in the series. Tiny Epic Pirates does make use of oversized cards for the boards, but it has fewer tiny resources that might slide around. The gold doubloon is the only thing you’ll need to move up and down on the resource track in this game. The booty cubes are pretty tiny so that they fit on the ships, but you don’t have to be quite as careful about accidentally shifting your player mat. Your tolerance for cards as boards and the half-sized cards will likely affect how much you enjoy the game.
Tiny Epic Pirates is the first in the series to use a rondel for your actions, in the form of the ship’s wheel. Your captain goes around and around, taking those actions in order unless you commit deckhands to skip over spaces. I like the fact that each player’s wheel is arranged randomly, so players will not have the same order of actions. That forces players to figure out their own tactics, because you can’t just copy somebody else easily. I feel like there may be certain arrangements (or at least certain sequences within the arrangement) that might be more advantageous than others, but I’ve only played a handful of times so far so that’s just a guess. For instance, having a Trade action not too far after a Plunder would let you ditch goods quickly in case you’re able to collect more other actions. On the other hand, having Trade immediately after Plunder might not give you enough time to sail to the correct market.
I like the tension between assigning your deckhands to the action spaces and using them to skip actions. Each of the actions is useful. Rigging, to increase your speed, is particularly helpful when you’re low on the legendary track, because moving only one space per turn feels painfully slow. Cannons are vital for attacking, of course, but also for defense: if you have nobody assigned to cannons, you’re likely to be an easy target, allowing other players to level up at your expense. Extorting is an odd one—it’s a good way to make a few bucks, but only once per circuit on the wheel, and the rest of the time they’re just sitting there. The fact that you can typically only reassign deckhands when you hide—right after you cross the ship line—means that if you put somebody into extort, they’re useless until you make another whole trip around your wheel.
Of course, you’ll want to skip over actions from time to time, too. Chances are, your best move isn’t always going to be the next one on your wheel. Maybe you need to go unload some rum at the market before another player sinks the price on it. Maybe you’re in a perfect spot to bury some treasure. Maybe there’s a merchant ship nearby and you want to attack it before it moves again. Whatever the case, it’ll cost you deckhands to jump to your optimal action, taking them away from their useful assignments.
Optimizing your actions can be a fun puzzle, and I like trying to plot out the order of actions to get the most of my turns. It reminds me (just slightly) of playing Scythe, where you ideally want to do both the top and bottom actions if you can line everything up just right. Here, you want to take advantage of the next action on your wheel if you can, but you also want to figure out the best place for your ship to be for each action you have coming up.
And then there are the storms. Sailing through a storm is annoying because it jostles your crew, so you start losing those precious assignments. Depending on the map, you might have the option to take the long way around, but I’ve also had maps where it was cut up into three safe sections, and you were forced to cross storms to get to certain markets. The upside, though, is that the stormy cards also provide more booty when you plunder, and have bury spots that only require 12 gold instead of 13.
Leveling up on the legendary track isn’t mandatory, but it’s certainly helpful: at the very least, being able to move 2 spaces instead of 1 feels like a big difference, particularly late in the game when spots to bury treasure start filling up or the search tokens are few and far between. You do get gold for several of the spaces on the board, but there’s also a space where you earn a fourth deckhand, and that can be incredibly helpful. With 4 deckhands, you can even take the same action every turn (since you can skip over Hide Out for free). And, of course, legendary status is the tie-breaker if multiple people bury all their treasures. Attacking merchant ships is typically easier (or at least a known quantity) than attacking other players, but it only moves you up the legendary track once you get to the more powerful merchants. (The fewer players there are, the sooner merchant ships will earn you legendary status. In a 4-player game, you don’t level up unless you attack an 8-power merchant.) In the games I’ve played, we’ve had varying degrees of legend. Nobody has made it all the way to Dread Pirate, though we’ve had a couple of Swashbucklers. In another game, only two people made it to Pirate (level 2) and everyone else stayed at Sea Dog.
I did think it was a little weird at first that you never lost gold or booty when you lost a fight—in fact, you gain a sure-shot token to help you in the next fight—but as it turns out, getting jostled is enough of a punishment as it is, especially if you were relying on that Rigging deckhand to get you where you wanted to go.
The crew that you assemble can help you in several ways. One, of course, is in battle: the more crew you have, the more damage you can do. You can choose between trying to get lots of different numbers, so you can guarantee that each die will match and score a hit, or you can try to focus on a few numbers, so that you can do several hits with a single die if you’re lucky (or spend a sure-fire token).
Don’t underestimate the bonus actions, either! This is another aspect of the game that has been really fun to see in action. Some crew members give you bonuses like being able to re-roll certain dice in an attack or selling specific goods for a set price. But most give you additional bonus actions, making those spots on your wheel even more effective. You want to zip around and snatch up all the search tokens? Get a bonus action that lets you search, and now you essentially have two of them on your wheel. Don’t like where your trade action falls on the wheel? Hire a crew that lets you trade after you search! One player built up a crew that let him search, bury treasure, plunder, and then move and sell his newly acquired plunder—all in a single turn.
Even in just the handful of times I’ve played Tiny Epic Pirates, the games have felt different: I’ve had aggressive games where everyone was committing their deckhands to cannons, and I’ve had games where players earned most of their money from selling booty at the markets instead. I’ve seen different strategies lead to victory, and most of the players have been pretty close at the end (though we did have one who got significantly outpaced on the legendary track and had trouble catching back up). There have been those who assign deckhands and try to avoid getting jostled, and those who have their deckhands on the wheel or in Repair for most of the game. I like that (at least so far) we haven’t found a dominant strategy, so there’s room to play around and figure things out for yourself.
One downside is that the last round can feel unnecessary to some players, depending on how close they are to burying their third treasure. If you’ve got almost enough gold to bury on your last turn, there are different ways you might gamble—perhaps you’ll find just enough gold with your search action to bury your last treasure, or maybe you have a bonus action that lets you sell some booty and then bury. However, if you’re nowhere near 13 gold when somebody buries their third treasure, you know it’s all over for you, because you’ll only get one more turn. I like the fact that there’s room for a lucky chance to catch up but that it’s a slim chance. It does feel bad if somebody’s last turn can’t make a difference in their standing in the game, though fortunately that’s only one more round.
Hopefully by the time Tiny Epic Pirates arrives to our shores, we’ll be playing games in person with each other again. However, just in case we’re still sheltering at home, the good news is that Tiny Epic Pirates works fairly well over video. It does help if each player can manage their own player mats, so remote players can use the print and play files to print off their own legend and helm mats, and then just find some tokens to use for the captain, deckhands, and so on. The trickiest bit is making sure that the entire map is visible, but if the icons are enlarged a bit, that shouldn’t be too bad either. Over the past week I’ve gotten to play four times, mostly with different players, and have really enjoyed teaching and playing the game. One big downside to playing over video (aside from the image resolution) it’s harder to keep track of what other people are doing. If you’re playing with other players locally, you can look over and see what actions they have coming up, which is great if you’re the sort of player who likes to predict what your opponents may do while planning your turn.
Although pirates aren’t generally my favorite theme, I’ve really enjoyed the way that Tiny Epic Pirates works. It’s a clever use of a rondel for the actions, leading to some good, tough choices for the players. I also like that it’s more of a race game than a scoring game, so it’s more about taking the right action at the right time rather than trying to squeeze one more victory point out of a turn. Scott Almes has delivered yet another excellent entry in the Tiny Epic series, and I think it’s one that will attract a lot of backers.
For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Tiny Epic Pirates Kickstarter page!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a prototype of this game for review purposes.