Friday, March 18, 2011

Conversation With A Gaming Innovator #5: Eric J. Carter

Well, it's time again for another of my jaunts into proper journalism, and this week we have another game designing, illustrating, and graphic designing phenomenon, the great Eric J. Carter. Who, you ask, is this? This is one of the best illustrators out there right now, that's who. He's worked for Tasty Minstrel on their upcoming Eminent Domain project as well as on a little, obscure game you may not have heard of: Dominion. Let's get the show on the road!

SFC: Eric, thanks for taking the time to chat with the likes of the Superfly Circus today! Let's start out with an easy question to get warmed up. How did you get involved with Dominion? What was it like working with one of the biggest properties out there?

EJC: I saw that Dominion, like Magic, used several different artists, so I hoped that Rio Grande Games would be open to trying out new people . I gathered up my courage and sent off an email to Jay at RGG offering to do a card for a future expansion. Jay's positive response was exciting , and he said he'd contact me after the holidays. New Year's came and went, as well as Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day and Easter. Just when I had given up hope I got an email from Jay that May giving me the assignment to do the Talisman card for Prosperity.

I spent 25 hours working on that image, which other card artists will recognize as a non-profitable amount of time, but I wanted my first professional fantasy art job to be perfect. Jay had no changes for either my rough sketch or final color work and paid quite promptly. According to the NDA I was allowed to say that I had a card in the game, but I just couldn't show the image or tell anyone what it was called. Besides that, I decided not to tell anyone about it, anyway due to the universe being out to get me.

I envisioned something going wrong during the process. However, I had this vision of my friends finding out 'accidentally,' so I kept mum about it completely all the way through GenCon, where my friends who were in attendance missed their chance to buy a copy.

Now at the time I kept one thought in my head to kind of mediate my excitement over being in my favorite game. I remember Donald X. Vaccarino sharing that they had accidentally commissioned two images for the Market card, so I kept telling myself that being included wasn't guaranteed. Yes, I had been thanked for my work and yes, I had cashed the check, but a part of me kept saying "something could still go wrong." So that night when I saw the spoiler images in Board Game Geek and my art was in there, I was beyond ecstatic. From that point on my self-doubts were gone and I was ready to embrace a dream I had given up years ago.

SFC: Wow, that's a "I love it when a plan comes together" series of events, huh? I'm glad to see that perseverance paid off. Incidentally, the art that you did was amazing, and I can see why Tasty Minstrel wanted you on the team. The art for Eminent Domain is pretty spectacular. How did you hook up with Michael at Tasty Minstrel?

EJC: Not long after Prosperity was out I saw the promotion going on for another deckbuilding game, Eminent Domain. I and a couple of game buddies went in together on a Kickstarter sponsorship. The Tasty Minstrel people have been very open about the game's creation and pre-production through their site and on BGG, and it was in one of those Forum discussions back in November that I mentioned at the end of my post "BTW, need any artwork?" It wasn't but a few minutes later that I heard from them by email.

They had seen my Dominion card on my site, but not much sci-fi. So I offered to do one image as a try-out, which was the Weapon's Emporium card. After sending them the final version of that I was offered the whole slate of 27 cards. If I was able to work on it full-time I would've gladly taken that on, but as it is I could only devote a few hours a night (plus weekends) and they wanted them done in about a month. I calculated that I could do 8 more cards in the time allowed, so TMG put out the word that they needed more artists. Ryan Johnson and Patrick McEvoy was then brought on board. Later Jeremy Deveraturda and James Wolf Strehle were added as the deadline approached. That is an incredible stable of talent and I'm pleased to be listed among them. As I turned in more cards I was given more to do, right up to the deadline. In all I'll have 12 cards in the base game.

Logistics is one of the last cards I worked on, and Gavan Brown (the graphic artist and the AD for the project) posted the final version of it on BGG with the text and graphic treatment. Gavan's work is just brilliant and I think it's going to make everyone who gets a copy really pleased with their purchase. I was very happy to see more than one comment on there that said they were going to buy the game based on the posted image. Gavan, Seth and Michael of Tasty Minstrel knows the two things that artists need to survive: Money (which was promptly paid) and Praise (which was given quite often). As of now Eminent Domain has been at the printers for a couple of weeks and I'm extremely eager to see my copy.

SFC: So you're really just like me in the sense that you don't care about following "normal channels" or see an opportunity and just stick yourself right in there. That's awesome. It's funny, but a little initiative goes an incredibly long way. I don't know about Gavan's stuff, but the cards I have seen, specifically the Terraforming and Dr. Mayhem's stuff on BGG, is really good.

Let me ask you about your deep, dark, seedy past now. Are you just a natural, or did you go to an art school or something?

EJC: I've drawn since childhood. I remember copying characters out of the newspaper's comics page, trying to get all the details right. Throughout Elementary school and High school art classes were always my favorite. While I never went to 'Art' school, I did attend a state college that had an excellent arts program. While I was there they developed a Commercial Illustration degree which suited me perfectly. During college I believed I was destined to be a comic book artist/writer. No. After college I thought I'd be a comic strip artist/writer. No. After those failures I really believed that there'd be a perfect fit for me artistically, something that just fit like a glove. Web design, sculpture, architectural rendering, stained glass... I tried my hand at all of them, too, but none of those led to "OMG-Instant Success" as I naively believed was supposed to happen.

Marriage and kids exposed me to the harsh reality of bills and insurance, so the next decade saw me employed as a graphic artist with no hopes of doing much more than that. During that time I learned a few things:

1. Hard work and talent are fine, but to make things happen you have to know the right people. "It's not what you know, but who you know." as the old saying goes. All my life I didn't want to believe that was true, but it certainly is. My hermit-like ways were my biggest obstacle, so to succeed I must overcome that.

2. Nobody starts out great... It's only through years of practice that one gets even close to just 'pretty good' let alone great. I kept thinking that there was something I was great at artistically but I just hadn't come across it yet, and then things would just happen on their own.

3. Nothing happens on its own...Again, I had learned an old adage - "You make your own luck." I had kept waiting for an art career to find me instead of going out to find the career for myself. These are all lessons I wish I had learned when I was in my 20s instead of my late 30s.

So now, at the tender age of 40, I am just entering the fantasy art industry, a place I wanted to be long ago. I attribute this due to the combination of an old friend and a new one. I found out that Dan Scott, someone I knew when we were teenagers, is a successful fantasy artist. He has done covers for DC and Dark Horse comics, he's one of WotC's go-to guys for Magic cards and has been featured in ImagineFX magazine. Seeing all of that was inspiring... it made me realize that it's an attainable goal. Suddenly artists weren't 'other people' that had some special advantages I didn't, but were real people who earned success through hard work and practice.

The new friend that made me take the plunge is a member of our local board gaming group, Scott Sader. He is a guy who speaks his mind and doesn't hide his opinion in B.S. He had seen my work and asked me why I wasn't doing art for games or books because, as he put it, I was certainly good enough to do so. He removed that last obstacle I had, the self-doubt. I owe him a world of thanks for that, but I think he'll have to settle for the dozens of times he's kicked my ass at just about every board game we've ever played together. It was shortly after that happened that I sent my enquiry to Jay at Rio Grande.

SFC: Wow, that's an amazing turn of events, man. Seems like a recurring theme in your life. It sounds like you chalk a lot up to luck, but I disagree. You put in the time, too, and it sounds like you are literally the 'real deal' that was born into this world to illustrate as well as any of the top tier artists you see working in the industry. It's sad that your low self esteem stopped you for all of these years, because no lie, you are an incredibly talented illustrator. Speaking of that, I want to point out that you were the first interviewee who elected not to send a head shot. If my bald, fat, talentless ass got on camera and had someone shoot a 2" cannon at me, you sure as hell could've sent me a snapshot, Mr. Camera Shy. How are your adoring fans going to recognize you at GenCon?

