Strategic Elements of Pirates CSG
Welcome to a relatively deep dive on one of my favorite topics – the “strategic elements” of this game. I want this list to be as comprehensive as possible, so feel free to leave a comment at the bottom if you think I should include additional topics. Some of the ideas are more tactical than strategic, but I think they fit in the discussion as well. These are the kinds of things I love thinking about after playing the game more than 450 times over a 10+ year period. A lot of it is theoretical, situational, irrelevant to casual players, and even gamey in a few cases. Some of the topics I go “down the rabbit hole” on are more for a thought exercise than any likely practical use.
Before the Game
Fleet Construction: If possible, work out a build total with players in advance. I’ve found that this helps me build more effective fleets than arriving at a venue and having to come up with things on the spot. The Building a Fleet page has more information.
Questions to ask yourself when building a fleet: Who are you playing against? What are their habits, favorites, and collections like? (might help determine face down crew setups or likely play styles) Is there a ban list? Are there house rules? If so, what are they? (it is important to establish house rules in advance if possible) Will players gang up on you and try to take you out of the game if you use certain overpowered (OP) items? Has a “fleet tier” been established prior to playing? For example, is the game going to be of a casual nature, or more competitive? In my experience, even in “casual” settings players tend to use pretty high-quality ships.
Look at the other fleets! Something I forget to do in some casual games is get a good look at the opposition before going into the setup and gameplay. It pays to know each special ability on each ship in play, which is always public information. It also helps to know how many crew are on each ship, even if all of them are face down. For example, if a ship has 5 cargo spaces but 6 crew aboard, there must be a crew that doesn’t take up cargo space (usually an oarsman) or/and a link. If a player has their crew unpunched in a stack under a ship’s deckplate, ask them how many crew are aboard and what their nationalities are. It’s understandable that people don’t want to punch out crew chips (especially named crew), but the normal rules of play dictate that there is no hiding the quantity of crew on each ship. This will be important later on when crew start getting revealed and you need to ascertain or assume what else the ship might be carrying.
I recommend checking out my Island Placement Strategic Meta post for thoughts on optimizing setups for competitive standard games. However, terrain is an additional wild card. If your fleet would be better served by terrain (fog banks for fog hoppers, whirlpools for extra actions, etc), are you able to argue for the inclusion of the type(s) you want? Normally fleet building happens before setup, so an opponent may have looked at your fleet and want to deny you from using specific terrain. Additionally, they might deduce your “terrain strategy” and try to place them far away from any potential home island you may end up at. It gets a bit “gamey”, but your group may be quite casual about how terrain is placed and you might be able to successfully put extra of your favored type into the mix that ends up benefiting you more than the other players.
Although house rules often feature in the setup phase, it’s good to know the official Wizkids rules as well. The last player chooses the location of the last island placed. After terrain is placed, they then choose the location of the first player’s home island. This makes it very easy for them to screw over the first player by intentionally placing the final island 6L away from the already-most-remote island and then pick that to be the first player’s home island.
If forts are integral to your strategy or play style, it could be a great idea to have each regular gold coin you contribute be valuable enough to build the most expensive fort you may use. This way, if things go wrong and you only get a single coin home in the early going, you’ve maximized your chances of being able to build any of your forts with said coin. (this works better in non-standard treasure distributions)
0 coins are a good option when you have gold bonuses. At that point, your opponent hopefully can’t benefit from the coins, but you can happily pick them up. On the same subject, low values are better to use with gold bonuses because the bonuses will generate a higher differential for your fleet compared to what your opponent is bringing in (ex: the gold bonuses end up being a higher percentage of the total gold at the end if there are lower values overall).
If I’m running a mostly gold fleet, I often consider maxing out values. In multiplayer games I prefer to have each player contribute an equal number of coins of any value or type, so this can result in something like 4 positive UT’s and 4 7’s.
Using the 8/15 rules makes for some interesting restrictions and possibilities. If going the all-gunship route to try and blast the opponent before they can get a single coin home, 5 negative UT’s and the 7-7-1 distribution is a good default since you don’t really care what they load, you just want to slow them down as much as possible with Missionary, Wolves, Natives, etc.
