[Before you dive into this review of Winds of Plunder, a little disclaimer. If you look at the credits for Winds of Plunder, you'll find my name listed under playtesting. I had the pleasure of playing this game while it undertook its multi-year journey from idea to finished product.]
WINDS OF PLUNDER (GMT Games, 3-5 players, ages 10 and up, 60-120 minutes; $45)
There seems no end to the flood of pirate games appearing on the market. Maybe we can chalk it up to the success of the Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean movies or perhaps it's just a cyclical surge in gaming themes. Whatever the reason, one of the newest and best games to crest this wave comes from GMT Games and the fertile mind of designer Alan Newman: Winds of Plunder.
Winds of Plunder comes with a a host of high quality components. Within the box you'll find a mounted gameboard, a clear and concise rulebook (in English, French, German and Italian), 18 Victory Point tiles, 55 cards, 5 sets of player pieces consisting of wind cubes, a wooden pirate ship marker and scoring disk and compass tile with indicator arrow along with various play aids.
The mounted board depicts islands in the Caribbean Sea including 12 ports. Around the perimeter is a scoring track as well as "tally areas" to track each player's stash of provisions, weapons, crew as well as treasure. Set up involves randomly distributing the Victory Point tiles, placing one on each of the ports of the game and the remainder on the "rotation bar" found on the board.
Each player begins with a color-coded set of items: a pirate ship, scoring disk (placed at zero on the scoring track), a wind direction compass tile and 30 cubes. Four of the cubes are used to mark holdings of crew, provisions, weapons and treasure and placed on the respective areas on the board. Ten cubes serve as that player's starting stash of Wind Cubes. Remaining cubes form that player's reserve.
The 55 cards in the game fall into three categories: 40 Action cards, 12 Buried Treasure cards and 3 Advantage "markers". Five of the Buried Treasure cards have port names (San Salvador, Puerto Rico, Turks & Caicos, Santo Domingo and Jamaica) highlighted in gray. These cards are shuffled and dealt to determine where each player's ship will begin the adventure. Then the cards are reshuffled into the Buried Treasure deck and placed, face down, near the board.
A turn consists of two phases: Wind voting and Plundering.
Wind Voting is one of the pivotal mechanics of the game not only impacting on what players can do but also capturing the feeling of pirates on the high seas - and this is where those compass tiles come in. Players take their compasses and secretly choose a wind direction (North, South, East or West) for the next turn. Preferences are revealed but to determine which way the wind, in fact, will blow, players must bid.
Players secretly place Wind Cubes from their holdings (as many as all to as little as none) into their closed fists and simultaneously reveal their bids. The direction that garners the most cubes - and this can be a combination of two or more players voting for the same direction - is the direction of travel for the next turn. ALL cubes bid, whether your direction preference "wins" or not, are lost to the reserve. However, the player who risked the most cubes, regardless of whether his bid was successful or not, gets a reward: the Blackbeard tile. (For example, A and B both want East. C wants West. A bids 5 cubes, B bids 4 cubes, C bids 6 cubes. 9 cubes for East means ships will travel East next turn because the TOTAL number of cubes for East is high. But player C gets the Blackbeard token because C bid the most cubes!) Possession of the Blackbeard tile can be a critical factor. That player decides WHO goes first that round!
A player has three actions per turn. Drawing a card and playing a card costs one action each. Drawing cubes from the reserve is a third option. Cubes may be drawn at the rate of 2 cubes for one action, 5 cubes for two actions and 9 cubes for three actions. A player also must sail each turn.
Sailing is why Wind Voting is so important. Wind direction LIMITS player movement. If moving East, a ship may advance one or two areas East and dock in a port. If moving West, a ship may travel one or two areas West and dock there. Northern and southern movement is similar; ships may move in a northerly (or southerly) direction in the SAME area or in an ADJACENT area. (There may come a time when you are in the unenviable position of being "locked" in place by an unfavorable wind. In that case, you have the option of using all three of your actions to catch a "gust of wind" and transport your ship in any direction.)
Action cards are played and Victory Points earned during the Plundering phase.
Each port displays their own Victory Point tile. These tiles show a Victory Point value (from 2 to 5 VPs) as well as some other reward available to the pirate docking there. (Rewards include a treasure map, additional crew, more provisions or another weapon.) Upon docking, the VP tile is claimed and a player's new additions charted on the respective tally areas. Accumulating crew, provisions and weapons is important as the player with the most in each category immediately receives the corresponding and quite valuable "Advantage card".