Anyway, just messing with you, brother. Now that I've stroked your ego a bit, let's move onto something more compelling. I know you a bit, and I and some of our mutual friends have heard you talking about a couple of really slick game ideas, some that I'd never heard before and that I thought were amazing. The one that really gave me "cube" was the post-apocalyptic one. How come I'm not seeing your name on a box as the designer? You have some seriously great ideas, and the fact that you don't have to pay an illustrator has to be a huge cost-savings. So, what up?

EJC: Whenever I find something I enjoy I end up wanting to be more than just a consumer of it, but a creator of it as well. When I first enrolled in college I went with a double-major for art and mass media with the intent of being in the movie business. Comics? Yep, I wanted to write and draw comic books. After finishing a good book I want to start outlining a novel. In fact this coming November I may just do that. So when I got involved in board gaming as a hobby the itch to create one came as no surprise. I have the design resources to create nice-looking prototypes but my biggest hurdle is the question "Is it fun?" Of all the dozen or so designs I've written up or gotten to play-testing stage, that question is the ultimate hammer and so far I haven't come up with anything that I think answers back "Yes, it's fun!" One or two ideas have gotten as far as multiple playtests and a redesign or two, but that's it so far. However, making prototypes is enjoyable in and of itself. Some of my designs are tile-based so I've developed a system to create good-looking double-sided square chipboard tiles. I've been sending emails to Hobby Lobby asking them to sell wooden hexagons in their craft aisle because I have a few designs that call for hexes.

But for now, I'm shelving game design for two reasons. 1) I want to turn my part-time freelancing into full-time freelancing and 2) I want to experience more gaming mechanics because I find myself relying on some concepts too heavily - cards, tiles, victory points, resource gathering, etc. I fully expect to one day revisit an old design and rework it with a new gaming system and I'll finally have something that _I_ want to play. Maybe it'll take another dozen or more bad designs before I finally get to that good one.

SFC: Yes, I completely understand the phenomenon that causes game making to impede your ability to actually get anything else done! You're going to have to share that chit-making technique sometime...there's a lot of people who, like myself, are having a hard time making good quality double-sided chits.

Now back to your artwork, since that's what brought me to you, what are you working on now that Eminent Domain is at the presses? Do you have a project coming up? Are you looking for some more work, and if so, what kind?

EJC: I've got a sci-fi cover commission to work on during the next few weeks. It's not my first book cover, but it is my first genre one, so I'm excited about that. Some logo work is waiting on a committee to give me the go-ahead... I also have a long-standing project that's nearing the finish line. A few years ago I was contacted by someone who had an idea for a series of educational children's books and needed an illustrator. I've been collaborating with him on it since then. Each book is 40 pages and there are 11 books, so we had a huge cast of characters to design and each book went through 2 full mockups before I began creating the final artwork. We've got 9 of the 11 books in a finished form and I'm halfway through the tenth. I expect to be done with the last book by the end of the summer, then by the end of the year we'll have finished any modifications the previous books need.

Hopefully sometime in 2012 that project will be available for purchase to school districts nationwide. Between now and then I want to be in contact with some publishing companies and use those books as a way of securing other children's book projects. And, yes, I have ideas for my own children's books as well. I really wish the scientific community would get that immortality pill in production because there is so much stuff I want to do before I start decomposing.

SFC: So it sounds like you've got all kinds of irons in the fire! I can feel your pain as getting older makes you look back and think about how you might've done things differently. I'm quite honestly pretty satisfied with what I've done, aside from the one time I caught the clap, but I've always been ruled by my own moral "bushido" code and have never deviated, so I really have very, very few regrets. I'm just a little too impulsive sometimes, but hell, I figure that goes in the plus section!

So now onto my final question: what kind of games do you like, and how did you get mixed up in this crazy world of hobby gaming?

EJC: In college I played Talisman a lot. That was my first cool board game purchase. Then Magic: The Gathering came out - that was great fun for a few years. I bought and played that game all the way up to the Tempest set. It was years later that I saw Heroscape on a store shelf... that lovely little addiction threw me into the deep end of the gaming pool. I found myself on on a daily basis, then onto and suddenly I was buying game after game after game.

I went from one half-shelf of games to three full bookcases. The gateways came first - Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride. Then Last Night on Earth and Zooloretto. Now I have Dominion and all of its expansions, Race for the Galaxy, four different train games, Galactic Emperor (which I bought because Twilight Imperium is too damn long), the entire Thunderstone collection, both Ravenloft and Ashardalon, and a very gorgeous Hilinski Crokinole board. I'm looking forward to more Dominion releases, Battleship Galaxies, and, of course, Eminent Domain.

SFC: Don't get me started on Crokinole boards...or for that matter, Heroscape! One last question, though, that I forgot to ask and I wanted to mention. I heard you just hosted a Con out in Kansas, "EricCon", and was wondering how hard that was to put together, and how it worked out?

EJC: That was more of a game day/party than a con. For my 40th my wife rented a hotel's meeting room. It was big enough to hold 4-6 folding tables and some snacks. I had a dozen friends show up and we played from noon Saturday until early in the morning Sunday. We played Crokinole, Dominion, Innovation, Andromeda, Crokinole, Ashardalon, Tumblin' Dice, Crokinole (on my sweet, _sweet_ Hilinski board), and ended with a few rounds of Werewolf, during which we were hushed by the hotel clerk around 3am for being _unruly_. I loved every minute of it.

SFC: Yeah, now I wish I'd have made it out, man. Sounds like it was a blast, and it would not be the first time I was asked to leave by a hotel employee. Thanks again for graciously putting up with me and allowing The Circus some insight into the mind of a genius. You're a hell of an illustrator, and I wish you every success both personally and profesionally.
You can see more of Eric's body of work at his website,

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

MayDay Games Crokinole Review - The Rest Of The Story

As many of you have read, I recently purchased a Crokinole board, by MayDay games, from It was terrible, as evidenced by this review I did last week:

Now, I contacted Seth Hiatt, owner of MayDay games, for a replacement, and he promptly responded that this was an isolated incident and that I could get a refund or replacement board. I initially asked him for a refund, but I later decided that it was only fair for me to get a new board in order to evaluate the quality and produce a second review.

Here's where it gets interesting. He asked me to pack it up and ship it, but not back to MayDay in Layton, Utah. Instead, he asked me to ship it to another customer, one Jacki of State College, PA. I was a bit taken aback, but I kept my mouth shut. I immediately looked at my shipper, the one I got when I received the board, and that, too, didn't come from MayDay. It came from a guy named Dave of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I got in touch with Dave, and we talked via email:


Sorry to bother you, but I am chasing down a story about a Crokinole Board. I have the shipper listed as "Dave XXXXX, Minneapolis, MN, 55419".

Is that you, and if so, do you work for MayDay games or did you buy one and ask for a refund/return?
Again, sorry to bother you if you're not the right guy.


He responded within an hour:

Hi Pete,
I am the person who shipped that to you. But I do not work for Mayday.

I had bought it through, it was shipped to me from Mayday (Seth Hiatt, in UT), and I complained to Mayday (Seth) about board flaws. He sent me a shipping label, to forward it to someone who had purchased a "slightly damaged" board, and then sent me out a new one (again) from UT.

