On Saturday, I put on my best tricorn and headed down to Manchester for 'Pirate Republic', the game of pirates, privateers, governors and governments in the 18th century Caribbean, designed and run by John Sharp for Pennine Megagames. The game took place across islands and coastal locations from Philadelpha to Trinidad and Tobago, with the core of the gameplay either taking place on a main naval map, or on one of the several individual colony maps.
I was to be the Governor of the French colony and island of Tortuga, with my friend Mark acting as deputy Governor. Together we would be taking on/trading with/employing the pirates and privateers that occupied these tropical and turbulent waters, whilst also negotiating with other colonies and European governments as necessary.
All of the players had personal objectives, though we didn't know what they were until we arrived at the game. Unfolding the paper slip marked for Governor Louis de Corbon of Tortuga, I read through a very brief character description, coupled with three core objectives.
As it turned out, Governor Louis really doesn't want to be here, because governing and island is super boring, and boats make him sick. So it is that Louis' main call in life is finding some excitement, mainly in the form of thrilling battles with pirates, and making Tortuga a fortress that pirates will excitedly smash themselves into, resulting in an exhilarating battle of cannons and steel.
To this end my three main objectives were:
Provoke pirates into attacking Tortuga so that you can bravely fight them back
Personally win three fights against pirates
Upgrade Tortuga's defensive fort to make it truly formidable
Mark and I turned our attention to the colony itself. Tortuga was an island colony, just east of Cuba. Like all of the other colonies, we had a fort and a Governor's residence, along with a town with specialists and crew that could be hired by any players on the island. We also had a plantation area that produced sugar and other crops. The core of the colonies' game was placing these crops on merchant ships and sending them off to the exit-to-Europe spaces on the map where they'd reach our home nations. These merchant ships were obvious targets for pirates, but colonies typically lacked much significant naval power in order to defend them. More importantly, colonies got paid for the crops on departure, not arrival, so it was more of a priority for the nation players to defend the merchant fleets.
The beautiful isle of Tortuga with its animal mascot, Tortuga the Turtle.
The first few phases of the game were a slow start, as we slowly figured out the mechanics of a colony and what options were actually available to us. Looking to get the money we'd need to achieve our later goals, we invested in a tavern and a rum distillery, as well as hiring the madam available in our town. The tavern coupled with the madam specialist allowed us to make more money, whilst the distillery turned 1 sugar into 3 rum, effectively tripling its worth as a shipment for the home nations, and also providing a potential resource for selling to visiting pirates. We soon started shipping our crops back to the home nation also, which continued to make us good money.
Pirate Prisoners Produce Problems
Early on we received an unexpected delivery. Without telling us about it beforehand, France had sent us the captured pirates Black Bart and his first officer Thomas Anstis to be tried on our colony for their crimes. They arrived in the harbour, where Anstis immediately made use of a hidden pistol he'd smuggled in on his person to attempt an escape. I tried to stop him personally but unfortunately he managed to best me and I was wounded in the chest (losing a duel means you take one wound – if you take three wounds you're dead). My men, however, managed to wound Anstis before he and Bart ran off into the jungles of Tortuga.
The pirates were now hiding on the island somewhere (recently joined by their crewmate Joanne Fenn, who had snuck onto the island to assist them), no doubt plotting to steal a ship from the harbour. I positioned a small military crew about the harbour itself to ensure that doing so wouldn't be easy, and waited for them to make their move.
Eventually they emerged from the trees and attempted to set fire to the rum distillery. Leading the charge personally, I mobilised every soldier on Tortuga (other than those guarding the harbour) to get to the distillery in order to seize them, but the pirates still had an opportunity to do some damage before we arrived. Thankfully for me, the pirates rolled catastrophically bad, and the outcome was that the distillery staff had managed to prevent the pirates from doing any real damage. I would have to remember to thank the distillery manager for his policy of only hiring the burliest people on the island to work in the distillery.
Tortuga's fledgling rum and tavern industry, safe and sound.
I managed to take on Anstis personally a second time as my soldiers and I moved in to arrest them. I won a victory this time – thus taking me one third of the way towards my objective of making my life more exciting by beating three pirates in one-on-one combat. In the melee, the soldiers and I managed to strike a total of four wounds on the three pirates.