Ship abilities must be public knowledge, but I prefer to keep my named crew and Unique Treasure cards hidden out of play. Punching the chips and coins out before you arrive for a game is worth considering, although this level of paranoia is likely beyond the scope of most player experiences.
Knowledge is Power
It is very important to know how everything works with the rules (they’re also at the bottom of the homepage) and The Pirate Code to know the capabilities and limitations of the fleets and game pieces. I cannot emphasize this enough. Too many times I’ve been playing against people who thought things worked a certain way and thought they were about to pull something off. Turns out it’s illegal because it would be too unfair, and because it twists the original intent of the rules and abilities as written. As official Rules Arbitrator Woelf has said in the past, (paraphrasing) if a combo/etc seems too good to be true, it’s probably not legal by the rules. For newer players with little experience in how the Code usually elaborates on rules and abilities, it’s probably a good idea to read about abilities or game pieces you’re using (not all need a Code entry however) before trying things out in fleets. Sometimes just reading the Code will give you gameplay or combo ideas.
As mentioned earlier, looking at your opponent’s fleets before the game starts can be instrumental to victory. Know what they have, what likely combos might be face down on crew, etc. If they are using English or Pirate crew, the alternate flag artwork could give away crew from the PotC expansion.
If you have an encyclopedic knowledge of all the game pieces and their stats and abilities, it provides opportunities to “observe” some games from a different perspective. It is then your choice if you wish to remind a player that their ship actually has an ability that could help them out. Again, it gets “gamey” but this could also be used to hurt players that oppose you or are fighting you during a game (reminding a player attacking someone who is attacking you that the Cargo Killing ability works on every hit, for example), or avoided altogether as players forget that you have a ship with the home island raiding ability or that they forgot to give an action to one of their ships. However, I usually prefer to “overinform”, mostly in the interests of helping other players become better or more knowledgeable.
This also goes for knowing how Unique Treasures work. Strange things can happen during a game that catch you off guard. For example, at one game I brought a small stack of 5-7 UT’s to a game and placed 4 or 5 in the treasure distribution in the interest of helping my fleet. During the game a player had found a UT, didn’t know what it did, and asked me for the stack so they could look at the ability. I was fine giving them the stack to look at. However, it got me thinking – there are various databases out there (like the Master Spreadsheet) that contain all game piece information in an easily accessible medium. I could have told the player to just look the UT up. By seeing my stack, they not only can learn what other UT’s I contributed, but they can make additional deductions. If only one punched out UT in the stack has not been revealed (and is a UT loaded face up) and there is only one wild island with coins left on it, they can make a pretty good bet that the UT is on that island. In addition, some of the UT’s in my stack were still on the card, which only further helps to narrow down what UT’s might be where.
As far as a “Unique Treasure Meta” goes, this could actually be taken WAY further. I could have included a deke in my stack – if I included a copy of Pandora’s Box without the UT on it, maybe a player would get cold feet on further exploratory ventures – especially if they also saw an unpunched copy of Runes of Death in the stack! Additionally, you could leave punched UT cards lying around during the game, perhaps prompting players to ask you if you included those UT’s in the mix. At that point you could answer them truthfully, lie, or decline to say anything at all. After all, the game is called “Pirates”. 🙂
I have probably won at least a few games based on towing alone. Knowing all the intricacies and opportunities in the towing rules can be extremely beneficial, especially when valuable cargo is involved or you are close to your home island or a friendly fort. Woelf’s useful Reference Diagrams mostly contain basics and are not needed by more experienced players. However, as recently as perhaps 2018 or 2019 I learned something valuable from page 10. I was completely unaware of “Towing Option #1”. For example, you could get rammed by an enemy ship, derelict them on your next turn with a different ship, then start towing them immediately with the rammed ship!
Although the Pirate Code often restricts the crazy combos that players want to exploit, I think towing is one of the specific areas where the Code is surprisingly lenient. I highly recommend reading the entry on towing at the top of page 10. Always make sure to give a new capture an action as soon as possible. For example, the turn after cancelling Oarsman to capture an enemy ship, it can row away on its own with said oarsman (often at S+S if a helmsman is still aboard). This frees up the towing ship for additional duties. As soon as a towing ship docks at your home island or a friendly fort, the towed ship docks immediately as a free action and can be given a repair action. Quick repairing and optimizing crew setups on newly captured ships can be very helpful in the endgame phase (usually around the last ~1/3 of a game).