I'm not thrilled with the replacement. I'm kind of at a point where I'm thinking about giving up; just sanding a couple spots on the board, finding and punching the peg holes (the sticker/laminate is covering all but one of them), and re-waxing the whole thing with a hard coating. Or something.

The Mayday boards I've seen before this have all been decent, but I don't know what it is with the last 2 I've gotten. I think this one might be mostly fixable.

So, that's the story I have. What was your question, and is there a larger issue here? I was curious if other people hard complaints about the boards they had received.


So, as you can see, I got a defective board AND SETH KNEW IT. Then, not only that, but he asked me to send it to ANOTHER CUSTOMER!!

 Not being satisfied, I asked Seth via email if he thought it was ethical to send a bad board to another customer. Here's the email chain:

Let me ask you this, though. Don’t you find it a hair on the unethical side to have me send a board that is clearly and obviously defective to a subsequent customer rather than back to MayDay for inspection/repair or subsequent replacement by the factory?

To which he responded:

The one going to the other customer is for a demo version of the game and they KNOW they are getting a damaged/defective one. It is strictly for evaluation purposes and they are aware of the issues with it (smiley).

Well, knowing that this was shady as could be, I googled the person I was supposed to ship this to, and I found that she was a realtor with a website and phone number. So, I called her, and told her I was a reporter for The Superfly Circus and was doing some fact checking about MayDay Games. I told her that Seth had told me that she knew it was a demo board, and she was APPALLED. She told me that no, it was for her son, and she knew the game. She too bought it from, and was expecting a new board. I emailed her what Seth had said, in his own words, and she responded with an email as I asked her to go on the record:

JH: Thanks so much, Pete. The underlined portion of the email you got is blatantly untrue. I thought I was getting a brand new board at a good price. I did not think I was getting a defective board, or even a used board. I would not buy a used board in this type of product. Furthermore, I did not need a demo board. I have played the game with my family and love it. I merely wanted to have another board so I could return the one I have to my son.

These people should be ashamed of themselves, but I guess their business model is to dupe innocent folks who are looking for a good buy on a great game. Good luck exposing them for what they are.

Thanks again for your vigilance.

Best regards,

So, as you can see from the copious evidence, these bad boards are NOT an isolated incident, and to mitigate his losses, Seth is having his customers ship bad boards down the stream, either trying to buy time or perhaps simply hoping that someone will overlook the glaring inadequacies.

In short a small amount of reporting has developed into an outright scandal that's indicating a knowing, willful fraud being committed by MayDay upon its customers and upon

As of this writing, I am going to continue to pursue this story.

Follow Up: If you want a refund from Tanga for one of these boards, email

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Mayday Games - It's Not Crokinole, It's Crock o' Crap

As I've recently noted, there's virtually nothing that bothers me to the point of anger. It may be the years of court-ordered psychotherapy that has deballed me for the most part, but the one thing that still gets me hot as an Atlanta summer is when I drop over a hundred dollars on something that turns out to be a piece of crap.

Enter Mayday Games, and their Crokinole board. I learned of this at Gencon and played on it. It was a great board, great finish, and a hell of a fun game. It even had little rubber-coated pegs to give the bouncing a little more action, and perhaps even protect the discs from the abrasion of wood-on-wood. I reported on it at for my annual Gencon report, and I thought that the thing was a real winner.

Last week I purchased one of these, and when it arrived, "thoroughly underwhelmed" is the only description I can provide of my feeling. Upon just a very glancing inspection I found myriad defects that not only affected the look of the board, but also affected the play. Not only that, but the board is clearly of the "bargain bin" variety. This was NOT what I saw at Gencon. It's fair to say, at this point, that I feel as if a bait and switch has taken place, and I'm pissed.

Before I begin tearing into Mayday, let me take a step back. For those of you who don't know what Crokinole is, let me give you a quick rundown. It's a dexterity game that is similar to the East Indian game of Carrom, where you flick little 1" disks on a polished playing surface with the aim of scoring a "gopher hole", which is when you land your disk in the depression in the center of the board, scoring twenty points. If you miss, as long as the disk lands somewhere either within or touching the fifteen-point line, it stays on the board, otherwise you remove it as a dead disk, moving it to the ditch that surrounds the board.

Players alternate taking shots, and if an opponent's disk is on the board, you must strike it with one of your disks, either via a carrom shot including more than one disk or by hitting it with your shot directly. If you don't hit the opposing disk, it too is a dead shot that goes to the ditch. That's pretty much all there is to the game, but there's a catch. The central ring is surrounded by pegs that hamper your shots, and so it's not quite as simple as just aiming at an open target. There's strategy involved if you're good enough to place shots with some accuracy, and hiding a disk behind a peg is brutally awesome.

In short, it's a very simple game but is fun as anything you can play. I liken to to poor man's pool. It's just a bunch of fun to have a beer, flick some disks, and talk some smack, and I recommend Crokinole to anyone who has fingers and a flat surface to place the board on. Just not a board from MayDay Games. I would rather you go out and buy anything else, in fact, because the quality of this board doesn't even come close to what I saw at Gencon.

Now back to MayDay. The board that I received is a bloody mess. There's screws that come in from the backside of the board and mount the playing surface to the surround, and three of these screws protrude slightly above the playing surface, which left a little hump in the surface. It looks a little crappy, but it's not a dealbreaker. On top of this, they painted the scoring rings on top of the lacquer rather than under it, and these have the texture of 600-grit sandpaper. They slow the disks as they slide across the board, and have already, in one night's play, started to wear the finish off of the disks. Then to add insult to injury, you can see a bunch of missed spots where the spray-on lacquer they used didn't coat, so it looks like the finish has a bunch of little pockmarks on almost a quarter of the board.

But that's not all, folks. For that hundred dollar investment in fine Chinese craftsmanship, the surround had lacquer that is cracked off with bare wood showing. It totally takes away from the overall look of the board, although it doesn't affect gameplay at all. It just makes the whole thing look cheap. I could've lived with all of that crap, but the killer for me was the fact that one of the aforementioned screws that have the raised indentations on the face of the board didn't get screwed in all the way, and it was also slightly stripped,leaving a burr. The upshot is that when it was time to put the board away for the night, my wife was piss mad when she saw the five long gouge out of the surface of my year-old kitchen table. She lost her damn mind she was so mad. I'm a little pissed myseld, seeing as I'm the one who gets to sand the thing down, restain it, and then lacquer over it. Thanks, Mayday, for soaking up at least three days of my time to fix that.

Now, I waxed the living piss out of the board with the very good, but expensive, Mother's California Gold Carnauba wax, and it slicked up the surface considerably after four coats. I even waxed the disks with two coats, and not only does it protect them, but the wax-on-wax action really gets these things zipping when you're flicking. Still, the indentations and the pockmarks do affect the gameplay slightly as we noticed over the night's play, because shots across those areas were more prone to stand up on a hard shot, especially on the largest of the indentations.

So, in short, the whole thing is a loss in my opinion. Now that I've been incited to wrath, I've looked on BGG and apparently there's a tremendous amount of negative feedback from these boards, and it came out that the surface isn't even actually hardwood, it's MDF with a veneer, which is clear on my board since it's obviously veneer from the side-profile. That's a shallow observation, though, because the lacquer finish theoretically makes it as durable and smooth as glass, were it not for defects and the above-the-lacquer painted scoring rings.

