It's going to sound wild, but did you know most pirates didn't bury their treasure? It was rare for them to stick it underground and mark it with a big red cross. Most would spend it on booze, luxuries and other shady stuff. It was glamorised by literature like Treasure Island and by "pirates" such as the infamous Captain Kidd (who buried his treasure on his way to turn himself in!). Despite these technicalities, everyone assumes these eyepatch-wearing sailors throw their cash into a hole and log the locations on a map. Nevertheless, it's a stereotype for pirates to bury treasure and games follow that suit. Tiny Epic Pirates by Gamelyn Games has you following this trope. It's a competitive, grid movement, rondel game for 1-4 pirates that takes around 40 minutes to play.
Tiny Epic Pirates, much like many of the other Tiny Epic games, focuses on mechanisms not seen as prevalently in others from the series. This one has a rondel action mechanic, grid movement, market and pick up and deliver. To win, players must bury three treasure chests before any other player. To do this, players must accumulate gold by plundering settlements, trading at ports, searching for gold at sea and building notoriety by sinking rival pirates or merchants.
The set-up for the game is relatively simple. Players place the 16 map tiles randomly in a 4×4 grid and place a search token on each. They then put the green and orange merchant ships on opposite corners of the map, placing a port token on each. They then give each a single booty to transport to the other side of the board. The first player then chooses an unoccupied corner to place the Navy ship in.
For player set up, they take a pirate ship and the correspondingly coloured player cards and order pieces. They then shuffle the orders and place them randomly face up on the wheel of the player board - this forms the rondel. Players then shuffle captain cards and deal one to everyone, placing them so the 1, 2, 3 results are visible and also take a single gold coin and place it next to the gold track. They also place the Legend token bloody side down on the start of the legend track.
Now players place their captain meeple on the Rest (top) Order of the wheel and one Crewman on each bonus at the bottom of the wheel. Players distribute one booty to each player and randomly place one of each booty on the market to identify starting prices. Finally, they then decide on the first player and choose Coves to start in. Now you're ready to dive in!
Taking A Turn and Actions
In Tiny Epic Pirates, actions are taken on a rondel system meaning they occur sequentially based on position. However, players can "jump" action spaces they don't wish to use by taking deckhands off of the bonuses (or repair) spaces and placing them on the skipped actions. These return when landed on a second time and can be placed to any bonus, or if a boat is jostled and they must repair it.
These include Searching to find gold or other bonuses from search tokens, Trading goods for gold at appropriate ports, Recruiting pirates for your crew, Fighting another pirate or a merchant, Plundering settlements for gold or Resting to repair the ship fully and reallocate deckhands to any bonuses. All of these are necessary to enable a player to gain gold and progress towards burying treasure. However, Burying can only be done through a bonus action.
All crew have bonus actions associated with them, triggered when certain actions are taken. For example, a captain's standard bonus action allows them to Bury treasure when they search. Others enable other bonuses which can prove incredibly helpful when triggered. They give players more options and make less desirable actions more helpful.
All ships have a combat value based on their Legend level, the deckhands allocated to cannons and bonuses gained from particular crew. This cumulatively adds up to the number of dice rolled in combat. Die results correspond to the dice values on your captain and crew, with every matching dice being a hit. Opposing pirates calculate their combat score the same way. When comparing scores, the higher attack value wins and causes the loser to be jostled; placing one deckhand into the repair section. The winner increases their Legend score and effectively "levels up". As compensation, the loser earns a surefire token which can be used to manipulate a future die roll. Draws result in both players gaining surefire tokens.
The Navy and Merchants
Attacking a merchant ship works the same for players, but merchants have a default stack value. This needs to be exceeded for a win. When sinking a merchant, the player earns the booty being transported and the gold associated to the merchant card currently used for that ship. The merchant is reset at the furthest port with new booty and the next merchant card replaces the defeated one. Progressively difficult merchants can increase Legend, though this is tied to player count.
The Navy is a constant threat to pirates and will inevitably chase them all at some point. Whenever a pirate crosses the ship line (where the rondel loops back to hide out) all merchant and navy ships activate. Merchants are moved by the player to their right and must be moved towards their destination. The Navy, however, heads towards the active player. The Navy never loses combat and the player attacked automatically has all deckhands placed in repair. How far the Navy chases players is determined by the treasures they have currently buried. Luckily, the Navy cannot attack a pirate hiding out in a cove and does not engage after their activation.
How It Handles
Tiny Epic Pirates is an excellent game. It utilises pick and deliver, grid movement and a rondel really well and makes it so you have to manage your actions and deckhands effectively. What's more is how well executed the theme is! It's not without fault, but it's a game I keep playing solo and have had oodles of success introducing it to my gaming friends. It's also a superb excuse to make assorted pirate noises and say such phrases, too.. so win win!
Where's The Rum Gone!?
The moving market in Tiny Epic Pirates is a double-edged sword. It forces you to look for particular booty and also encourages you to be sporadic on the off the market shifts. Being given a beneficial starting block is handy and can give you an early lead, but that's where the convenience ends. After that, you're both battling others' selling habits and also ensuring you're collecting worthwhile booty. No one wants to sell coffee for a coin a block when a turn ago it was worth four! Considering that you could accumulate 12 coins from it also makes you reluctant to sell it for three. Like a stock market, it's about knowing when to sell and when to buy. A delicate balance.
Tiny Epic Pirates did somehow mitigate this gold rush through randomness. And so we never found a moment where we were stumped for what booty to go for. We felt that, circumstances aside, plundering was always worthwhile. You get a random resource and can always sell it regardless. And despite the risk of a poor profit, the game's inclusion of bonus actions made it more a tactical play than one of convenience.
I found setting myself up to have decent bonuses for both plundering and selling, ensuring that I could do something fun whilst I managed the market side of things. A casual merchant sinking or maybe a sneaky bit of searching? Either would be beneficial and make the earning of gold a little bit sweeter. It certainly made for better gameplay than gunning it wholly on acquiring specific resources only to have someone out pirate you at the last second!
Booty Is Gold. Gold Is Good
Earning cash is the focus for the game. Burying comes second. No cash, no burying. So basically every action you can partake in is centred on acquiring gold or being better at acquiring gold. It's a real smorgasbord of doubloons and glittering gold options! However! Not managing to get it on a turn can feel like a real detriment. Be that because of a lack of deckhands or just poor positioning on the board, you'll notice the turns you waste. Effectively Tiny Epic Pirates is a race to the finish. Every clinking coin added to your next booty filled chest is a step towards becoming King of the Pirates! And the primary focus for this earning? For me, it was sinking merchants mercilessly.
Tiny Epic Pirates can be conducted entirely without actual combat. It can even be won without it, though you'd need to be mega lucky with booty gains. However, it removes some of the bigger opportunities to earn cold, hard coins. For one, moving up the Legend track nets you gradual cash. It's satisfying beyond satisfying to sink another pirate and to earn money doing so. Also, it makes you more offensively viable by upgrading your innate combat values. Wild, right?! However, my go-to was merchants. Sink a merchant, earn coin seen on the card and then gain their booty cube. Sell the booty, find your next target and go again. It's no game-winning strategy alone, but balanced out I found there to be booty everywhere I went.
Balancing The Booty Market
When considering earnings though, I found the market wasn't always the best go-to. It was more of a support for players on the fly. You see, the market itself wasn't the issue… it was the booty of other players and their market use. If someone had three sugar cubes and were about to make big bucks from it, I'd want to stop that. Sink their ship and steal that booty! But, unfortunately, that is not the case. Another player's booty is a no go zone. Always.
Jokes aside, I can see why it was decided that way - if one player is close to winning they'd be public enemy number one - but even so it felt like you were fighting an inevitability. Luckily, as I mentioned, the market became more of a crutch to utilise other actions through bonuses. A convenience rather than the guaranteed winning strategy. Unless it was your only strategy, it would never pay off more than once, adding balance to the gameplay.
Leading a Strong Crew
One of my favourite aspects of Tiny Epic Pirates was the variable set up and freedom to choose. The random rondel meant no one was going to do the same each time and had to manage their deckhands accordingly. But also, choosing which deckhands to utilise varied from player to player. How folk did this was determined by how they were going to conduct their piracy. After all, the true pirate code is that there is no pirate code.
By allowing players this insane level of freedom, the game enables you to address your rondel how you see fit. If your first action is combat, it may be best to cash in on cannons! Recruiting? Focus on their bonus actions and bounce off of them! It all becomes quite custom and players almost fulfil their own roles across the board. And although that may mean you've got that one guy who's clearly our for blood, they're a necessary evil. It bring balance and also incentivises others to act accordingly to defend themselves.
The other awesome custom area is the crew themselves. They're drawn at random from a deck, but you always have three to choose from. Whether you focus on their combat dice or their bonuses will again be dictated by your play style. I managed many wins with the next basic cannons because I had crew with similar die results. One lucky roll meant I was delivering seven damage to someone who was near Pirate Legend! On the flip side, making it so you have a variety of useful bonus actions means you're always busting your turns with gains and making your way to the finish line. It was never overwhelming in choice or too much freedom, but also never felt purposeless. For us, we thought it an outstanding executed feat of freedom.
Pirates Like It Pretty
The Tiny Epic series is renowned for its wonderfully high bar of component quality. Custom meeple, great card quality, excellent art. They all combine to make a game that looks good and complements its theme. Tiny Epic Pirates comes with this whole package and delivers in spades. The custom tokens are well designed and chunky, the art on all cards is gorgeous and vibrant to match the pirate theme of sailing in the Caribbean, the coin markers are actual metal coins. I also loved that the deckhands and captain meeples were customs and of different sizes. Unnecessary, but a lovely touch!
The true winner for this game when it's on the table though are the ships. They look beautiful on the cards and even better when stocked full of booty and loot! Seeing them on the gorgeously illustrated cards is wonderful and presents the game as having a tremendously gorgeous aesthetic. A real winner for looks! However… my biggest qualm with this game is the Navy. The "big bad" of piracy. They only engage when you pass the ship line on your player card and after that, they don't bother. Making the Navy's occupied card a no-go zone would have added an extra tactical element to moving them for me. But that's the only thematic area I personally held issue.
I loved Tiny Epic Pirates. It had everything I wanted in a pirate game of stealing, looting, booty snatching and burying treasure. Couple that in with the game looking good too and it's a surefire hit. If you're not one for competition or a lack of control in rondels, it may not be for you. It took some of our players a while to master the rondel, but it meant they had guidance on their next possible actions. I especially loved the game as a solo experience. The AI players of Tiny Epic games always offer massive challenges, and these don't disappoint either. If you're looking for a game of piracy, market use, a rondel action wheel or just an opportunity to sail a ship, this is 100% for you. A great game overall!