The pirates started bargaining with us, and offered to help us if we gave them use of a ship, but I didn't want them to have such an easy way out for their crimes. Instead, seeking the excitement Courbon so desperately craved, I made them an offer: I would duel Anstis, now on two wounds from the earlier battle, for their freedom. If they won, I would give them their freedom. Should they lose however, and Anstis be killed, the other two would be tried for their crimes.
The duel was fought, and Anstis managed to best me for the second time. I now had two wounds, and gave the pirates their freedom as agreed. Unfortunately they were still on Tortuga without a ship. Mark negotiated with them, and they took one of our sloops on the promise they would disrupt British shipping lanes (Mark's character, Charles Joubert, really had it out for the British for some reason, not that Courbon really cared) and bring us a cut of the profits.
The Best Doctors Tend To Be Actual Doctors
There were now two big problems getting in the way of my goals of fighting exciting duels and battles with pirates. The first was that none of the pirates were attacking our merchant fleets, so they were technically free and innocent citizens (at least by French law – several had definitely gained ire from the British and Spanish). Secondly, I now had two wounds, so I couldn't get in any more fights without risking death. Courbon craved excitement, but he wasn't necessarily looking to die getting it either.
A possible opportunity presented itself when the nearby French colony of Basse-Terre announced they were having a big party. With Bart and his crew gone from Tortuga, I now had time to attend the festivities. Of course, a simple Governor's ball was tedious to Louis de Courbon. I was in fact hoping that some pirates would attempt to crash the party so I could engage in a thrilling duel to defend and impress the other party-goers (I may have told a few pirates about the party in an attempt to increase the likelihood of this). Alas, no such pirate gate-crashing occurred.
Whilst I was in attendance, however, I did inquire of the local Governor if he had any medical specialists on hand to help me recover one of my wounds. He had his Deputy Governor send for a local specialist, and when they were finished I was told I had acquired a... well, to put it politely, let's just call it a “sailor's malady” from this “specialist”. I'm not quite sure why the Deputy decided this female professional should attempt medicine, but she did. A short but chaotic time later, the Deputy managed to find someone else to treat my new condition, and my life was saved thanks to that fine miracle medical cure, mercury. Thanks, mercury!
I sailed back to Tortuga, learning on the way that Port Royal had a trained pharmacist employed there. I made a note to visit Port Royal in the near future.
La Tortuga, El Animal de Fiesta Original
It was around this time that Tortuga began acquiring a particular reputation. Seeing as how our tavern and madam had been making us so much money, it only seemed sensible to construct a couple of more taverns, and hire a couple more madams to work in them. Twinned with our prolific rum production business, we were now making a lot of money in pirate parties.
The money was useful of course (especially for the fort upgrades I wanted, which I'd been slowly adding here and there as we acquired our income each turn), but it wasn't the kind of excitement I craved. How could I fight a pirate if they were all just having a good time instead? Also despite our tantalising rum supplies, the player pirates (who were the pirates I truly wanted to best in combat) hadn't visited us much, let alone caused trouble.
Looking for some way to leverage our unique reputation, I approached the game's representative for the French navy, Captain D'Escoubert, and gave him a couple of ideas that we could work on if he thought they might be useful to him. Firstly, if he wanted someone on the pirates' good side, due to my taverns, I possibly had an in. Secondly, if he wanted to lay some kind of big pirate trap, we could invite many of the pirates to a big party at Tortuga and strike when they're all in one place (and I could then claim that I bravely defended Tortuga from a pirate attack).
I quickly pointed out that I didn't think it would work though. I'd seen several colonies try to organise parties and fail, and any time I'd seen the pirates try to coordinate for an event, the message tended to get lost amid the many different captains with differing opinions and goals. There was basically no chance that all the pirates would come to a Tortuga pirate party.
All The Pirates Come To The Tortuga Pirate Party
The pirates had just elected a new Pirate King, and they were looking for somewhere to celebrate. Black Bart and his crew, remembering Tortuga's reputation from their previous visit, suggested our island and the idea apparently gained traction rather quickly. So it was that five pirate ships descended on Tortuga, including the the new pirate King, Edward Teach
However, as the ships were approaching over the horizon, I heard more and more rumblings of a disturbing rumour that this party was quickly becoming hijacked by some bad apples determined on ruining the fun for everyone else. According to some, this pirate fleet was going to raid, sack and control Tortuga on arrival. These rumours were confirmed by Black Bart himself, who got himself to the island early to warn us to prepare for an attack. Apparently the pirates realised that an island with so many taverns and plenty of rum was likely also a place that had a lot of money, and figured we'd be an easy target.