I drop tows and resume them all the time. Towing is completely voluntary and the towing ship can thematically “cut the line” at any time. Although towing multiple ships in a chain is not legal, a different take on “chain towing” is – towing a ship just to warp it to the stern of the towing ship, releasing it immediately, then towing it with another ship in your fleet in order to move the towed ship again. If often requires more ships than most games can accommodate, but this tactic can be used to remove a valuable asset from potential disaster.
Very strange things are possible with towing. If you’re towing a 10 master, moving nearly 180 degrees in the opposite direction just a teeny bit will result in the entire bulk of the 10 master flipping around and potentially creating a large “block”. Such a maneuver could result in the 10 master then getting its canceller in range, blocking an enemy trade route for a turn (especially if it’s an Eternal 10 master your opponent doesn’t want to sink), or letting a friendly ship more easily reach the 10 master to exchange cargo.
Whenever you tow a ship and cannot place it directly behind the towing ship (normally because the flag gets in the way), just place it on the side of the towing ship’s stern that is least likely to face attack before your next turn starts. This might help keep the towed vessel out of shooting or ramming range. Also, keep in mind that the towing and towed ships can explore each other because they’re touching – this can be useful when the towed ship explores the towing ship to give the latter a valuable piece of cargo.
It’s also good to keep in mind which ships in your fleet should even be towing in the first place. You might capture an enemy ship with a vessel that has S+S+S base move and no helmsman, but it’s probably far better to have a slower ship with a helmsman tow her home because she can tow at S+S (and S speed is atrociously slow for any ship to be moving). Ships with extra action capabilities available may help you a lot if they can get a valuable derelict home at S+S+S+S per turn or faster.
Bluffing, Threats, and Deception
Some new players will be overly honest about the quality of the wild islands they explore. Try not to make it obvious if you’ve found a good or bad wild island in terms of how much total gold is on it (all 1’s/etc). On the other hand, you could gamify it and tell players that the values are bad in the interest of getting them to not attack you for your coins. Of course, this could backfire if they think you’re lying.
It might be beneficial to keep a “poker face” whenever you explore wild islands or see face down cargo on enemy ships. When it’s not your turn, it might be worth it to watch people’s reactions when they explore islands.
Bluffing and lying are two of the most fascinating gameplay aspects of Pirates that I have very little experience with and have not seen very often. However, the potential ramifications are endless. Nothing stops you from disclosing information (whether it’s true or not) about what you have in your fleet and the treasures you contributed. In a 4 player game, you could theorize about what face down crew could be on an enemy gunship, perhaps spooking one or both of the other players into attacking them.
In addition, you can help other players you want to see do well (usually for your own benefit of course). You can cater your advice to players trying to take down the early leader, or someone who has already attacked you. You could even intentionally give bad advice to someone to derail their efforts, though I wouldn’t want to and in multiplayer games you’re likely to get busted by the other players.
You can also make threats. Claiming that you’ll attack a player on your next turn may affect what actions they take this turn. This relates closely to bluffing. Threatening to reveal a home island raiding crew (whether you have one or not) when paired with a feint towards their home island could result in a player moving multiple ships towards home, potentially opening up additional opportunities.
One thing I have done in the past is offer up ideas on additional options available to a player. This can be with good intent to help them learn how the game works, or to mislead them. For example, if you see a player considering 1 or 2 options available to an action a gunship is about to take, you might see a 3rd option that actually does make sense, but you expect to be slightly more beneficial for you in the long run than their other options. Casually suggesting it might remind them that they could take that route.
Side conversations: Nothing forbids you from having private conversations with other players during the game. You might see the perfect opportunity for an alliance, or want to share information about a crew or UT one of your ship carries. The downside is that the other players might assume you are in cahoots. At which point you can of course tell the truth of what was said, or lie.
Side note: Please don’t take this too far. Certain elements of the game are meant to be public information at all times – you cannot hide ship abilities, the number or nationality of face down crew on your ships, or the presence of Unique Treasures that must be placed/loaded face up. It may also be a good idea to consider the “temperament” of your playgroup – if you engage in too much deceit or “gamey” playing, people might quit or decide to play something else.
