Universal Pirate Shipping – The Best Fleet Strategy EVER

Universal Pirate Shipping – The Best Fleet Strategy EVER

Universal Pirate Shipping 2.0

Universal Pirate Shipping 2.0 on the verge of winning the ultra-competitive VASSAL Tournament #2

From a discussion on Miniature Trading in September 2016

You may have heard me mention the “UPS” (Universal Pirate Shipping) fleets before, created by darrin. I am still somewhat puzzled by the lack of discussion, commenting, and voting not just on these fleets, but on the strategy of it all.

Perhaps it’s due to confusion surrounding Captain Jack Sparrow? I didn’t understand the entire “UPS” strategy at first, and I still think that CJS is the most confusing crew in the game. Is it just too cheesy?

Part of what makes me puzzled is just how amazing the strategy is for gameplay. I would argue that it is on par with about anything in terms of pure effectiveness, especially when done correctly. Combined the UPS fleets have a general record of 11-3 in my games, and have completely destroyed other competitive fleets.

Here are the fleets for reference, along with their current records from my games.  The records may not look as impressive as you’d expect, but they are the result of playing against similarly hyper-competitive fleets.

UPS 4.0

UPS 4.0 in action against my EA Gold Runners fleet

Universal Pirate Shipping (UPS 1.0) (1-2)

UPS 2 (15-5)

UPS 4 (4-2)

And another variant:
Darrin’s Gold Race fleet (7-5)

Here is a variant I came up with recently:
UPS 5 (11-5)
(UPS 3 is illegal) 

My UPS 5 fleet has advanced to the finals of Tournament 1. It will also participate in T2, a tournament that will also see fleets like UPS 2, UPS 4, and Hai Peng Fort Frenzy (HPFF) compete. If I had to bet on a fleet to win T2 and therefore be crowned the best existing fleet of all-time, I would pick a UPS fleet. Of course, many games will have to be played to get to that point. But still, Universal Pirate Shipping is simply one of the most effective strategies for winning games, and seems grossly underrepresented and underrated (and possibly misunderstood) by the Pirates community.

2019 Update

UPS 2 won VASSAL Tournament #2, beating another fleet using Captain Jack Sparrow in the Finals.  Further proving that this is the best fleet strategy in Pirates CSG history, and the most-proven way to win games.

The following is the discussion that took place at Miniature Trading in September 2016.

Woelf Responds

Captain Jack Sparrow

Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean set

I think the lack of discussion around the crew isn’t because he’s confusing, it’s because he has one of the most poorly-though-out abilities in the entire game and is ridiculously easy to abuse.

It’s not even clear what that ability is supposed to represent thematically. Maybe it does reference some specific event in one of the movies, but whatever it was, it definitely doesn’t account for how the ability can be used repeatedly to send treasure after treasure home.

There’s no question that a fleet set up to (ab)use his ability will be effective, it’s more a matter of whether your opponent will be able to keep up with it without resorting to something similarly broken and/or without using a fleet specifically designed to counter this.

Good points. However, he isn’t banned (even if he should be, or if the ability should have never been invented in the first place), so his fleets are still (in my opinion) the favorite to win Tournament 2 and be crowned the best fleet of all-time. I suppose there can be a “best non-UPS fleet”, but he’s not the only thing in the game that is easy to abuse. Things like the Banshee’s Cry, sac captains, cheap extra actions, events, and even cancellers have been around longer than CJS’s ability, and are also extremely easy to abuse and are either undercosted or flat-out broken.

However, fleets using any of those things often get considerably higher attention and recognition than fleets using CJS’s ability. That’s what I don’t like – sure it’s cheap, but so are other things in this game that are consistently more popular or even “accepted”.


Most of the others have been “accepted” because they’re easier to use, are much more common, or have a wider range of uses.

Extra actions of any variety are everywhere in the game, and are useful no matter what you’re doing with your ship. Because they’re so cheap and/or easy to use, no one ever has to go out of their way to use them.