What these pirates didn't count on was that this was exactly what I wanted. It was time to step up and defend Tortuga, with sword in hand. In the interests of ensuring an honest fight, I gave them one last opportunity to prove if they had peaceful intentions. As the pirate ships sailed into the harbour's outer approach, I sent them a message with one simple question.
“Are you guys here to party?”
The answer came back. “No.”
The gauntlet had been thrown down. To make it clear that I had no intention of capitulating to such monstrous thugs, I sent back a final reply to the Pirate King.
“Well I shall fight, for my right, to party.”
Tortuga the Brave
Battle – glorious, pulse-pounding battle – was here. Seemingly from nowhere, the pirates had finally launched an attack on Tortuga, giving me the opportunity to defend it in battle that I had been waiting for all game.
We were not entirely unprepared. In the previous turn, Mark and I had begun putting back some of the money we'd made into hiring more crew for our defence. I boarded our sole defensive ship, flanked by my soldiers and crew, new and old, ready for this grand confrontation. As we exited the harbour, my single ship, ready to sail against five pirate vessels, I was expecting heavy hearts from the crew. Then, the lookout yelled something to the deck, and I started to hear cheering. I headed outside and, to our port, coming over the horizon, was two ships – one a powerful frigate – both bearing the glorious Tricolour of the French navy. My letters had reached Captain D'Escoubert! He had positioned his boats near Tortuga in the preparation for our earlier discussed plan, and we now had a fighting chance against the pirates.
*Exciting music plays*
Our forces met just outside the harbour entrance. Tortuga's sole defence ship, a simple brig, was likely little match in any extended cannon exchange. D'Escoubert and I traded a volley or two with the pirates, my ship being spared damage as the pirates targeted the more-powerful frigate. Battle Control was surprised to see me moving towards the pirates at full ahead speed, but my reasoning soon became clear. My patrol ship smashed side by side into a pirate brig and my crew of elite soldiers and sailors jumped across. A furious melee began across both vessels as pirate after pirate fell to my personal troops in a cacophony of sword strikes and a haze of musket smoke. I charged into combat with the enemy's First Officer, defeating him and acquiring my second personal combat victory. Eventually, the pirate's vessel was ours, with all those aboard either surrendered, wounded or fallen.
But the battle was far from over. I barely had time to notice D'Escoubert's vessel engaging in its own boarding combat, before the deck shook violently beneath my feet, almost knocking me to the ground. I looked over to see, crashing itself against my boat, an all-too familiar vessel. A new pirate ship had boarded us, and it was the very sloop we had handed over to Black Bart only a few turns before. Anstis, now a Captain, ordered his crew aboard my vessel, as the crew and troops aboard my ship raced back across the deck to join the fight once more. My men were gradually cut down and forced back, the losses taken from the first fight meaning they were unable to overcome Anstis' fresh crew. In the midst of the battle, I exchanged blows with Anstis once again, leading to a wound by his sword (by the time of the battle, I had healed the previous two away at Port Royal).
What's left of my crew fights valiantly to the end.
The fight aboard my ship finally ended, with me being the last to submit. I told Anstis I would surrender to him if he could beat me in a duel one last time – to give me one more chance to best him, with just the two of us this time. Teach, the ruthless scoundrel, claimed that my failure to immediately surrender was grounds for shooting me on the spot, but Anstis had the honour to accept my challenge – and as it was his ship, I got my chance.
I duelled bravely and skilfully but in the end Anstis somehow got the better of me for a third time. Back on two wounds again, I retired to the nicest brig aboard the sloop, and began discussing the situation of my upcoming ransom with Anstis. Out the porthole, I saw the French frigate sinking beneath the waves, with the smaller ship, having been successfully boarded by this point, being crewed by a few of Teach's pirates. I knew not of what happened to D'Escoubert, though I am sure he fought bravely.
Anstis throwing me in the brig. You can't win 'em all!
All that was left to happen now was for the pirates to continue sailing into Tortuga's harbour. I relished the chance to see my fort in action. Maybe it would be somewhat risky being on this side of the battle, but at least it definitely wouldn't be boring.
