I dig so much of Shiver Me Timbers. Designer Michal Vitkovsky presents us with a sandbox pirate adventure that parallels Merchants & Marauders conceptually. The details of these games are an ocean apart, but your broad goals and desires are mirrored. And this game almost topples the giant, getting it halfway out on the plank before succumbing to sea sickness and a bit of weakness in the knees.
Shiver My Timbers, Shiver My Soul
Let’s first get at what this game does right – because there’s so much of it.
The open-world direction of play is superb. There are numerous options, each handled with a slick mini-game of contained mechanisms. The duel system is my favorite, each player taking up a small hand of cards and going back and forth with high/mid/low thrusts while their opponent tries to block them. Your progress is recorded via a track that acts as a two-way plank – push your opponent off their end and you succeed.
It’s just such a neat little detour from play that feels like a genuine fight. It’s a stripped-down facsimile of Reiner Knizia’s En Garde and it fits the subject matter very well. It can be a little odd that your assault on a port’s fortress is handled with a duel, but it thematically centers the action on your captain and provides a focus to play.
It’s a tense little thing too where you have to weigh whether to use one of the better cards you’ve drawn to block a powerful blow or save it for your own counterattack. The tempo can be thrilling and the light strategy here is mostly in hand management.
I, of oddball nature, very much enjoy the epic yet convoluted ship battles in Merchants & Marauders. However, there is definitely an appeal to resolving all player and NPC fights through this duel system, as it’s much cleaner, focused, and easier to understand.
Your ship stats factor into the conflict as well. The strength of your vessel is abstract, but it allows you to fire at nearby ships and soften them up prior to boarding, as well as giving you a starting edge in the actual assault. This is a pleasant compromise that, again, leans into simplicity over complication.
The buried treasure mechanism is also a treat. After hitting up a port and discovering a rumor for a buried artifact, you then head to the island where it’s supposedly located and begin your expedition. This has your main ship sitting listlessly at the isle, while you spend your action points each round pushing a cube down a track on a little treasure map. After a couple of turns you arrive at the destination and receive the item – perhaps a special sword or maybe even a missing dog companion. It’s light with few broad tactical considerations, but it’s neat.
That’s actually the best way describe Shiver Me Timbers as an experience. The rich and splendid features are all centered around vectors of texture and immersion as opposed to strategic depth. It makes for an overall lighter mood of piracy and adventure where you’re more likely to spit laughter than furrow your brow.
This airy approach carries through to each corner of the design. Hunting a sea serpent or kraken is amusing and simple – gather the necessary crew member or ritual to call the beast, then move onto its space and spend turns drawing cards and progressing at a cost of supplies or ship integrity.
Delivering goods – the usual rum, tobacco, and sugar – is perhaps the most pedestrian task, but it’s punched up by the very cute physical ship miniatures. These multi-part figures are expandable as you can add new hull pieces, attach additional sails, and insert cannons. The goods themselves are represented by little discs on the deck of the ship and all of these upgrades serve as a clever sense of physical representation. It’s also easy enough for a player to take a gander at your miniature and know exactly what you’re capable of, allowing them a brief moment to weigh their options and consider a raid.
Finally, the board itself is an interesting system. Instead of going full cardboard Caribbean, you place out discs representing the various islands and connect them via lanes. Visually, it appears very similar to Star Trek: Ascendancy, and it functions identically in narrowing pathing options to your destination, but there’s no element of exploration. It does allow for a variety in board states as players build the surface with strategic considerations. There are also a few effects which remove these lanes or add new ones during play, spicing up the proceedings with some dynamism.
This sailing system works, however, because it funnels players into each other. It creates tactical dilemmas and can fuel a nice bit of cat and mouse if you’ve neglected your ship’s strength while another player has gone all in on raiding. The various lanes are also the most overt and visually distinct nod towards the inspired systems in the bones of this design.
Hoola Wacka! Oola Wacka! Something Not Right
But this is a flawed vessel.
