23 August 2019
Running out of steam
A game where steampunk pirates are travelling between sky islands, avoiding the Dreadnought and The Flying Fortress, searching for treasure, establishing trade outposts, and generally having a jolly good time sounds exciting. It is such an intriguing concept full of possibilities of mischief, exploration and competition. Yet, Steam Pirates takes all that potential and promptly throws it overboard.
Things go badly from the off, starting with the rulebook. The convoluted formatting of pages makes it a strain to read, but that's not even the biggest offence. There are strange leaps in logic in how the rules are laid out. On one occasion, the rules begin to describe the end-of-turn actions, then the end of the game, then for some reason return to continue describing the post-turn actions.
The components, a smorgasbord of cardboard tokens, while indispensable to the gameplay, are fiddly both in setup and play. Gold tracker tokens look almost exactly like pirate tokens, both of them so small that it is hard to distinguish them within the impressive component pile. Looking at a paper player board, one of the members of my gaming group actually asked if this was a prototype version of the game. The visual richness and variety of pieces, tokens, meeples and frigates can still be appreciated, but it is let down by a pirate-like scrappiness.
All the above may have been forgiven if the game itself was a fun pirate romp. The core idea of Steam Pirates sets course in a promising direction. Players sail between floating islands, establishing trade houses and searching for pieces of the treasure map. They bribe officials to gain special powers and earn victory points.
The pirating even has consequences within the game. In a Clank!-inspired mechanic, players add a foreboding ‘notorious cube’ to a bag every time they establish a trade house. If the player’s colour is ever drawn, they will have to pay a fine. As trade houses help players to earn money and resources, which in turn allows them to sail further and bribe higher officials, it is important to set them up. However, the more powerful your presence on the game board, the more chances that it will cost you dearly. This is where Steam Pirates really comes together mechanically and thematically.
Unfortunately, for every mechanic that works, there’s another that doesn’t. Players perform actions by selecting dice from a shared pool. Perplexingly, there are seven dice in total, meaning that one of the players will always have one fewer action per turn. Most other games would balance this disadvantage by rewarding that player with special powers or actions. Alas, not Steam Pirates. Not only does that player miss an action but, on the next turn, they are also the last to choose a die. In four-player game especially, this tends to be the leftover action that no-one else wanted, frustratingly putting the last player at a disadvantage again.
There are several other things that feel clunky and unpolished. Tokens are placed on the board only to be immediately removed, character powers fall across the full spectrum from fun to almost useless, there are enemy ships that wander from different ends of the board but don’t quite manage to engage players and, for a game with different pirate frigates sailing the skies, there is surprisingly little player interaction.
A great game of Steam Pirates, like a pirate’s treasure, is buried deep beneath the sand and left for players to dig up. Once they uncover it, they might reveal a few gems but also a collection of broken clutter.
PLAY IT? NO
Designer: Elad Goldsteen, Pini Shekhter
Artist: David Arenas, Víctor Pérez Corbella