Then, in true megagame style, something entirely unexpected happened. The pirates started turning their ships around, sailing away from Tortuga! As the ship gradually turned, I saw the reason. Six Spanish ships had appeared over the horizon. I knew not why they were here but I was no less glad to see them.
Cannonballs flew back and forth as the pirates and the Spanish engaged in a bloody and chaotic combat. I had very little idea of what was going on, but the fight looked fairly even.
Then, in a split second, everything changed. With a deafening crack I was thrown across the brig. The Spanish had secretly filled one of their treasure ships with gunpowder barrels and sailed it into the heart of the pirate formation, detonating close by to Anstis' vessel, among others. The wood of the brig started to splinter and crack, then the starboard wall fell away as the entire sloop was coming apart. I saw my opportunity and jumped into the waves.
I could see my original ship, the one I had sailed out on a short time earlier, ablaze, and gradually sinking into the depths of the Caribbean Sea. I took a moment to reflect on its short but exciting act of service, then began the swim back to Tortuga.
That's my ship in the middle-left, on fire as it sinks.
Look What the Tide Brought In
As the pirates sank, fled, or sank, then fled, I finally reached the beaches of Tortuga harbour. Tortuga had been successfully defended from the evil pirates, and I was eager to celebrate with Deputy Governor Joubert and Black Bart as soon as I had some dry clothes.
However, my arrival was shortly followed by that of Captain Anstis, who was washed up on the shores of Tortuga and quickly picked up by the island militia. Unfortunately for him, due to my two wounds and his repeated success in previous fights, I was unwilling to offer him yet another duel to clear things up. Instead, he would face a fair trial under French law, finally facing the crimes he had committed. Anstis pleaded his case, but unfortunately was up against the testimony of myself, Deputy Governor Joubert, Black Bart and all those muscled fellows down at the distillery. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad.
A last farewell to an honourable foe. But in the end no pirate can escape Tortuga's justice!
Just One More Thing
The people of Tortuga were revelling in its recent success, with the pirate attack repelled and a pirate successfully tried and executed. It also appeared at this point that the pirates in general may have become more fractured, as individual pirate captains visited Tortuga much more frequently in the turns following the battle, reporting on their ventures and schemes as solo actors rather than grouping up with other pirates for large-scale attacks.
I, however, had one last score to settle. I needed just one more combat victory against a pirate, and I knew just which one it would be. Anstis' second in command, Joanne Fenn, who joined in the attack on Tortuga with the sloop we gave them, was still sailing the Caribbean somewhere, now under a new Captain.
I invited her to Tortuga, but she refused, claiming Bart would try and kill her on sight. The crew of her ship were also unwilling to visit Tortuga, as Bart – now living happily pardoned in Tortuga thanks to his dedication to protecting our party island – was something of a pariah in many pirate circles.
So, with one of my wounds healed, I took our recently purchased ship – 'the Turtle Trouble' – and sailed out to meet Joanne on the open ocean. Handily, she was sailing fairly close to Tortuga, so it was relatively easy to get to her. After a very long, very evenly matched duel on a gangplank between our two ships, I was eventually bested once again. I would have to find my honourable vengeance another day.
I retired to Tortuga for the final stages of the game, tired both in- and out-of-character. Mark and I talked to some pirates who popped up here and there to visit which was an interesting and pleasant experience. I wanted to beat my third pirate in combat, but couldn't find an appropriate time or person to duel. Black Bart offered to duel me because he knew it was what I wanted, which was really nice of him, but we both knew it wouldn't really count. He even offered to insult my hair to make it feel more legitimate, but we both know it would have been hollow. My hair is flawless.
Tortuga's now flourishing economy. Bart can also be seen here, now acting as Junior-Vice-Deputy Governor, or a general handyman, depending on who you ask.
I also needed to heal up my wounds. The last thing I did was pay the pirate Captain Vale to obtain medicine from elsewhere and bring it to me on Tortuga so I could heal my wounds. Vale was involved in the attack on Tortuga, so the plan was to duel him as vengeance the once I had healed . Alas, the medicine didn't work anyway, so I would have to wait until the (hypothetical, post-game) future to resume my quest for pirate-smashing excitement. For now, Governor Louis de Courbon would be enjoying a well-earned rest.