Along with the board comes fourteen disks in two colors, white and black, and a scoring box loaded with the pegs for installation into the board, as well as two scoring pegs. While the disks are top-notch quality, and the pegs go into the board with just the right amount of resistance, the scoring/storage box is another epic fail in the quality department. The predrilled holes that are used for scoring were 4 drill sizes too small, and according to the threads, MayDay is trying to portray that you're supposed to lay the box top flat and hammer in the two pegs to get them to size. First, there's not a chance in hell that it would ever fit. Second, I went ahead and did precisely what they said, and all it did was squish the wood and leave a large indentation around the hole. It's retarded. Just admit you need to drill it out and be done, it's no biggie. And that's what I did...and now the pegs fit perfectly snugly and it functions flawlessly.

To conclude, Mayday has received numerous complaints, and I'm just another one on top of the pile. While the board plays reasonably well, the defects and the problems with this board contribute to the absolutely terrible quality of the product. MayDay has said that they're shooting to provide 85% of the quality of a top-grade tournament Crokinole board for 50% of the price, and that is a total sack of steaming, hot cat shit. This is maybe 40% of the quality of even an entry-level Hilinski or Mr. Crokinole board, and it's 75% of the price. You can get a Hilinski board for $150 to $300, you can get various other brands for $125-$175, and you can get them on Ebay for 50-75 bucks on occasion, with all of them being superior to this product.

I'll report back on what happens with the warranty, and since I travel a lot, I'm sure I can be in Utah for a couple of days to file and subsequently stand tall before a judge in small claims court. I have reps out there anyway, as well as friends, and after just buying this table, I'm going to seek damages, for sure, unless they come back with an offer that's equitable.

Why This Crokinole Set Doesn't Croak:
- The disks are top-quality, with smooth finish and nice, round edges
- The inclusion of a scoring and storage solution is pretty slick and adds value

Why MayDay's Company Name Says It All...DISASTER:
- The quality of this product, overall, is a pariah
- For $25.00 more, you could get a much better board from a reputable dealer
- This was a total, unrelenting disappointment, and my expectations weren't even that high

In short, don't ever even consider buying one of these disasters from MayDay. Even if Seth at MayDay will honor their 1-year warranty, which appears to be in question from the lack of responsiveness people have complained about regarding Mayday, the pain in the ass of having to box it back up, ship it back, and wait two weeks or more for a new one is SO not worth the fifty bucks you save on this lower-quality product. Imagine how disappointed I am just based on the quality, and then top it off with the fact that the board completely fucked my kitchen table up. Do you really want to have this experience? Is that really worth the fifty bones you save? Don't do it. Don't even think about it. If you do think about doing it after reading this, go ahead and hit yourself in the genitals with a deadblow sledgehammer and realize that's just a taste of how you'll feel when it arrives, looking like crap and damaging your property.

2/5 Stars

If you really, really, really want to buy this, take a look at MayDay's site for details:

...then look at my photos again, and tell me that after watching the video and examining the product depicted that these products are even in the same realm of quality. I'm telling you, don't do it. This board is a total, total piece of crap.

Follow Up: If you want a refund from Tanga for one of these boards, email

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Conversation With A Gaming Innovator #4: David Muta

David Muta is the president of the upstart Board Game Exchange ( company, which offers something we, as boardgamers, have never had: the opportunity to rent games in order to see if they're good enough to buy. Asshats like myself get plenty of games on the opinion of others, the look of a game, and the theme, but many times I've been disappointed and have had to spend $15.00 to ship it to someone else to trade for something I actually might like, so the way I see it, this is a great program.

I've heard OCD collectors that have 1200+ games in their collection decry this concept as a bad idea, but realistically, who the hell actually has the room, money, and desire to collect everything? Seriously...if it wasn't a good model, companies like Gamefly would never have adopted it. I'm incredibly pleased that David has started the company, especially as a hard-core gamer who doesn't have 50 bones a month to spend on games that I may not even like.

So, without further delay, let's get to the interview...

SFC: David, welcome to the Circus! It's been about six months since I first heard of your program, and a really good friend of mine is a subscriber. He's raved about it since he runs a game group and he always gets to try newer stuff for his group, which was the main reason I wanted to talk with you. What the hell gave you this idea, and why did you think there'd be a market for it?

DM: I appreciate your enthusiasm about the company. I am glad your friend enjoys the service, we have worked very hard and love to hear that we are keeping our customers happy.

The reason I came up with the idea is that I had always really been a video gamer; a friend of mine told me about a board game; "Ticket to Ride", and being a video gamer, I was skeptical about board games anyway. I had a really hard time finding the game, and found it at a small local game shop in Bloomington, Indiana where I went to college.

The price of the game was about 55 dollars at the time, and I was hesitant to buy it at first. I purchased it, really loved the game and played it for a few weeks; then like most board gamers, wanted to immediately play more and more games.

I got on Board Game Geek, at the time, Agricola was the #1 game rated on their website. So I paid $65 for it. Sure enough, I enjoyed it; I then wanted to keep buying more, and I was spending too much money on the games. I looked all over the internet for places to rent games and really didn't see anywhere. I did a great deal of research and spoke to a friend / now partner and the idea just seemed like a good one, we were on the same page. We both have had previous business experience and the idea really fell into place after many many talks.

People have asked how long we will go or what happens if... we have had such an overwhelming response, and the customers we do have and people that have praised the idea really has been eye-opening.

We are excited to see what the future brings to the customers of Board Game eXchange. BGX plans on being around for quite sometime.

SFC: With my reader base, you may not want to admit that you love Ticket To Ride and Agricola so much; they may storm your warehouse and pelt your employees with Heroscape dice! Seriously, though, it's hard for me not to be excited. This is a great idea. So, give me the short version of how it works if one of my readers is thinking that this might be for them?

DM:I like all sorts of games, those are just the first 2 that really got me into the scene. This really works the same as it sounds. Basically, you sign up for one of our subscription packages:

Bridge (2 Months) : (More for people that want to test our subscription out, or are new to gaming ) - this is a subscription we added for smaller games that we can ship in flat rate envelopes only, and there's over 70 games available for this subscription level.

Silver: 6 Months if you really want to get into trying many different board games and want the option to play and purchase more expensive games.

Gold: 12 Months: For members that really want to have access to many rare games and we also include full games / expansion on there such as "Dominion + All Expansions" and Thunderstone + All Expansions

You pay with your credit card and add the requested information such as "Address, Telephone #, and name" , then you add 5 or more games to your "Request List", then email us what order in which you would like to receive those games. Within 24 hours, we ship the top 2 games from your list to your door step Priority mail so you get them quick.

It really is that simple.

We try to add about 20 or so titles a month to the list and we are slowly growing the Gold Level Only Section, but some of those games are pretty expensive.

SFC: Ok, so it seems pretty simple. So, what's the difference between the selections? What makes Gold and Silver what they are? What are some examples of what kind of games would be in Gold, but not in Silver? I understand that you get game expansions at Gold level, but do you have older games, like Warhammer Quest or Merchant of Venus at that level?

DM: Gold is generally much rarer games and out of print games. We have Antiquity on there, as well as, Civilization / advanced civilization, Evo, Java, Star Wars Epic Duels, Hero Quest and more. We generally are trying to add one or 2 titles a month to this category.

Gold level members usually get free games that we have gotten from publishers, as well as if they have games on their list that other customers do, they get priority for the games that are the same. Gold level is definitely the best option for customers wanting to get their full money's worth for their Board Game eXchange subscription.

SFC: Okay, so let's look at that, then. The Gold subscription is $27.00 a month, for an annual cost of about $324.00. That's a lot of scratch for people, and I can see how some of your detractors would rather spend that money on buying ten or so games that cost about $30.00 each. It appears from your website that Gold level subscribers can try as many games as they want, which I assume means that they can ship back games and get new ones any time they want, right? If that's the case, how many games a month or year do you believe is possible for an average person anywhere in the United States to rent?

