Review of Dead Man's Treasure
A few years ago, I bemoaned the fact that there wasn't much interest in good pirate games. But in the past year, perhaps due to a very popular duo of pirate movies, there seems to be a much higher interest with many pirate games coming out. Dead Man's Treasure (Playroom Entertainment, 2006 - Reiner Knizia) is one of the latest of these, with a main character (Ben Gunn) who looks suspiciously similar to Captain Jack Sparrow. It's a very light game, with typical Knizia mechanics, and plays in only about twenty minutes with up to five players.
And I enjoy it, even though it's rather light. Probably, the game is too quick, with decisions that can feel random and a lot of guesswork; but it's satisfying enough for a quick filler, and I have had great success drawing people in with the theme. Perhaps we can call this a "gateway filler"? Either way, it really was too simple for me, and I would rate the game personally a bit lower. Yet everyone I've played it with - both casual gamers and teenagers - have enjoyed it and asked for repeat games. Why would I not keep such a game in my collection?
As for the game itself, six islands are placed in a circle on the table, each with a different picture on them - which is really irrelevant to gameplay, except that a Captain Flint figure is placed on his island and Ben Gunn on his. Twenty treasure tiles are placed face down and shuffled, and two to four are placed on each island, depending on the number of players. All treasure tiles are flipped face up, as players take a set of eight Pirate cards in their color. These cards are numbered from "1" to "7", with one card showing a cannon. One player goes first, and then play passes clockwise around the table.
On a player's turn, they choose one of the cards from their hands and place it face down at an island, adding to their strength there. If there already is a card face down at the location, it is flipped face up, ensuring that there is at maximum one face down card at each location. If the card flipped over is a cannon, then both the cannon and the card that forced its revealing are removed from the game. Either way, play passes to the next player.
If a card is turned face up on an island where either Captain Flint or Ben Gunn is, then that pawn moves either clockwise or counter-clockwise one island (the direction is indicated on the back of the pirate figure.) The game continues until everyone has played all their cards, or until one of the two pirate figures reaches the island they started from. At this point, each island is scored. All cards are revealed at the islands (with the cannons removed - they do nothing for scoring purposes), and one island is scored at a time. Players compare their totals, and the player with the highest total takes the most valuable treasure token on the island, the player with the second highest total takes the next token, etc. If Ben Gunn is on an island, he counts as the highest treasure token - worth ten gold.
The island that Captain Flint is on scores nothing, even if Ben Gunn happens to be on the same island. If a tie occurs at any island, then the next island clockwise is checked, and the player who is ahead there wins the tie, going to the next island if necessary…
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: As with most of Playroom games these days, the component quality is rather high, quite a bit more than was probably necessary (not that this is an error.) The island tiles are huge, providing a rather stark contrast to the smaller treasure cardboard tokens and small cards. The cards themselves are of good quality with matte finish and have excellent cartoonish pirate artwork on them, which also adorns the box and island tiles. You will NOT persuade me that Captain Flint and Ben Gunn weren't based off the main characters of the Pirates of the Carribean movie, but they do add some flair to the game as cardboard standup counters on plastic bases. Everything fits well in the long, flat box, although I wonder if the game could have been released as a simple card game. I'm glad it wasn't, as card games often have something lacking, and I fear Dead Man's Treasure might have been lost in the woodwork without the pretty bits.
2.) Rules: The rulebook is a full color five pages of examples and illustrations and is very clear and understandable. I've taught the game to several groups of teenagers and adults, and none of them have had any problem understanding the rules - except the tie-breaker rule, which often simply must be shown to folks who don't normally come across this sort of thing. Even if someone has a difficult time understanding what's going on, games are so short that they can just watch once, to see how everything works.
3.) Blind Bidding: Dead Man's Treasure is essentially a game of blind bidding, but only partly, as only a few cards are hidden at a time. There's also a bluff factor involved, as players wonder exactly where the other players put their cannon cards. I almost want to categorize the game as a "beginners" introduction to blind bidding, since it's so simple and easy. This would actually make the game rather strategic, but the movement of the two pirates adds a bit of randomness to where players place their bids. There are a lot of treasure tokens on the board, but some of them are much more critical to gain than others, so those islands are often hotly contested.
4.) Pirates: The moving pirates do add an interesting element to the game. A player can force them to move by where they play their cards, but will that help them control the right islands? Also, it's a bit of a gamble to attempt to control any island in Flint's pathway, as he can pretty much "destroy" the island, wasting some cards that were played. Ben Gunn, on the other hand, is tremendously valuable, and most of the winners of the games I've seen were the players who picked him up. However, while players do exercise some control over the pirates, it does come across slightly random, if only because the game is so short.
5.) Time and Players: This game certainly works best (for me) with five players, as there is more action when placing cards and more fighting over the different islands. At the same time, it does speed the game up even more, and it's over before it even gets interesting. Games can take ten minutes or so, and sometimes take as long to score as they do to play!
6.) Fun Factor: In my groups, I've been the minority - a person who wasn't tremendously impressed by the game. I've played other Knizia short games that seemed similar, but were better - like Quandary. At the same time, teenagers LOVED the game and continually clamored to play again. Casual groups after dinner at my house also enjoyed the game, and I think some of them would have been quite content to take the game off my hands. It's a good game, but probably not for experienced or hardcore gamers.
So my final word on Dead Man's Treasure is that it is a light, fun game, but realize that you are simply getting a fluffy game about pirates. It's typical Knizia fair, with numbers and cards all combined to make a clever little game. Many folk will enjoy this more than me, simply because they like the theme and enjoy the ease of play. I felt like it was the first bite of a delicious dessert that I couldn't finish, it just seemed to stop. Perhaps that's a good thing, but it means that in my group, it will be relegated to the teen group, who enjoy it quite a bit.
"Real men play board games"