For well over a decade, September 19 has happily ascended into the world’s consciousness as the single day it’s alright to shout “Argh, Mateys!” in public. Or, at least, you have an excuse. International Talk Like A Pirate Day arrives every year at this time, and the ludicrous event is just the excuse you need to declare a party, invite your friends over, and celebrate with some swashbuckling tabletop fun.
The pirate theme is one of those concepts that shows up again and again in board game design, sitting right alongside zombie invasions, fantasy questing, and the clashing of armies. That’s because pirates offer a simple and accessible fantasy that translates well into fun action, colorful characters, and often great game mechanics.
While there’s a good bit of competition out there, here are six of my favorites, any one of which would be a great pick for an evening of pirate-themed fun with friends and family.
Rum & Bones
Designer: David Doust and Michael Shinall
Publisher: Cool Mini Or Not
This light, quick game drills down through the various elements of the pirate fantasy, and fixates on the most exciting moments – dramatic ship-to-ship battles between howling pirate attackers.
Rum & Bones sees two opposing pirate ships side by side, and dozens of beautifully crafted colored (but unpainted) miniatures charging, leaping, and swinging into the fray. A simple dice-rolling mechanic resolves combat, whether you’re firing off your deck gun or rigging across to the enemy ship while trying to avoid falling overboard. Fabled krakens and sea monsters even show up from time to time, adding even more chaos. While most of the figures are mindless attackers, each opponent has several heroes with special powers that turn the tide of battle. Faction-specific cards add additional nuance, letting you affect the outcome of dice rolls and other effects.
Rum & Bones embraces the more fantastical elements of pirate mythology, including skeletal sailors and magic coins. The rulebook includes several narrative sections that help flesh out the fiction of the game universe, which is a feature I really love. While the two-ship competition is built as a two-player game, team-based play is also supported for up to six would-be pirates. With its simple rules and quick play time, along with Cool Mini Or Not’s signature inclusion of dozens of great minis, Rum & Bones is an easy recommendation for almost any group.
Designer: Malcolm Braff, Bruno Cathala, Sébastien Pauchon
Just because a game is simple and accessible doesn’t mean it can’t be lavish in its artistry and components, or clever in its gameplay. Those seem like the guiding principles that led to Jamaica, a family-friendly racing game for up to six players about a frantic pirate ship race around the Caribbean island.
Production value is high in every aspect of Jamaica, from its appealing colored pirate frigates to the art that graces both the game board and its action cards. Even the rulebook uses a clever twist, as it is presented as a meandering treasure map that all players must follow as they make their way to understanding how to play.
Gameplay is deceptively simple, focused on taking different paths around the island and paying various resources as you stop at each spot along the way. Planning ahead is essential as you consider what to keep on hand for subsequent spaces, but you also need to make sure and have enough gunpowder to fight off your fellow players, in case their ship stops on the same space as you.
Even with a significant component of luck in the mix, Jamaica nonetheless has a strong appeal that works for gaming groups of any experience level. If you want a pirate game, but some of your players are new to the hobby, this is your best choice.
Robinson Crusoe: Adventures On The Cursed Island
Designer: Ignacy Trzewiczek
Publisher: Z-Man Games
I play a lot of tabletop games, so when I say that Robinson Crusoe is one of my all-time favorite board games, I hope it tells you something. While not beginner-friendly, this cooperative board game has offered a harrowing and tense adventure every time I’ve played.
You are a castaway on a forbidding and dangerous island filled with beasts, traps, and the looming threat of deadly weather. Whether you take on the role of the carpenter or the cook, everyone has a role to fulfill in the quest for survival. You venture forth across the island looking for resources, even while other players stay near to base to build up shelter. Buried pirate treasure might be as likely a discovery as a roaming predator cat. Rules govern everything from food spoilage to curing diseases.
On top of the core rules, every game session of Robinson Crusoe also unfolds a chosen scenario, from the threat of a volcano explosion to settling down to build a family on the island, abandoning any hope of escape. The replay value is tremendous, since each scenario dramatically changes both strategy and pace of play.
Up to four players can attempt to survive together on the Cursed Island. While it can take some time to wrap your head around the many options and rules of the game, Robinson Crusoe is rich in its thematic presentation and elegantly balanced – well worth the time it will take to fully understand.
Next Page: Explore the infamous pirate haven of Libertalia, and add a little magic to your pirate adventures.