This really comes down to three areas. Low hanging fruit first, cap’n.
The ship miniatures are more plague than riches. They have a great toyetic quality and are a visual splendor, but like a splinter in your dangly bits they’re painful as can be. Upgrades come swift and you will be constantly fiddling with these things. Cannons must be inserted a certain way, so you will repeatedly perform the USB a-go-go trying to push the male end into the female and fumbling about with performance anxiety. When you separate the ship to add a new hull section you are just as likely to scatter sections about like a bursting pinata as you are to cleanly build your new upgraded beauty. Unfortunately, it’s just not worth the trouble.
This problem also dovetails into the second issue in that the upgrades come too quickly. The arc of play is odd in that you acquire the vast majority of your weapons and powers in the early mid-game. This is almost entirely a function of gaining enough coin which is relatively easy to do. Once you’re powered up and have spent a good amount of time twiddling with your ship like a fidget spinner, it leaves you a little hollow. Yes, you’re a scourge of the seas and can instantly take out merchant vessels or sail across half the board, but life feels aimless.
Shiver Me Timbers recognizes this soft spot and attempts to construct the objective of play around it. Unlike Merchants & Marauders, the length is determined by the completion of several life goals. These include options such as slaying the two sea beasts or attaining multiple titles. This is another neat idea. It provides variety each play and direction within the sandbox.
However, it falters a bit in that this system is nutrient deficient with a touch of the scurvy. It can lead to uneven experiences where some goals are naturally weakened by competition. The idea is to form pressure and lend an element of tension in the race, but it can often divert participants into separate lanes to avoid the conflict. This is primarily because the competition is lopsided as only some players will butt heads and not all.
Players can also entirely ignore the objectives. Obviously this is to their detriment, but only if another captain is pushing hard towards them. And this really highlights the final fumble: the game is far too long.
Merchants & Marauders suffers from this problem as well, but I’d argue it’s even more aggravated here. These games play better with a full complement of four players due to enhanced interaction and unpredictability, but they also creep into the four-hour timeframe. It’s why Shiver Me Timbers performs best, in terms of pacing and tempo, at two players.
This elongated time commitment is particularly egregious because it exposes a significant weakness downstream. All of the mini-games are tense and a delight, up until the moment they’re not. The longer you’re stuck at sea the more repetitive all of these shallow tasks become, and it can grate on the soul. This is the game’s dark secret, because the whole experience can turn rather suddenly as you go from fist-pump to groan with a malaise settling in. This is often a death knell for a board game.
Effort is expended to combat this. NPC merchant raiding is entirely removed in the second half of play as pirates are awarded instant victory with sufficiently upgraded cannons. This is smart and works, but it’s not enough.
The second tool is the wind deck. The wind mechanism itself is another neat quality, a random numeral providing either a bonus or penalty to all player movement in a round. But it also functions as a necessary timer for the game.
Of course, it’s incredibly long and usually just a functional bumper for players not pursuing the global objectives. Yet, this is also a space of the game that can be manipulated to solve the most significant problem. I quickly moved to shortening the wind deck in order to produce a more manageable playtime. This greatly improves the experience.
The mini-games are no longer stretched beyond their competence, and the front-heavy arc of progression is less a sore spot. The change is so significant that it completely shifted my attitude and affection for this title. It still resides in a position where you must be careful it doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it serves as a joyful and lively experience when played infrequently.
There are so many really exceptional aspects and clever touches that I’d hate to see this release fade into the depths of Davy Jones’ locker. I don’t think it quite has the sharpness or aptitude to unseat Merchants & Marauders as the genre flagship, but it cuts a distinct path through rough waters and presents a very enjoyable and flirtatious adventure full of options. There are simply not enough quality games in this theater, and Shiver Me Timbers lands close enough for me to maintain a relationship with it.
One more time now!
Shiver my timbers, shiver my bones
Yo ho heave ho
A review copy was provided by the publisher.