If you have the most weapons, the weapons Advantage card acts as a tie-breaker in your favor when attempting to board an enemy vessel. The Advantage card for most crew gives that player an extra Action point to use at the end of his turn. The provisions Advantage card earns the holder an extra Victory Point EVERY time he lands at a port!
Buried treasure is represented through treasure maps. When a player arrives in a port with a tile displaying a map, that player draws a Treasure Map card. That card shows the name of a port. Should the pirate ship arrive at that port at any time during the game, the map is turned in for VPs. The first map cashed in earns 2 VPs for the player. The next one, another 3 VPs and so on. Having a fistful of treasure maps give you a windfall in VPs - provided the wind blows your way! (Another reason for careful bidding in Wind Voting.)
As players travel from port to port, they seek to spread their "reputation". If the player is the only pirate docked there or, if other pirates are present, he has at least as many weapons as any other pirate in port, the player places a cube from his reserve at the port to indicate "reputation". Reputation translates to Victory Points. The first pirate to establish a reputation in all three ports in an area gains a bonus of 7 Victory Points. This bonus gradually decreases so the sooner you make your mark in the three ports of an area, the better. And then, in keeping with the aggressive nature of pirates, there is boarding.
Should a pirate ship enter a port where another ship is docked, that ship may board the docked ship provided that the attacker has more weapons. Boarding allows you to take 2 VPs away from the ship (player) or swipe one of its resources (a weapon, a crew or a provision).
After nine full rounds of play, the game ends and the final rush of Victory Points calculated. Victory Points seem to come from everywhere. Throughout the game, you earn VPs as you dock at ports, for spreading your reputation throughout an area, cashing in those treasure maps, by boarding your enemies, and possession of the provisions Advantage card. At game's end, more VPs come as you earn points for your amounts of crew, weapons and provisions. Wind cubes in your possession reward you with VPs at the rate of 3 cubes = 1 VP. (In your final turn, you may use your final three actions to pull 9 cubes from your reserve thus guaranteeing you at least 3 more VPs.) Finally, each Advantage card in your possession at this point adds 2 more VPs to your total. Once the dust clears, the player with the highest total of VPs is the most fearsome pirate of the seas and can claim victory!
Action cards allow players flexibility and the advantages they bestow help shape strategy. What's even nicer is that the cards are extremely clear and specific in their use, impervious to rules-lawyers who can bring any game to a grinding halt. They offer a whole variety of options including allowing you to pick up more resources (for free if you're in specified ports), eliminate one weapon of a player, get extra Actions to use on a turn, even force your opponents to jettison Action cards (a useful option as there is no hand limit). On a related note, we recommend adopting the optional rule allowing the playing of the Secret Cache of Weapons Action card out of turn to thwart a boarding attempt. It adds to the danger and uncertainty that a potential boarder has to face and increases player interaction.
The rotating Victory Point bar allows for some planning as you can see the upcoming sets of bonuses and plan accordingly. Weapons are key as superior weaponry allows you to plunder weaker opponents. But such weakness can be countered with shrewd bidding. If a non-threatening player and you want the wind to go in the same direction, your bidding support can make the difference and by bidding cubes to direct wind direction AND get the Blackbeard tile, you can affect everyone's movement AND determine turn order. If you feel a more powerful pirate will come gunning for you, you can make him go first (if you have Blackbeard) and avoid his unwanted attentions. During multiple playings of the game, many different paths to success have been uncovered and ALL of the games have been tense and close right up to the final round with no one ever really sure who will emerge victorious.
A lot of effort went into this game, from designer Alan Newman to developer Tony Nardo to the excellent graphic design artistry (kudos to Rodger MacGowan, Knut Grünitz and Mark Simonitch) and the many gamers who sat and played the game along the way. Hard work to be sure. But, in the final analysis, that hard work paid off. Winds of Plunder makes you work and plan and hope and risk as you seek to rule the waves. You can practically smell the salty sea air, feel the roll of the waves and hear the cannons roar. Winds of Plunder certainly has to rank as one of the best games of the year. Highly recommended! - - - - - - - - Herb Levy
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