DM: Basically the package works like this: If you are a gold level subscriber, you get 2 games at a time on your request list. Usually there is at least one more, sometimes more than that depending on how many games donated by partners we have at any given time.

They arrive at your doorstep and you play them for as long as you would like, then you have the option to buy the game / games at a preferred rate which is usually about 7-8 dollars less than your average online retailer. As the games become played more, it may even be a better discount than that, but that is a good rule to go with.

You ship the games back with the included prepaid postage, then your next couple games come to you.

This service is much better than buying 10 or so games for many reasons, but the number one reason is the fact that there are plenty of games that really just not worth the 30 - 50 dollars you spend on it. They lack the replay value necessary to constitute a 50+ dollar price tag. I look at it like this, the 20 / 50 / 30 theory. 20% of the games you buy you wont like and will trade, 50% of the games you buy you will like and play for a month or so, then it will hit the shelf, 25-30% of the games you buy you will greatly enjoy, keep and play frequently.

In each of these cases instead of trying 10ish games for your $300 dollars. At the minimum, you'll get to try 24 games with our gold level subscription. This being said. Using the 20 / 50 / 30 theory. instead of 2 / 5 / 3 games you buy and dislike, hold onto or shelf, really like. You will get to try and review at least 24 games. on average, 5 of those you wont like immediately, 11 you will kind of like but be happy you didnt purchase because it may not have had the replayability you were looking for, and 8 you would be happy you played and purchase from us or another retailer.

I know this sounds kind of complicated, but you can see what I am saying by renting and trying out the games. It really makes sense and the 300 dollars a year sounds steep, but to play the extra 14 games or more you get to try for the price, the deal really makes sense for anyone that really likes to delve into and try a great deal of games. Even reviewers have signed on because they see the value of the service. and even if you buy the 10 games from us that you would have purchased anyway. You get the games you wanted anyway after trying them for about 8 dollars less each on average and they will all get the replay value you were going to purchase them for in the beginning anyway.

SFC: Hell, I can look at my game shelf and see at least 10 games I wish I hadn't ever purchased and nobody really seems to want to buy or trade from me. Let me ask you this, to continue that train of thought: I understand you take games on trade, and the trade amount is applied as a credit to the account. Can I compound that trade credit towards a purchase of a game from you at the discounted price? It seems to me that it's better than doing a BGG trade because if you give me a credit on 2 games I trade you, I can then get one back from you on a purchase basis without having to spend any money on shipping. Is that accurate, or does the person trading games to you have to pay shipping?

DM: As of now, we accept trades of games for months of credit to our company. This is a great deal as customers can get free months to play all the new games they want to while gettting rid of their games collecting dust. Also, then other customers can play those games that were traded.

SFC: Fair enough. I want to talk about discounts on buying games, as you mentioned earlier. You said that if people wanted to buy a game that they want to, they can do so at a discount. Can you quantify that point, maybe with an example of a game that you have that I may want to buy, and can you then elaborate on how that works? If I'm a subscriber yet I am a collector as well, would this be a good deal because I can save money on boardgames?

DM: People have asked why I dont advertise game prices. The reason being, they fluctuate. Basically, if the game has only been played once, we usually sell the game at a price point about 7-8 dollars lower than anywhere else online.. sometimes that discount is much more, sometimes a hair less.. and you never will pay shipping. If a game has been played a great deal more, the price can be much lower. It really just depends.

I sold a copy of Dominion and an expansion to a customer that hadnt been played before him for $26.50 each / dominion and expansion. But some games I have a harder time reaching that low threshold. It really matters how many times it has been played and what game it is. We send a "Preferred price sheet" with each game with a purchase price.

We have had customers buy a great deal of games from us. I dont know if it is because our prices are very good, or that it is just so convenient for them. But both are great benefits of our service. After the game is purchased, we ship the empty box with the next order and that is all included in the subscription price. Customers never have to pay any shipping for any games they purchased.

SFC: I think that because you have a different model than the “Troll and Toads” of the world who make their profit solely from online sales, you have the opportunity to leverage your subscription-based profits against the competition and really whip their asses. I mean, with subscription-based access to discounts in unison with having what amounts to used game sales and a robust trading program, you could be a huge player in the market. Don’t you think that if you were to publish your prices in a flexible format, for instance stating that a game is between two price points, based on volume of rentals, that you might attract people to subscribe based not just on the service, but for access to your “Sam’s Club” program? Or just get more traffic which could produce subsidies to your cost structure in the form of advertising sales on your site?

DM: We have had many customers and potential customers ask us about our sale prices, and your questions sparked a great deal of discussion amongst our partners. We are all about fulfilling customer demands, and our customers' feedback has sparked a number of improvements to the service and the website...some of which will be announced in March 2011.

Up until recently, we didn't have any good plan of action of listing our Preferred Members' Pricing, but we have come up with a solution based on a tiered pricing system. If you look at our website now, we have begun to add price ranges for games, which our Subscribers will find favorable as compared to other online retailers.

Because we are selling games "slightly used" and we have worked out great deals with publishers and distributors. We are able to drop the prices significantly as compared to competing retailers. For example, we are going to be offering Dominion in the future for around $23.00 to our subscribers.

Dominion (Slightly Used $23.00 - Very Used $15.00) [B1]

You'll see the "[B1]" behind the title, that also means that you can rent this game as part of our Bridge To Gaming subscription for only $13.99 per month. The Bridge To Gaming subscription is a new subscription level which will be launched in the next week.

SFC: What I really want to ask you about is sustainability. I am having a huge issue figuring out how you guys can make money at this. Some people think that your Gold level, at the $27.00 dollar price point, is a bit high, but I can’t see how you guys can afford to do it even at that. First you have to buy the game, then you have to ship it round trip. Even if you amortize a forty dollar game over 10 shipments, that’s still going to cost you two flat rate boxes and four bucks for the original investment. And that’s based only on one game, one round trip shipment a month. If you do it twice, or with two games twice a month, you’re spending $40.00 a month just on freight to that customer. How the heck do you break even at this price point?

DM: Your question assumes two round trip shipments per month. That is incorrect. we allow customers to get 1 shipment a month which contains at least 2 games, usually more; We use a great deal of flat rate shipping as well as working hard with a shipping consolidator to help reduce the price of shipping the packages all over the country. The logistics of this deal has been quite a large learning curve that we are still really working hard to learn everything we can about reducing shipping costs. Trust me, I would love to give the service away for 12.00 dollars a month, but with the value of some of the games and the cost of shipping the games round trip, it is impossible to go any lower than that for our gold level offering. Antiquity for instance is $270+ Dollars and most of the games we offer retail well over $50 each.

As far as sustainability, we have vitually no overhead, no debt, no monthly fixed costs, nor do we have any drop-dead date by which we must reach a certain level of revenue. We knew the heavy upfront costs of board games was going to be the most expensive part of the company and we were prepared for that and are prepared for that in the future.

As we have expanded our library, people have been renting a great variety of games and we continue to grow our library and try to not get stuck with a great deal of inventory that doesn't move.

It is surprising what games people have rented. I thought many games would have overlap, but we have found the exact opposite--there has been minimal overlap of the games requested between our different customers.

SFC: OK, so it's a once monthly shipment program, so the most a person can actually play in a 12-month window is 24 games. That's still cheaper than buying them, so it's still viable for a person in my position who would look at monthly cash flow for things like this over annualized comparison versus purchasing. Well, let's talk about selection now. The "cult of the new" is a big deal on Boardgamegeek, which is the biggest player in board game media by far, and unless you keep up your catalog, you're going to be in deep shit. I was reading a thread on BGG where a user complained that of maybe the 15 games they wanted to play, you only had 2 of them. What is the driving force behind your catalog, and what guarantees a subscriber that you're going to keep a current list? What is it that moves you to pick up a game for the catalog?