At the end of the game, Mark showed me his objectives. I was amused and surprised to learn that one of Mark's objectives was to host at least 3 big pirate parties. The taverns, rum and madams had made so much economic sense that I never questioned Mark having an ulterior motive for buying them. Nevertheless he did a good job of encouraging the thriving party industry on Tortuga. I was also quite pleased how Mark's objective neatly and unintentionally dovetailed with my own – with Tortuga's bevy of profitable taverns and prolific distillery being what motivated the pirates to attack us, giving me the epic battle I craved.
Also near the end of the game, I thanked the Spanish captain who saved Tortuga, and asked him why he came to the battle. It turned out he didn't really care about Tortuga or France at all, he was just looking for a fight and the big pirate fleet massing at our colony drew him like a moth to a flame.
Disclaimer: The following is some analytical observation of what I think did or didn’t work well. It's all my uneducated opinion, my only qualification being that I overthink things. If you disagree with anything I've said, please comment - I'd be interested to know.
There are two broad issues that I have been thinking about the most since the game. The first is that I don't think the briefing materials were very good at explaining how the standard gameplay of the colonies worked. Various concepts were explained, such as how to upgrade your fort, and that colonies could buy facilities or upgrade plantations, but at no point was it clear what the actual effect of most of these functions were, or how they affected each other. I was expecting it would be a lot clearer when I arrived, but many of the materials weren't clearly distinguished or labelled as to what they were, and core facets of the game such as colony funds, facilities to build, and buying ships were done in entirely separate rooms by different Controls, which made it much harder to know what we should actually be doing.
Of particular note were the unarmed merchant ships, which were empty, unmarked boxes with only a flag on them. We also had 3 other ships, which had models and names – so in comparison we assumed these unmarked boxes were spare pieces to be used when we built more ships. This mistake cost us about two thirds of our potential 1st turn income. I also heard after the game that many of the pirates had no idea these unmarked boxes were unarmed merchants, they just saw the big stacks of boxes on the map and assumed it was a big, powerful fleet – when in actuality it only had one or two lightly armed vessels.
I've done this myself in previous games, and it's easy for a game designer to do. What everything is and how it works seems so obvious to the game's designer, but all the players are coming in completely ignorant of all the information in your game except for what you express to them. Also, everyone is different and not everyone will notice or understand things the same way. It's critical that (non-secret) mechanics and components are obvious to almost anyone who might be playing your game. Our colony's game could have felt quite different on the mechanical side if, as part of our briefing material, we had just been given a glossary of what all the facilities were that could be built, and a simple breakdown of what ships there were, and how they could be built, bought and upgraded. These were the main elements missing to me but they weren't the only ones.
The second main issue is the combat mechanics. Though interesting and allowing some good depth, they were too complicated for a megagame. Any battle of significant size took a very long time to resolve. I only took part in one battle, and it took the best part of an hour to resolve, meaning everyone involved lost two-thirds of their turn actions because they couldn't be doing anything else. A simpler system may have been less satisfying for the battle itself, but could have fit much better within the game as a whole.
Of course, there are also things I really liked about Pirate Republic. Despite the above analytical complaints, I loved the game. I think the design did a great job of providing a mechanical framework for players to create exciting thematic narratives. Pirates is a strong theme for many players, and Pirate Republic made full use of this, without under-using its mechanical element and leaning too hard on freeform roleplay to replace the core of the game. The mechanics were a neat framework that naturally allowed players to create events and meetings that fed the roleplay. Important to note are the personal objectives, that made everyone's day feel more like a unique story, rather than every pirate/colony feeling like they were just competing to be highest achieving pirate/colony.
'Pirate Republic' was a rollickingly good time. Some serious mechanics and component confusion issues were not enough to spoil a game full of thrilling and fascinating characters. It provided a sensible mechanical framework that was great at facilitating spectacular character moments and dramatic events.
The paragraphs above about the Tortuga battle are all based on real mechanical effects and game pieces, but the colour and flourish in all the small details that I added were the kind of thing that really was going though my imagination during the game. If you thought that story sounded fun, then you have a pretty good idea of why I enjoyed Pirate Republic.
Thanks to John Sharp, everyone on the Control team and Pennine Megagames for all the hard work that clearly went into putting this one together. And thanks to everyone who attended for making this Governor's day an exciting one in one way or another!
 Vale was also looking to beat a Governor in combat, so unbeknownst to me, he was also hoping to get the opportunity for us to duel!