Saturday, May 21, 2016

Wargame review — The Kaiser's Pirates

Pirates to the Left of Me, Kaisers to the Right...

(Originally published on August 30, 2009)

Designer: James M. Day
Player count: 1 to 4
Publisher: GMT Games

During the first World War, many German warships and raiders attacked and pillaged merchantmen crossing the wrong sea at the wrong time. The British navy did what it could to stop them, but at a price.

The Kaiser’s Pirates invites players to play both parts at once, and try to make the best of what each side had going for it. Whoever manages to best defend his own ships—while sinking as many opposing vessels as possible—will emerge victorious.

The game doesn’t require a lot to stay afloat: inside the box are four decks of cards, a handful of small wooden cubes and a bag of polyhedral dice used to resolve combat. Throw in a rulebook and a reference card, and skippers are ready to leave port.

Each player is dealt three German ships and three merchant ships (that can belong to a variety of nations), plus a hand of six action cards. On his turn, a player commits as many action cards as he wants by placing them face down in front of him. Action cards are then resolved in any order desired.

There are always two uses to an action card: an intercept (which is an abstraction of the British navy) and an actual action described on the card. Placement of the card—horizontally or vertically—indicates how the acting player wants to use it.

When the actual action is the intended use, the action card is simply read aloud and its result applied, from limiting enemy supplies to scuttling one’s own ship before it’s captured.

An action card played as an intercept presents two alternatives. By itself, the card becomes an attack by the British navy on an enemy German ship, whereas an action card played as an Intercept on one of the acting player’s own German ships represents a German attack against one enemy merchant ship. In both cases, appropriate dice—showed as attack dice on the action card (for a British intercept) or on the triggered ship (for a German intercept) are rolled, with only the highest single number being retained. Defense dice (as indicated on the target ship, be it German or a merchantmen) are rolled in turn, again with only the highest single number being retained.
If the attack is higher than the defense, a red damage cube is placed on the target ship and will hinder that ship’s future actions. If the attack is at least double the defense, the target ship is sunk and its value added to the acting player’s victory total.

Some action cards—sporting a green background—are “assist” cards played to modify one’s own action. Boarding Party, for instance, lets a player attempt to capture an enemy ship instead of sinking it.
Other action cards—this time with a blue background—are “reaction” cards used in response to an opponent’s action or intercept. Those allow target ships to evade their attackers and generate some unexpected havoc for opposing ships.

After his turn, a player draws one—and only one—action card, meaning it’s not always a good idea to play multiple cards on the same turn.

The round is over when the last action card is drawn. Victory points are tallied, with the player in last place earning one round point, the next one in line two points, and so on all the way to the top (which would be four points in a four-handed game).

Players then start over for a new round, after three of which the points from all rounds are added up. Highest total wins.


Included in the box is a solitaire deck that makes is possible for a lone gamer to play against a “phantom player.” The game is set up just like a two-player match, except that each of the phantom’s plays is decided by a card flip and a die roll. The resulting action (as well as defensive rolls against the live player) might benefit from assist or reaction cards—all decided by turning over the top card of the solitaire deck and following the indications there.


Four-handed games can also unfold as a team affair. This essentially boils down to combining team-members’ scores at the end of the game, although a couple of action cards were designed to specifically affect the proceedings in a team game.


We’re talking cards here, so two factors overrule all others: cardstock and clarity.
Cardstock is not a problem, nor is the finish. My cards handle well, shuffle well, and I expect them to last a good long time. What’s more, the ship illustrations are all very nice and historically accurate, making for a nice display on the table top.

On the other hand, clarity is, well, a bit opaque. Dice used for attack, defense and the resolution of many action cards can be a d4, a d6, a d8 or a d10 (dice combinations are also pretty common). Those are illustrated on the relevant ships and action cards. Each die has its color which should normally help players figure out what’s needed at a glance, even when looking at ships on the far side of the table. But size is a problem: the dice icons are way too small. At a distance of a few feet and under good lighting conditions, even the red d4 and white d6 become difficult to identify in a snap—so the distinction between green d8 and blue d10 becomes a blur. Strangely, the available real estate on each card would have made it possible for the dice icons to be three or four times their current size, yet GMT didn’t decide to take advantage of this.


This is an easy game with simple rules. The basic concepts are pretty straightforward, and most of the action cards are self-explanatory (the included player aid provides detailed explanations for each card). The rules themselves are rather clear and to the point, except that they are presented out of logical sequence. For instance, the setup section of the rules explains in detail (one full page) how to assign points at the end of a round and how to proceed to the next round. Then the rulebook seems to get back on track and starts to explain that players must commit action cards before they can be used… and moves on to exposing combat rules. What of the action cards? Their use is explained in the very last section of the basic rules, 3.2.8, under “Using action cards.”

This unfortunate sequencing results in a rule set that’s a bit difficult to grasp when it should it be very simple. After reading the rules a few times and actually playing the game, it appears that an easier rules reading sequence would be as follows (give it a shot if you feel lost):
1.0 to 2.2
3.0 to 3.1.2
3.2 to 3.2.2
3.2.3 to 3.2.7
3.1.3 to 3.1.10
2.3 to 2.5

The rulebook does provide a couple of detailed examples of play (including one for the solitaire game) that are very well done and shed a welcome light on the game’s mechanics.


The Kaiser’s Pirates is a light, fun game that will not disappoint unless it’s taken too seriously. This is by no means a meaty endeavor: it works better as an evening closer between wargaming friends. And as such, the game delivers what it promises: action, interesting decisions and a generous helping of take that sure to keep competitive gamers healthy.

However, since the game doesn’t evolve during a session—the ending plays exactly like the opening did—it ought not to overstay its welcome. The rules suggest using a 40-card action deck for two players, and that feels about right. But with more players, I’d recommend shedding some more cards than what the rulebook proposes. 80 action cards for four players make a game clock in at something like 90 minutes, which is way too long for what it is. Same thing with the three-player, 60-card action deck. I found that ditching 20 more cards in each case resulted in a playing time more tailored to the depth of the game.

The solitaire game works really well. In fact, I would venture to say that it’s the most rewarding solitaire experience I’ve had with a boardgame so far, full of twists and turns that keep you on the edge of your seat. The game is worth it for the solitaire engine alone, even if you never get to play it against a human opponent.

The team rules are fine but don’t add a whole lot to the overall experience. The optional rules found at the back of the rulebook, however, infuse the gameplay with some more historical flavor and a few finer points that make some decisions a little trickier. Do try them out once you’re familiar with the basic game.

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