Exploring, Gold, and Unique Treasures
This section goes along with some of the others already discussed, but is vital to winning. Try to memorize all gold values you see throughout the game, especially those you cannot voluntarily look at again – coins left on wild islands you don’t have cargo space for, gold on enemy ships, etc. You could even make some notes on your phone to keep track of what gold is where and how much value is left on the islands you’ve explored. This leads to the chess match of competitive standard games – if you explore 2 of the 4 wild islands and only find 10 gold total, you know the other player is likely to find the other 20 and you’ve got some work to do to win. Then you need to decide which avenue is most likely to result in you getting enough gold to win or tie – risking your ships to get to the other islands, dropping low value coins to make room for high value coins you haven’t loaded yet, trying to steal their gold whether it’s on their ships or their home island, capturing their Ransom crew, etc.
Knowing what gold was on all the islands you explored is good for later parts of the game. If you know an opponent reached a wild island after you looted it and only got the last 2 coins, hopefully you remember that they’re both 1’s and can potentially be ignored in favor of protecting the 5 gold in your fort that might get attacked soon.
If you know how much total gold is in the treasure distribution, it’s useful to make calculations throughout the game. From the gold you’ve seen, you can start to figure out what other islands have and what the other players likely have access to. For example, in a 3 player game with 80 total gold in play, your explored island (1 of 4 wild islands) contains 32 gold, a disproportionately high amount. If you can get just a bit more from there on out, you might be able to play conservatively or in a defensive way. In games where the total amount of gold in play is random, the “spying” abilities may become more useful.
Order of Operations – What to do?
Sometimes the hardest decision made in a game is which crew to eliminate after you’ve lost a boarding party. You need to consider the survivability of the ship on your next turn, but also in the long term if you think you can escape in the short term. This is where valuable crew might be better off thrown overboard. A named captain might take the bullet in favor of a helmsman+oarsman combo because your dismasted hybrid needs the latter two in order to make it home with important gold next turn.
When you are working with the Canceller ability, what to cancel can also be a conundrum. It often boils down to the lesser of two evils – cancel the opponent’s captain to avoid being dismasted, or cancel Blackbeard’s gold capture ability to avoid a boarding party where he steals said canceller?! (which might be unloaded later for a game-winning payout!)
Cancelling logistics get far crazier when multiple ships are involved. This is when the order in which an opponent moves their ships can matter a lot to you. You may be facing two enemy ships in the vicinity of your canceller. If their 3 master moves on you and you don’t cancel its captain because there’s a 5 master lurking nearby, you might take a surprising amount of damage only to realize you wasted an opportunity when they move their 5 master away to go do other things, when you thought it was going to attack you!
The order in which you give actions to each of your ships can matter immensely. When your turn is approaching, try to figure out the optimal way in which your actions should be given. The order will be inconsequential on many turns, but things get especially interesting with tight maneuvering, combat, docking, repairing, cargo transfers, towing, and whirlpools.
When docking a derelict at an island after the towing ship docks, consider what your goals are for said derelict. Can it repair immediately? Will it be capable of movement soon? How much do you care that it remains in your possession? Can you use it to block enemy movement or protect the towing ship from attack? Make sure to dock the derelict in a position that will not block your own maneuvers. If it’s a large ship that needs many turns of repairing, you might want to dock it at a “dormant” part of the island where it can sit for a while. On the other hand, you might want to dock a derelict ship optimal for gold running near a trade route so it can sail out for a coin in the endgame as soon as it has a mast up.
There are situations where you might be able to block an enemy’s movements simply by docking derelicts at home, or redocking other ships. I’ve found this to be especially prevalent when using the ship stealing ability, where you can warp a derelict home by exploring it (first seen on Commander Temple).
Positioning is also extremely important in general – for angling your move segments optimally for shooting, docking, blocking, towing, and more.
This is when you measure L and S segments in advance of something happening, or simply to check lines of fire or see if a target is in range. When and when not to premeasure? It is critical for determining who might get the first shot in a potential engagement. It is very helpful to determine where your ship will end a move action and what cannons might be in range of your target. This new information must then be weighed against the threat of counterattack, the possibility of a canceller being revealed, bad shooting luck, and more. Premeasuring is usually worth it, but it could also tip off an opponent to something you’re planning. If you premeasure an intimidating attack your opponent is not expecting, it might make them hostile or provoke them into trying to get the initiative.