Ships like Banshee’s Cry are undercosted for what they do, but even though that’s the “best” one out there, there are a lot of other cheap ships that are close enough to it that banning it wouldn’t solve the problem it represents, it would just shift it to the next ship in line – whether that’s Le Bon MarinLa Monarca or any number of others is open to debate, but like extra actions, they’re “accepted” because they’re widely available to pretty much everyone. Not every nation has one, but others have several so unless you lock in to a single-nation fleet, they’re easy to find.

Cancelers could probably could cost a point or two more, but for better or for worse, they’re game-breakers by design. They make players put a little more thought into what they do beyond just “sail up and shoot the other ship”. Like the other things that are on the borderline of being broken, they’ve become relatively common too, with most nations having at least one or two. Also, a key difference with cancelers is that they can’t win games on their own, because they don’t collect treasure or sink ships – they just make it easier for your other ships and crew to do it (or they make it more difficult for your opponent).

Jack is the weird one because there is nothing else quite like him anywhere else in the game, and because he does directly contribute toward winning (technically the target ship has to unload the treasure, but he’s the reason it’s there in the first place). He’s also not easy to counter with things that are widely available. Negative UTs can hurt him the most, but when you add them to the pool you’re accepting the fact that you might have to deal with them too. Taking out his transfer ship is another possibility, but depending on the board layout that may not be an option until he’s already been used a few times, or even at all.

He doesn’t need to be banned, but that combination of having an effect that’s somewhat overpowered, being kind of weird and confusing about what’s happening, and being one-of-a-kind really limits the discussion about him. A lot of players simply aren’t familiar enough with him, and most that are don’t use him other than to prove the point that he’s overpowered.

Universal Pirate Shipping original

The original UPS fleet, with a proxy in for L’Intrepide

It seems that this is arguably one of the biggest mistakes the designers made – putting that ability on a crew. No UPS fleet uses the Rising Sun or Sol, because of their speed and CJS’s ridiculously perfect matching with the Hai Peng. The ability makes mediocre ships better, but giving it to a crew for essentially just 3 points was what led to the abuse in the first place. (That said, I suppose you could make the Rising Sun or Sol rather nasty if you had Hidden Cove and either a sac crew or Mycron.) 

As a side note, I forget when (as in which set) you started working with Wizkids? During playtesting for the PotC set, did CJS and/or the combo with the Hai Peng ever come up as a concept or potential problem?

I would say that his effect is very overpowered, although at first glance you wouldn’t necessarily jump to conclusions like the UPS strategy.

That last part is part of why I made this thread – no matter how unique, confusing, or cheesy, I think everyone needs to be quite educated on what is arguably the single “best” game piece there is (with the Banshee’s Cry and generic captain/helmsman also in the discussion I suppose).

This discussion also makes me question my knowledge of PotC – if there is a connection, who will be the one to discover it here? pirate shipping


There was some very limited playtesting as far back as SCS, but with most of them the sets were pretty much fully designed by the time I saw anything and whatever input was provided didn’t amount to much.

I didn’t really get involved directly with the designers until RotF, but even then it was mostly just for rules consulting and going over the spreadsheets to see if there was anything obviously broken.

PotC kinda slipped through just beforehand, and I didn’t see anything significant from the set until it was published. I assume there was some internal playtesting, but considering how quickly some of the sets were being cranked out and especially how rushed the PotC set seemed, it wasn’t nearly as much as what was needed.

What are your thoughts?

I welcome all criticisms, questions, etc. What do you think of the Universal Pirate Shipping fleet strategy? Have you played a UPS fleet, or played against one? Do you plan on it? Feel free to nominate fleets that you think could beat a UPS fleet as well. Finally, try to vote or comment on some of the above fleets – as my battle reports have shown, this is one of the most viable competitive strategies in this game, and it doesn’t seem to get enough attention. Thanks!

Rants on home island raiders

Originally posted to Miniature Trading on March 12th, 2015

This was originally going to go in “Hijack this thread” but the post got really long since I’m trying to really explore these possibilities. Not really expecting many responses but I’d appreciate it if you could point out any strategies I’ve missed. At the moment I’m really interested in very unorthodox strategies and huge combos, so the more complex the better!

I’ve been running all sorts of combos through my mind concerning home island (HI) raiders. I’m trying to come up with the absolute best way to use them effectively.