DM: The Driving force behind my catalog is based upon 2 variables. 1 - I have a great deal of customers that have requested games from me, I try to bring in about 90% of what is requested. I also try to keep my "fingers on the pulse" when new games are released and work to get in line for the new games. 2 - My distributors and publishers that I purchase games from work to keep me up to date with the current releases.

The post in question on Board Game Geek, immediately after it was written, I made 5 phone calls and had about 8 of the 15 she that I didn't have were immediately on the way to my warehouse.

If it weren't for our customers, we would not have a business at all, therefore we work hard to keep our customers satisfied. We are continually adding new games to our library, while maintaining our inventory. We have already added well over 100 titles since our launch in September and we try to add games about bi-weekly. Without new games, the business will get stale and the customers paying to try our unique service will be upset. We understand this and work hard to keep the titles fresh and new.

SFC: Let me ask you this, then: Based on your subscribers, what kind of games are being rented? Are they primarily "cult of the new" games that have just been released, or are they primarily older, out of print games that are high up on the "charts" so to speak?

DM: We have had such a splattering of board games I was very shocked. I really thought there were going to be only new board games rented, but we have had customers rent everything from Antiquity, Twilight Imperium, to Apples to Apples and even games like Booktastic.

It seems that all customers are very different than we thought, some games that are popular amongst a great deal of players, such as dominion haven't moved as quickly as some of the more obscure games. At one point, Mystery of the Abbey was our most requested games.

Our service really gives customers a chance to try and play games they normally wouldn't have purchased and I feel our request list from our customers has definitely reflected that. I really thought we would see a great deal of overlap, but the spread has been really even and that has really helped us. Although I say this, whenever we bring in newer and hotter games, they are always rented for at least a few months before they sit for a while.

SFC: Will you ever put a “counter” on your site and a blog/comments area or ratings system up so that subscribers can not only see what their peers are renting, but also read about what they had to say about the games?

DM: As of right now, we have a "review" section:

This is fairly new, and we have just had a few reviews start coming in.

Yes, I would love to have an online community where customers can come, review games, read what other renters have said about the games, and to see what games are trending. We are pushing ourselves and website designers towards that goal, we have many services we would like to offer our customers; but just launching less than 6 months ago it has been a gradual process and everything we have done takes time and strategic planning. We want to make our service user friendly, while not confusing our customers.

First and foremost we are the nation's first subscription rental service for Board Games. The community aspect of the company is all just a bonus for the great service we offer.

SFC: But there is no counter or anything to indicate what other people are renting? No "hotness" chart or something?

DM: As of right now, there is no "hotness" chart, we have been talking to our designers about this and it could be implemented in the next few months, but as of now, we do not have anything like that.

SFC: Getting back to your business model, I'm curious to know what publishers think about the prospect of you renting their games. Have you gotten any feedback from a publisher?

DM: Absolutely, We have had several publishers that see the tremendous value we offer them by getting games in front of a great deal of players and then can be reviewed by them. Small publishers have loved this, and when we get copies of games; we send them to our customers just as an added game. So this is great for the customers and publishers both.

The customers play more games, try new ones, at no risk to them; who doesnt want to try a few brand new board games.I am currently in talks with several large publishers and we are on the edge of a few deals that could be very beneficial for all parties invloved.

SFC: For my last question, I want to ask you about feedback. And I don't want to hear all the bullshit salesmanship that I would expect, I want an honest answer! Seriously, what are your customers saying?

DM: Our feedback has been exceptional. We have customers that have been so happy and thankful for many reasons, also, we have had a surprising amount of customers that have given us many ideas and we encourage that. Our customers know what they want, and we keep working to improve the service based upon their needs.. If you look at the "testimonials" section on the website, you'll see a great deal of positive feedback we have gotten.

Our customers have helped shape and improve the company to where it is today and where it is going to go in the future. For instance, I just got this yesterday:

Hi. My latest game is on it's way back to you. My top choices from my request list right now are A Castle for All Seasons, Thebes, Cluzzle, and Luna.


p.s. We loved Ambit so much we are buying it from you. :-)

SFC: On that note, I'll we'll call this a wrap, and I do so appreciate you taking the time to meet with me!

DM: No problem, and thanks for the opportunity to talk about the company! If anyone wants more information, please check us out at!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Merchants And Marauders - Slinging Cane And Plundering Booty For Fun And Profit

I was never much a fan of the old pirate stories, and I sure as hell don't like the Somali scumbags that are boarding merchant vessels in the modern world today. That being said, the moment I heard about Z-Man's Merchants and Marauders, I wanted it. I read a bit about it on the Z-Man website, read some rumors on the interwebz, and each new story made this seem like an amazing adventure game. While I am indeed usually optimistic, I simply had to get this to prove to myself that it may be the game to change my mind, forever, about pirates, and more specifically, pirate games.

I bugged Zev, the genius behind Z-Man Games, and to my incredible surprise, not only was he aware of the Superfly Circus, he was so incredibly generous that he offered me a review copy. I was astounded and humbled. That being said, me being who I am, I immediately had a sense of dread that if I hated the game, I'd have to shit all over a product from a person whom I liked once again, and I really, truly hate to do it. So, when the game arrived, I set sail for high adventure, or so I hoped. It turns out that I didn't simply play this game three times before reviewing in order to be fair, I played it a total of five times as of this writing, because I simply could not believe how many different avenues one could take in the game in order to be successful. This is certainly not the fare of Captain Feathersword, this is much, much more sinister.

After reading the rules, I was absolutely impressed with the game. It is as close an equivalent to the board game version of Grand Theft Auto, but in the ocean in an old-timey sailing ship. The concept is that players set sail in an open-ended adventure that has them performing milk run merchant trips, firing batteries of cannons at merchants to plunder them, boarding ships and chopping heads from enemy crewmen like so many blades of grass, or setting off into the jungles to save lost kin from tribal cannibals. While the object is to gain glory Points, which are essentially victory points, you'll realize that the enjoyment is found in the gameplay itself, which is the sign of a great game. In short, the game's theme is not only really cool, the implementation and execution of the gameplay itself is almost flawless.

From the moment I saw the cover art, I was intrigued by the game's theme. The art is breathtakingly good from stem to stern, and with no exception this holds true with every component in the box. The board is beautiful, well designed, and reasonably easy to use during gameplay, but my singular complaint is that it may simply be too small in practice, even though it is pretty big on the table. There's a swath of little ships in six colors, with two of them representing national ships and pirates. There's also four buildable treasure chests wherein you hide and protect your treasure from your opponents and random negative events.

Beyond that, there are a couple of hundred cards representing captains, cargo, missions, rumors, ship types, and my favorite, rewards for completing glorious tasks. There's also a swath of tokens used to determine what cargo types are in demand at a given time, ship modifications that turn your sad little ship into a death dealing dreadnaught, and special weapons that allow you to perform specific actions in combat. Then, there are some nationality flags and some "hidden ship" tokens with any of the four nationalities in the game that act as unknown and hidden merchant vessels for you to search for and then attempt to loot. The last bits are the nice, large-sized reference cards, the player boards that are used to track the ships' statistics, some wooden cubes that are used on that player board, and finally, my favorite bits in the box, the dice. The dice have Jolly Rogers where the five and six would be on a normal D6, which is very, very cool. I want to buy some extras just for use with Arkham Horror, in fact.

