What Makes a Pirate Game?
Making a Pirate Game where Nobody Steals
Pirates of the High Teas didn’t actually have pirates in the early versions of the game. The game was originally called Tea Time and it was just a bunch of bakers trying to make the best afternoon tea while sabotaging the other bakers in the kitchen. But when I was brainstorming about better names with some playtesters, one of them threw out “Pirates of the High Teas.” It was perfect and I fell in love. It explained the light take-that mechanics that were in the game and also, it’s just an awesome name 🙂
Something interesting and unexpected happened though once I took on this new name - I also took on a new theme, specifically PIRATES. I didn’t think deeply about this thematic addition because it’s generally accepted in game design that games are often rethemed and, as mentioned above, I saw an immediate fit. But in retrospect, attaching the game to a theme as broadly popular and long-lived as pirates was bound to have ramifications. As it turns out, the addition of pirates has become one of the biggest design challenges that I’m still working through.
So why have pirates created such a challenge for me? It’s not because they’re busy raiding my game design supplies or stealing my money. The challenge has been that players have a deeply ingrained set of expectations about what a pirate game entails and my game wasn’t meeting those expectations. It took me quite a while to realize that I didn’t clearly understand players’ expectations around a pirate game. I thought having Take That mechanics and some light flavor text would be enough, but it turns out that pirate expectations are more nuanced. And it turned out that I needed to elicit those expectations because, for many folks, this is a deeply tacit understanding that’s hard to articulate. So today I’m sharing what I’ve learned, in hopes that it can help you should you ever decide to make a pirate game.
Honestly, this is my biggest takeaway and the one that’s been the biggest challenge for me. Pirates steal! It’s their occupation and they took to the seas for the primary purpose of stealing your stuff! Given that my game is a Set Collection game, players invariably want to steal cards from other players, either to complete their own set or break up another player’s set.
But I made a design decision early in this project: no stealing. As one of my fellow designers says, something always has to be sacred. My vision has always been that once you get your hands on a card, it belongs to you. I’ve experimented with stealing in a couple of different ways, but always returned to this decision. In my vision, the work of the game is in figuring out what card to take and planning your actions such that you get to take the card before anybody else.
Despite my goals, stealing has been the number one request/suggestion coming out of playtests. Sometimes I explain that it’s just not what I’m going for and sometimes I just nod and write it down. But it hasn’t changed my mind. So I’ve had to dive deeper into what makes a pirate game, to see if there are other pirate expectations I can meet to give it that swashbuckley feel.
If the players can’t steal, can they at least break the rules? Absolutely. Well, within reason. It is a game after all, not pure chaos. So borrowing from Pirates of the Caribbean, I’ve tried to find ways that the rules can be more like… guidelines. This has been a fun challenge because of the balance element. Too rigid and it doesn’t feel like a pirate. Too loose and the game devolves into an unplayable mess. Overall, I’ve enjoyed finding mechanical ways to let players feel like they’re cheating within the structure of the game.
Fighting was another idea that kept coming up, mostly in the service of stealing. Players really, really want to fight someone else and take their cake. And while I object to stealing (from a player experience perspective in this specific game), I have no problem letting players go head to head on something, with only one emerging as a victor.
With that in mind, I’ve designed and playtested an uncountable number of fighting iterations. And they’ve all fallen flat. My postmortem on these designs uncovered two problems: the stakes and the mechanics.
I found that once I had taken stealing off the table, nothing else felt like it was worth fighting for. Players were willing to go head-to-head for the most valuable resource in the game (the cards) but anything else (turn order, weapons, etc) never seemed to have enough pay-off. That might be a balance issue, but I suspect it had more to do with the other mechanics in the game and how they’re put together.
I also never found a fighting mechanic that fit well with the game. Everything I tried ended up taking time away from the primary Drafting and Set Collection mechanisms. I ended up trying a bunch of things that were essentially auctions (I learned A LOT about auctions in this game, which no longer has an auction in it…). Auctions make for terrible sword fights.
My search for a lightweight fighting mechanic that scratches the pirate itch continues to this day.
Here’s a great example of something pirates do that doesn’t make the usual pirate short-list: smuggling. Smuggling opened a whole new world for me because it has an immediate connection to the afternoon tea theme. Smuggling exotic spices is 100% something a pirate would do, which could then make a dish worth extra points. I’ve riffed a lot on the smuggling idea and I think it’s added a lot to the game.
Pirates Raid, Ransack, and Pillage
Another thing people wanted to do was board someone else’s ship or destroy their village. I’ve played with this a little bit, at one point making all of the cards into ships that you needed to capture, such as the HMS Red Velvet Cupcake. At the end of the day, I think these would need to be central mechanics in a game. They’re good ideas, but given that the drafting and set collection were the heart of the game, I just couldn’t find a way to fit them in at more than a surface level. I have used those terms for a little pirate flair (Raid the Armory, Pillage the Pantry) but while it’s a nice thematic tie-in, it doesn’t effectively make the game feel more piratey.
Pirates Have Specific Pirate Things
Pirates have parrots, monkeys, guns, bombs, cannons, swords, ships, and more. All of these are ways to skin the mechanics in the game and I’ve tried lots of permutations. At the end of the day, most of these have been fairly thin applications of theme though, and haven’t driven the underlying mechanics. For example, at one point I was using swords as a tool to modify dishes but they could just as easily have been spatulas. The idea was kind of fun but it didn’t make the action feel any more piratey.
Where I think I’ve hit on success is in using these thematic items to achieve specific pirate mechanics. So a monkey token allows you to smuggle because it delivers the card for you. And a sword lets you swashbuckle your way past other pirates, thereby breaking the turn order rule.
There are Different Types of Pirates
The other concept that’s helped me is to lean into the idea that these are whimsical pirates rather than serious pirates. It’s helped to have references like My Flag Means Death, Muppet Treasure Island, Pirates of the Caribbean, and One Piece. I’m working on using the game’s art, graphic design, text, and naming choices to telegraph early and often that we’re living in a whimsical and light-hearted pirate setting. My goal is to steer players’ expectations early so that they expect pirate puns instead of fights to the death.
I don’t regret adding pirates to my afternoon tea game. In fact, I’m 100% in on pirates! My big lesson learned though, as a theme-driven designer, is to do a bit more research on a given theme before diving in. I quite enjoy challenging the conventional wisdom when it comes to themes (see also: Good Kitties) but next time I’d like to consciously choose to take on the pirate-industrial complex rather than stumbling into it :-) Pinkies up me hearties, yo ho!