I’ve been thinking about just about everything – Calypso (who has to place one of the whirlpools next to a WILD island, which I didn’t realize), smokepots with the reverse captain ability, fog hoppers, Grim, etc, etc.

Imagine that you had a fog hopping ship and two support ships. One support ship stays near your home island while the other sails off with the fog hopper, who could even stay at your HI if you wanted her to.

The fog hopper (with an HI-raider crew aboard) darts in and takes gold as her escort creates a “smokebank”. Either on the next turn or preferably on the same turn using Mycron or a fleet admiral, the fog hopper then ducks into the fog. On the next turn, the ship moves out of another fog bank created by the support ship back at your HI, upon which she docks and unloads the gold.

I like this strategy better than the reverse captain strategy since it’s much faster and creates more of a “smoke and mirrors” effect, allowing you to potentially go back for more if you can get your support ship out of trouble in time (in which case it would be useful if she had the reverse captain ability so she could duck into the fog with the fog hopper). With the reverse captain strategy the ship is essentially only moving S per turn, where she’s essentially invulnerable but very slow.

Sometime soon I’m going to try out a fun combo using the Akua Lapu with Grim the SavageCrimson Angel, and Hammersmith on board. S+S+S speed with the captain ability with room for 4 treasures! I’m hoping to potentially combine this with some other strategy – I really want to start using more specialists (and probably equipment, although I don’t have smokepot shot) in my games. You could conceivably run as many HI raiders to your opponent’s HI as you wanted, as long as you had at least ONE ship with both the reverse captain and smokepot abilities. If you could coordinate your raiders you could swoop in with 2 or more of them and duck into the single smokebank before you could be sunk, especially since with multiple targets it would be hard for your opponent to stop or sink all of your ships. I’m considering including an escort ship or two equipped with captains and chainshot specialists to try to freeze any enemy ships to protect my HI raiders.

I also thought about loading up a speed demon like the San Cristobal with Fernando SanchezVictor de AlvaVaccaro and a helmsman and trying to use the doubled S+S+L+S speed to get in and out extremely fast, flipping Sanchez at the last second (although I’ve always played my games with crew face up from the start of the game). Since de Alva and Vaccaro link the Cristobal still has 3 cargo spaces, so you could conceivably go back for more trips if your opponent’s gold was still vulnerable.

I just remembered another huge thought I found very intriguing – using a hoist. There are only 3 in the game but they are all 3 masters with a ton of cargo space.

If you could find a way to get Grim on a hoist, the possibilities become endless. Imagine sailing up 2 or more ships behind a HI-raiding hoist and then having the hoist transfer treasure to them, giving your opponent multiple targets! They could scatter in different directions, and it would be even cooler if you had a ship with Secret Hold to protect the treasure.

Hmmm… the Spanish and Americans lack a crew like Brother Virgil so it looks like it would have to be the Maui’s Fishhook. She’s got the smallest cargo but does have Secret Hold.

Now that I think about it, imagine if you could get both Grim and Secret Hold on the GuichuanRants on home island raiders You could use Tabatha McWarren to get both of them onboard, and add a helmsman to boost the speed. The whole idea is to take a TON of treasure using the Treasure Ship keyword and then having it be unobtainable unless your opponent can sink the Guichuan or kill Bianco, both of which are less likely after the Guichaun would become ghostly! This combo gets expensive in a hurry, especially since you have to add the Headhunter: 7+6+3+2+6=24 points at a minimum (a canceller would be nice insurance to fill out the points with). It would be useful to add some kind of Mycron combination on the Patagonia (10 extra points) to speed up the Guichuan to make sure she’d get out of there unharmed, unlikely since she’d probably be carrying the entire HI with her!


I’ve always found HI-raiding to be rather ineffective, for multiple reasons. The biggest reason is that by the time your opponent can successfully take gold from your HI, you already have the gold advantage and a few coins won’t offset that advantage. Unless there is some very early HI-raiding successes that tip the balance before your opponent’s other ships can get back, it’s still necessary to run gold normally. The problem occurs when building your fleet, since HI raiders (crew and ships) and the combos needed to use them effectively are so expensive, there’s little to no room left in the rest of your fleet to actually run gold, which is necessary to win most games. But, on the other hand, if you only use one HI raider in your fleet and you don’t give her enough support, she will likely fail before she gets to their HI, get obliterated while she’s docked there, or be captured or sunk while trying to flee.