Now that I'm done with the cursory inspection phase of the review, let's get to the most important part: the gameplay. Starting with the setup, which will take around ten minutes or so, you need to lay the board out in easy reach of everyone and shuffle all the decks, aside from the Ship deck, which is better if it's organized by ship type. Each player gets a player board, a reference card which is actually a must-have item in this game, the ships and six wooden cubes of their chosen color, a glory card, a randomly-chosen Captain card, and then the player will choose either the small and piratey

Sloop or the big, fat, bullseye-marked merchant Flute. Each Captain has a home port, so you place the miniature of your color on that home port. After that's done, take two mission cards, read them aloud, and then place them in the appropriate spot on the board, which is detailed on the cards themselves. Now, all but one sea zone on the board has a port within, and there's 2 square places to put chits down. Randomly choose some of the item tokens and place one on each spot, then, face down, put a weapon modification marker in the second. The last step is to put a random merchant ship token, face down, in each of the sea zones. Really, the shuffling takes the most time, and it's critical that you get the cargo cards shuffled very thoroughly. Once the game's all set up, you choose a player to go first, and the game begins.

The object of the game is to get ten glory points, and these can be through killing and pillaging, performing missions, verifying the veracity of some rumors you hear in port, or by having gold. The trick is that while your glory points are public knowledge as they're tracked on the bottom of the board itself, your gold is not. Ten gold is equivalent to one glory point, and so you can get a stealth win by hoarding gold and, when you reach 100 gold, you can proclaim yourself the saltiest dog in the sea. The problem is that the gold comes in denominations of one, two, five, and ten valued chits, so if you have a fat stack of gold lying around on your player board, it's tantamount to walking around in South central LA with a suit made of hundred-dollar bills. Very, very dangerous.

As noted before, each Captain has a home port, and it is at these ports you can stash your gold. The smart move is to start to store gold in your treasure chest, which limits your access to it during the game, but protects it in case your Captain is keel-hauled after being boarded or is sunk by an enemy. It's a balance that players have to worry about, since there's a wide array of bad things that can happen to you, but having enough money on hand to buy cargo or weapons is a critical piece of being an effective Captain.

Anyhow, back to the gameplay. On your turn you have three actions to use, and you can do any of a variety of things. First, you can move from one place to another for one action. This is encompassed by either moving from one sea zone to another or moving into or out of a port. Now, not all ports are always accessible, but I'll get to that later. Another action you can take is to scout for ships. Even though, as a player, you know there's a merchant ship nearby, it's a very big sea and without the advent of ground radar, you need to scout for them. To do so, you simply declare what you're trying to scout for, be it an enemy player, a national Naval ship, or just a random merchant. Doing so simply requires you to roll as many dice as your Captain is allowed by his scouting skill, and if any of the dice come up with a skull, you're successful.

What happens when you actually find a ship is determined by what you were looking for. If you were looking for an enemy ship, you can then choose to attack. More on combat later. If you were looking for a random merchant, though, you flip up the token that was present on the board and place it in the Merchant counter section of the board. You may attack that ship if you so desire, and combat against a merchant is far different than that against a Naval ship or against a player character. I will also add that if you decide to attack anyone, regardless of who they are, you generally get a bounty on your head from the country whose ship you attacked.

These bounties restrict your ability to enter ports that are owned by that country, and so it really hampers your ability to be an effective merchant down the road. To emphasize that last point, I need to mention that this game is called Merchants AND Marauders, not Merchants OR Marauders. The gameplay is as open as you wish it to be, and you can start a Merchant to get the money to buy bigger, nastier ships, and then become the most feared pirate in the sea, or you can start killing people straight away and use your ill-gotten profits to buy a larger ship to protect yourself from pirate raids while living the life of a merchant. Your role isn't set in stone, but the Captain that you end up with can greatly influence what life you wish to lead, and once you've got a bounty, merchant activity becomes harder.

Another aspect to the role selection is that you can forgo being either a pirate or merchant to become a freebooting adventurer, sailing from place to place and investigating rumors and performing noble or not-so-noble deeds. Getting back to the actions you can take, if you're in a port you can use an action to use port functions, and a lot of the game is spent doing so. In port you can buy and sell goods, which is a main method of getting rich quickly. Each cargo item is worth three gold when sold, but if the cargo you have is in demand at the port you're in, this is doubled. If you sell an in demand item, you have to take the token off of the little space and replace it with another random one. After selling items, you can then buy new items which is done by taking six cargo cards from the deck. Each item costs three gold, unless you drew multiples of the same type of item. There's six or seven cargo types, ranging from sugar cane, wood, and cocoa to spices and bananas, so it's not going to happen all the time. If you do happen to get multiples, the price drops to two gold per item if you have two like cards or to down to one gold per item if you end up getting lucky and having three or more like cards.

After you're done shopping for cargo items, you can then head to the shipyard and buy or sell your ship for a new one, you can repair your ship for a fee, replenish your crew if you can roll some skulls, or finally, upgrade your ship. Upgrading with ship modifications is a very strategic thing, because they are generally not transferrable from ship to ship when you buy a new one, and there is a very limited supply of them. The good news is that they're only three gold a piece, as are the one time use weapon upgrades that are always available. Modifications range from adding a new gun to increasing your cargo area, and all of them are actually very useful. As long as you accept that you're not going to have a super-ship that has all of them, you won't be disappointed, because each port has only one, and once someone buys it, it's gone.

Other port options include asking around the local establishments about rumors, which essentially has you paying two gold and rolling dice equal to your influence value and hoping for a success. If you do get a skull, you can take the rumor card. If not, you're out of both luck and your two gold bribe. Rumors range widely in scope, with some having you checking out a ghost ship and others having you search for a merchant vessel known to be overtaken by slaves. If you have a rumor, and you may only have one at a time, you can also attempt to verify the truth of it by performing the action listed on the card in the specific location on the card. This amounts to, you guessed it, a skill check against your Captain's skill. If you fail, you cry a little on the inside and must discard that rumor as it proved to be false, but if successful, you reap a reward, a glory card, and an elusive glory Point, bringing you closer to victory.

If there are missions available, you can enter the port that the mission card is on and claim it. These missions, unlike rumors, have requirements, such as not having a bounty from a specific country, or some force you to pay an insurance fee that is generally pretty steep in case you fail. Once you've accepted a mission, you pull a new card, read it aloud, and place it in the appropriate sea zone as you did when setting up the board. There's always two missions available, so taking missions is a very viable strategy to get rich quickly as well as gain the needed glory Points. Missions, like rumors, are quite varied in their nature, but the ones I've experienced so far are often times simple "go to X and do X" style quests, but there's others that are more compelling as well. If you fail your quest, nothing bad happens and you can try again next turn, but if you complete it, you're handsomely rewarded with gold, a glory point, and a glory card.

While I'm here, I should mention what glory cards are. These are cards that allow the player to have special one-time use re-rolls, or instant successes on skill checks, and a wide variety of other things. Some of the best cards in the glory deck, though, are the specialists. You can hire onto your little crew specialists that always make your ships better, from expert sailors to cannon experts. These are not game changers, but they're definately things that help you along on your quest for wealth and fame (or infamy).

Back to mission cards, one thing I want to note about the mission cards regarding the sea zones is that you are supposed to lay the cards, which are of the half-sized variety, onto the sea zone itself. This was a problem for me. The reason is that each sea zone has text that describes the special characteristics of that area, and the card takes up so much space in the sea zone that you can't really read it. Now, to be fair, the text is written on the player aid cards, but the fact is that I constantly have to remind myself about it. No, it's not a big deal since there's only two zones that this affects at any given time, but it was a pain in my ass a couple of times and I thought, in fairness, I should mention it.

