The Kaiser’s Pirates is not a new game. This card/war game about surface raiders of WWI from gaming behemoth GMT was released back in 2007. But the box sat in the purgatory of my unplayed collection until the relentlessness of winter gave me the opportunity to bust it out. I then proceeded to spent the evening reading the rules, skimming the rules again, looking on BGG to clarify the rules, playing a mock-up two player game, and then finally diving into a solo conflict. Then I played again. And again. Normally, one run through gives me a pretty good impression of a game. After three plays, I’d have to say I’ve never had more mixed emotions about a game.
Inside the extremely spacious box sits four decks of cards: a thick action deck, a slightly smaller merchantmen deck, a still smaller raiders/warships deck, and the comparatively minuscule solitaire deck. You’ll immediately notice the great details of the ships on each card. The rule book even mentioned GMT’s efforts to recreate each ship faithfully, and the result is simply magnificent. All cards are printed on extremely good card stock. So good, in fact, that shuffling the stiff cards becomes a bit of a challenge. That’s a good sign for the longevity of the cards, but I would still sleeve them as quickly as you could. First, you’ll find that sleeving them actually makes shuffling easier. More importantly, you’ll be shuffling these cards a lot, especially if you play solo at all. Also included in the box are a great set of dice: 2 each of D10s, D8s, D6s, and D8s that serve as double D4s. Different ships have different attack and defense values (merchantmen get their attack values from action cards). There’s also wooden markers for damage and supply.
My opening play started off well with a prize captured and an enemy ship sunk.
One of the first things you need to wrap your head around in this game is the fact that you aren’t playing a single side. In most war games, you play one side versus another. Here, you are playing as both the Germans and the Allies. Confusing? Not really. Instead of playing a particular power, you get the job of both defending your ally merchantmen from other players (or the AI if solo) while using your own raiders/warships to attack other players’ merchantmen. To do this, you use a 6 card action deck. Each action card has two options. You can use it to intercept (attack), or you can use it for a special action such as attacking multiple merchantmen at once or exposing a hidden raider to attack. These cards can be combined to great effect. For example, you can combine your intercept with a special surprise attack card that gives you a +2 DRM to your attack dice. That’s a great combo to use against an exposed raider or one of the more powerful merchants. This is also where the game can become frustrating. You will find that you often need multiple cards to perform a critical attack, or you spend a card to counter an attack from your opponent. However, you only get to draw one card as replacement at the end of your turn. It’s not long before you find yourself with a small hand of cards and little options. You always can pass, gaining a card to build your hand back up, but the cost is a lost turn.
The solo game is played against a phantom player run by a solitaire deck. This is the deck that is shuffled after every phantom player turn, so it’s the first deck I would protect with sleeves. Every solitaire card has a ton of information on it. There are 4 choices for the phantom player on his turn. The one that happens depends on a die roll. This means that a phantom player’s turn can last for a considerable time if you roll in their favor. The card also has possible responses to your attacks as well. The solo game feels more thought out than most. There’s legitimate decisions to be made, and you are trying to be an opponent rather than just besting a high score. Still, it can be frustrating to see the phantom player go on a long run because the dice are against you.
Regardless of whether you play solo or with the maximum of four players, you never use the entire action deck at once. This creates a fog of war element that you’re never sure which cards will show up. Still, there are some general strategies that will present themselves. I found that I wanted to keep playing to improve on the strategies from earlier or to make up for a rotten dice roll. That’s replay ability in my book.
The unique system of playing as both the Germans and Allies makes the game extremely balanced. While you might get occasionally stuck with more warships than raiders (warships can be attacked from the beginning, raiders have to be exposed first) or get stuck with the weak sailing ship merchants, everything balances out over the course of the game. One of the most well-balanced games I’ve played.
At first, I really believed this game was a 7. The luck factor, present in all dice games I know, seemed to overpower the game, especially playing solo. But then I realized it was just bad luck (Like getting hit with air recon on the 2nd turn and playing catch up the rest of the round back luck), and I kept playing. In the end, I found a game that valued card management and decision making over luck. In my final solo run through I survived two 7+ card phantom player runs to still win the round thanks to well-timed attacks against wounded warships. I believe this game would shine even more against human opponents. I would definitely recommend picking this game up, especially if you enjoy playing a sold solitaire system.