Playing the game

Tips for playing:

Gameplay page crew pic

Generic crew on a deckplate card.

  • Generic crew are the backbone of any fleet.  You’ll find out early on that captains, helmsmen, and explorers rulethis game.  It can be better to field a simple fleet using at least one of these crew on all of your ships than using complicated or expensive named crew.  Here is a downloadable spreadsheet that has generic crew chips you can print and cut out to use if you don’t have enough of the actual crew for gameplay.
  • Don’t always go for the nearest islands.  Your opponent isn’t likely to grab gold from the islands near your home island (HI), since it’s in your territory.  Take advantage of your fastest ships and take treasure from islands that are further away, but be careful that they’re not sunk because you were too aggressive.
  • It may be tempting to capture an enemy ship and use it against them, but carefully consider the possibilities.  Smaller games don’t take very long, making capturing a difficult strategy to pull off.  If you can grab a derelict treasure runner that’s near your HI, go ahead and do so, but towing an opponent’s monster gunship from far away can impede on more important tasks.
  • The first shot of any engagement is very important, since it can often leave the other ship at a considerable disadvantage if the action lasts more than one turn.  This is why you’ll want not just captains but also helmsmen on pretty much all of your gunships, to make them faster and more maneuverable.  In addition, the faster your gunships are the faster they’ll be able to take down enemy gold runners.
  • Don’t overrate the effects of terrain.  Terrain, with the occasional exception of icebergs (which can move around), is very easily avoided in most games.  If you want to make terrain more relevant, consider stringing it together in chains and rings around islands instead of following the standard rules, which say that there must be S distance between all terrain.
  • The farther the islands are apart, the more important speed is.  However, the game is often more exciting and hard-fought when the islands are placed closer together, so experiment and try placing islands closer than 3L apart.
  • There are a few exceptional abilities that you should be aware of.  A canceller is a crew that lets you cancel an enemy ability on a ship within S of the cancelling ship, which is probably the best ability in the game excluding generic crew.  Crew that give extra actions on die rolls or through sacrificing crew (usually referred to as “sac captains”) are hugely important, since they give gunships the ability to move and shoot twice, doubling their range and overall firepower.  Combining the EA and SAT abilities (which rely on die rolls) with rerollers is particularly effective.  Abilities that give +1, or better yet +2, value to one of your gold coins can win you the game, especially if you manage to get the bonus on multiple coins.  As for combat, the “world-hater” ability gives you +1 to your cannon rolls, essentially lowering them by one rank.  This can make gunships even more deadly, since using a world-hater on a ship that already has rank 2 cannons means that your cannons hit on everything except for a 1, which automatically misses anyway.
  • The fantasy elements of Pirates CSG are generally overpriced.  Sea monsters, scorpions, switchblades, and bombardiers are all fun to use, but they are also very expensive for what you get.
  • If you go into a game with a specific strategy in mind, be very prepared for it to fail.  Remember that in Pirates, “everything that can go wrong will go wrong.”  When using complex strategies or combos, it’s best to try them out in large games so you still have points left over for gold runners and aren’t relying on just one combo to win.  You’ll have games where you win despite not succeeding at your original plan.  Then there will be games where you play the way you want, and still lose.  Such is life on the high seas!
  • Remember that gold wins this game, so be wary of going too heavy on the gunships unless you’re prepared to lose the gold race.  It’s very possible to sink the entire enemy fleet but still lose the game.
  • Have fun!  Once you’ve tasted victory through more “standard” gameplay tactics, you’ll develop a desire to win in more unorthodox and unpredictable ways.

For reference, the rules:

Start Here Rules

Complete Game Rules

Master Keyword List

The Pirate Code (FAQ)

Reference Diagrams

Gameplay of Pirates CSG

A game of Pirates CSG in action!