Now, at this point I need to talk about the event cards, because they really do drive the game in a major way. These come into play at the beginning of a round, and some are persistent while others are simply one turn events. Unlike most adventure games where the world is static, this game is chock full of non-player characters, and the event cards are the primary path for them appearing, as well as controlling their movement. That being said, in this dynamic world of piracy and capitalism on the high seas, a lot of really bad stuff happens. Sometimes you'll have a storm that cripples or damages your ships, sometimes nations will set Naval vessels upon the players, and sometimes rogue pirates will end up joining the game. Each one of these event cards has icons of nations or a Jolly Roger, and a direction. Now, each sea zone has corresponding directions as well, so if an NPC ship of one of the flags shown on the card, it travels in that direction.

Speaking of NPC ships, the rulebook has a clear and simple chart that defines the AI that each ship uses. Naval ships will generally attack anyone with a bounty, but if there is more than one player in the same sea zone, the AI chart defines which the NPC will attack, if any. Some are, as I stated, in the employ of the various Navies in the game, but some are pirates. Both interact with players differently, and so no matter which road you take, piracy or mercantilism, players are not the only enemies that you will have to contend with. In reality, though, most of these act more as area denial mechanisms, forcing you to go around them if you wish to evade attack rather than as a Genestealer-type persistent threat that chases you. The one caveat is that if you end your turn in a sea zone adjacent to an NPC, the NPC will disregard their normal movement method and enter your sea zone, provided you meet the criteria for its AI scheme.

Now we come to my favorite aspect of any game, the fighting. There are two types of combat in the game; one version is for assaulting and pillaging the random merchant ships, and the other is against NPC ships and opponents. The first is a card-based ordeal where you draw cargo cards. These cards, while acting as cargo types, also have icons on the bottom specifically for combating merchants. The short version is that you may draw three cards and roll a skill check against your seamanship value. For each success you may draw a new card to keep, discard a card that you drew, or trade a card for a new one. These cards have a gold value at the bottom which tells you how much gold, when totaled, you get to keep if you win, and it has an icon that tells you if you were hit, and where. Finally there may be an icon of a ship that indicates that the merchant is trying to flee the battle. I should note that a key aspect of this mechanic is that you can discard a weapon upgrade token to change any missed roll to a success, so when playing a pirate role it is imperative to keep these on hand at all times.

If, when you're done horse trading with the cards, the ship icons meet or exceed your ships maneuverability value, that ship has escaped, and you not only likely ended up with hits, you end the battle empty handed. On the other hand, if the ship didn't escape, you simply tally the damage done to you, and if you haven't been sent to the bottom of the ocean, you win the battle and may take the amount of gold won onto your ship as well as any of the cargo cards you choose to load. Each ship has a cargo capacity which cannot be exceeded, so having a small, fast ship will generally only net you gold, but if you have a big, fat frigate you gain both gold and, potentially, a bunch of stuff. Finally, if you ended up taking the ship for 12 gold or more, you gain a glory point, a glory card, and the rest of the normal spoils.

Combat against NPCs, who are controlled by opponents in combat, or against opponents themselves is an entirely different matter. Each player first proclaims their intentions to either shoot, board, or flee. These are binding and cannot be changed until the next combat round. Each side rolls their Captain's Seamanship value in dice, and the player with the most successes gets to perform their full action first. If the winner chose to shoot, they score hits that equal their ship's cannon value, and unless the loser chose to shoot, they don't get to do anything. If they did choose to shoot, though, they score as many hits as they rolled successes.

After hits have been tallied, each player rolls a die for the hit location to determine where they damaged the other ship. The chart on each player's player board makes this easy to determine, and being hit in certain parts of the ship can have catastrophic effects. Hitting an enemy's hull brings that ship one step closer to sinking and the subsequent death of that Captain, with all of the ship's cargo and gold going down with it. Destroying an enemy's masts is the worst of all, in my opinion, because it restricts that player to only one die during Seamanship rolls, effectively disabling that player's ability to fight. You can also target Crew, Cargo bays, and Cannons, all of which are nasty, but the first two are the worst damage to bear.

There are some caveats to all of this due to both the ship modifications that can be bought as well as the weapon upgrades. One modification allows you to shoot before combat begins in earnest, another to shoot a fleeing enemy, and my favorite is the swivel cannons, which effectively repels boarding parties. Then there's the weapon upgrades, such as the grapeshot which you can discard to apply hits in combat to the enemy crew, or the chain shot that allows you to target masts automatically. These are, undoubtedly, the best way in the game to spend three gold, irrespective of your choice of player roles because they're always useful and, when played well, can mean a huge advantage in combat.

Back to the choices during combat, if the player who won the Seamanship roll chose to board the enemy, then an entirely different combat type, Crew Combat, begins. Crew Combat boils down to each player rolling dice equal to their Captain's leadership value, and each success scores a hit. If you kill the enemy crew in combat, not only do you get to kill the Captain and plunder their ship, you can TAKE their ship as your own. While ship modifications you purchased cannot be transferred, taking a Galleon values at 35 gold with a 10 gold Sloop is a hell of a way to get ahead fast. The final option is to flee the scene, and if you're successful, combat simply ends without incident. This is often the best option if you have a small crew or are obviously overwhelmed, and since you lose so very much when your Captain is killed it's certainly better to run away to fight again another day, so to speak.

The game makes you care about your character, and while there is no player elimination, when your Captain is killed it really feels miserable. Every battle is a risk, even if you've got an overwhelmingly strong ship, if you don't play well, and the choices you make during combat are viscerally tense. There will be a lot of cursing, piratey talk, and of course, some good drinking while playing this game. It's simply a fun adventure game that, surprisingly, leaves you wanting more when the game ends prematurely. In one instance, we wanted to extend the game to 15 glory points just because we were all getting some good ships, good upgrades, and it felt really crappy to have to end the game.

Since I'm near the end of the article, I think I should talk about death. Dying in this game sucks on an epic level. When you lose all of your crew in Crew Combat, or if you are sunk by another ship, your Captain is dead. There are no Clerics to resurrect, no Surge Tokens, nothing. You're gone. You can also retire your Captain while in port, if your ship is beat up and you don't have the cash to repair it. In both cases, you essentially start from scratch with a new ship, a new Captain, and while you get to keep your glory points and stashed gold, that's all you get to keep. So, mind the enemies and keep your powder dry.

Why I Don't Hate Pirates Anymore:
- The art is brilliant, engaging, and really thematic
- Gameplay is brisk, with minimal downtime between turns, even with AP-prone players
- The bits are top-notch, and the little skull dice are cool as hell
- This game captures the feel of the colonial-era Caribbean like no other
- Tremendous replay value is in the box due to all the options and randomness

Why This Game May Have A Place In Davy Jones' Locker:
- The sea zones are too small to have mission cards blocking the text
- Both NPC/player and Merchant Combat can be perplexing the first few times you play

I really want to emphasize that this is truly one of the neatest adventure games that I've ever played. It's got all the elements that I, as a gamer, love: fighting, real death with real consequences, and a ton of dice. The constant skill checking reminds me a bit of Arkham Horror, which is also another one of my favorites, so I was quite at home playing this. The rulebook is quite easily readable in a longer session on the can, and you will need to refer to the book maybe five times on your initial play, and after that it seems as if you'd known the game for years. It's just a brilliant, fun game, and I cannot recommend it to you highly enough.

4.75/5 Stars

Learn more about this game at Z-Man's website here: