By co-designer Argyris Poungouras
While Nick was immersing himself in Black Sails, I was doing the same in a video game called Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. It was not a pirate-themed game per se, but you were still going around in a fantastic archipelago, with other ships sailing along, gathering crew and giving you the chance to do piracy, if you like. In fact, you could side with the pirate faction of the game and befriend them, which I did. So, the timing was great as we were both into pirates at that moment and those two different media helped shape the idea of what the game is about.
“Well, it’s about pirates, duh!” you might say, but “about pirates” can mean a lot of different things. We wanted the game to focus on crew, subtle backstabbing, reputation and non-abstract naval combat. There were a couple of different initial ideas, but very shortly (I think during the first meeting) we settled on how the game should play. So we went with the most fast-paced and easy way: split the game in two phases per round; at first, the players would spend time on a secluded pirate haven to prepare their ship and then they’d go to plunder merchants from the imperial powers. These would give you the victory points.
The first phase would work like a worker placement game. Simple and fast: you visit a location, you do a thing. However, we wanted to give it a twist. So instead of having a limited amount of meeples to move around, you use time as your action resource. Each location would use up a specific amount of time out of your initial 10. The most important locations would cost you 3 time, while the others 2 and you could visit any place regardless of where everybody else has visited. However, one specific location, the harbor, would allow you to place as much time as you want, provided it’s not equal to others’. The player with the most time at the end of the phase would get to pick first which merchant ship they will go after. This time-bidding mechanic allows for players to make tough decisions and outguess each other without being limited by blocked locations and number of workers. So, trying to balance your preparation time with prioritizing which merchant ship to go after makes for tense gameplay. All locations would be important enough, too, and all would interlock with each other, so each visit would bear its importance. Raising reputation allows for better location action, visiting the back alley allows you to sabotage other players and recruiting crew with different capabilities allows you to be more versatile to the situations ahead.
The second phase is a combat one. Again, we wanted the theme to be strongly present here too. So, in order to capture a ship, you need to reach it first. Investing in your ship in both physical upgrades and crew recruitment will make your travel way easier. The crew plays a big role on how to counter sabotage, how to avoid travel mishaps and most importantly, how to fight.
So, once you reach the target ship, combat occurs and it is resolved in three highly thematic steps, using dice rolls and crew abilities. First you raise your jolly roger, hoping that the merchant will cower and surrender without bloodshed. If this fails, your ship draws closer and both sides start shooting cannonballs at each other. This time you risk damage to your ship. If you don’t manage to capture the target ship this way, you’re forced to board it in a bloody melee clash, where now you risk your crews’ lives. Capturing the ship will award you renown and loot while failing to do so will leave you stale.
These are roughly the key points of Back O’ Beyond’s gameplay. I didn’t go in detail but I hope I highlighted enough the core points of it. Gameplay ties strongly with theme, hopefully immersing players to the pirate way.