Questions to ask: Should you build a fort in this situation? What are the advantages and disadvantages of building a fort or NOT building a fort? Where should a fort be built? Which location (of perhaps two being considered) is more likely to get attacked or not protect the gold or ships you need? If you have options for different coin values used in building the fort (ex: one 4 vs. four 1’s), which values should be used? (might depend on available cargo in your nearby ships, and if you think you can get a single coin home quickly vs. preferring to have multiple coins scatter in different directions if the island is explored after the fort potentially gets destroyed) What fort should be built? (often the Revolution forts are better than the Crimson Coast ones)
Gimmicks, the unexpected, and exotic game pieces
This might go beyond the scope of this post, but there are some exotic game pieces out there that players should be aware of. Calypso allows for nearly infinite whirlpool creation and therefore opens up entirely new play strategies – whirlpool teleporting on a turn-by-turn basis, using gold runners without helmsmen because they will come out of the second whirlpool within L of a wild island, home island raiding chaos, making extra actions even more valuable, and on and on. Sea dragons can essentially teleport at will, making them prime executors of Lord Mycron’s ability – with two actions they are guaranteed to get the first strike on any ship in play not docked at its home island. Fog hoppers are a fun way to essentially weaponize terrain (which Calypso also does, just with whirlpools). Ship stealers (like the Harbinger) are one way to get derelicts home in a flash – especially when combined with extra actions. One thing to keep in mind when using that ability is the situation at your home island – whether or not it’s a good time to warp home, what the derelict ship will do upon docking, etc.
Getting into the competitive scene, the common version of Captain Jack Sparrow helped birth the Universal Pirate Shipping strategy, in which coins are magically flipped home and “plused” or “bonused” into near-instant victories against almost any opposing fleet you could come up with. In general, a close eye should be kept on any game piece that allows for teleportation – of ships, crew, or gold. Most of these unique game pieces (often “1 of 1”, meaning they are the only crew/ship of their faction or in the entire game with such abilities) are not found in casual games, but are good to be aware of due to their potential to upend strategies or in some cases even destabilize the playing field.
Predicting the Future
Try to play the game on your opponent’s turns as well – this is a great time to observe how the other people play, learn what crew or UT’s they might have in their fleet, keep tabs on conflicts that don’t involve you, and plan your next turn. Premeasuring, even if it’s not during your own turn, can help to predict if someone is about to attack or divert course. You should be able to premeasure enemy movements and shots to see what kind of threat you’re facing in the near future.
However, I would caution against trying to plan things out too far in advance. Gore Verbinski said about filming Pirates of the Caribbean: “Everything that can go wrong will go wrong”. The same is very often true of playing Pirates CSG. The best-laid plans often go awry. The problem with predicting too many turns or actions in advance is that you cannot predict exactly what other players will do, unless they are silly (or complacent) enough to say so. I have had times during a game where I got excited about a potential future course of action that I saw during a game – an avenue towards victory had opened up! Alas, I was not anticipating an opponent doing X maneuver with X ship to foil my plans. This is where a bit of experience in playing solo might come in handy – if you can put yourself in your opponent’s shoes throughout the game, you can get a better understanding of how they are likely to optimize their playing going forward.
Ending the Game
There are times when you know you’re winning, even if you don’t know the total value of gold in the treasure distribution. At that point you may want to end the game as fast as possible. If your fleet has weakened or an enemy is in position to take the lead from you by raiding your home island or by some other means, there may be ways to end the game when you need to. Deliberately slamming your ship into an iceberg or running it over a reef might cause a dereliction that triggers an endgame condition. If flat earth rules are being used, you might be able to sail your last ship over the edge of the map and out of play. You might also be able to force an opponent’s hand by attacking them, which might result in a boarding party where you choose to eliminate an oarsman that was preventing your ship from being derelict. I don’t enjoy when games end this way, but I haven’t seen it often at all either.
That wraps up the strategic elements of Pirates CSG! Please leave a comment below if you think I missed anything, or if you want to further the discussion! I LOVE talking about these deeper gameplay aspects and I want to hear and know more about them. Thanks for reading!