Time Pirates

A board game for 3-6 players by Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum, published by Piatnik and Rio Grande Games
These comments copyright 2000 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated January 5, 2001

A very good game with a minor scoring flaw - I think we can find a fix for it!

What You Get

Time Pirates comes with two boards (a playing board and one to hold the scoring tiles so everyone can easily see which tiles have been taken), six player pawns, a time police pawn, 37 scoring tiles, 76 artifact tiles, 10 time police tiles, and a drawstring bag from which to draw artifacts at random.

The graphics in the game aren't all that great, to be honest. While not ugly, more effort could have been made to match a good scene with the different time eras the players can visit. Worse, the chits are poorly differentiated and confusing to figure out - it takes a couple of plays to really see the different types of tiles clearly. Also, this is the type of game that needs extra colored markers the players can put in front of themselves to identify which colored pawn is theirs. Until we added these ourselves, we were always asking, "Who's red?" or blue or whatever. But these are minor flaws - overall it's a pleasing enough game to play.

The board has seven "epochs" you can visit. Each epoch can hold a certain number of artifacts, ranging from 3 to 7. In addition, each epoch has from one to three timelines coming in and two timelines going out. For the most part, movement is along these timelines. Each epoch has both a "Yellow #1" and "Blue #2" timeline leaving it - these are used to randomize the time police pawn's movement. Players treat them as being the same. Finally, the board has seven spaces to store time police chits as they're drawn from the bag.

There are 14 artifacts in each of five types, and 6 "wild card" artifacts which can be combined with any others. Artifacts are used to redeem scoring tiles. There are 5 scoring tiles in each of the same five types, and 12 "wild card" scoring tiles which can be combined with any others. Scoring tiles contain victory points, ranging from 2 to 7 points per tile.

The Basic Premise

The players are Time Pirates, of course: illegal time travellers visiting different eras of human history to collect artifacts. These artifacts are then sold in whatever future timeline the players live in (not represented in the game - you just sell from wherever/whenever you are). There is a limited market for such artifacts, however: once a particular quantity and type of artifact is sold, there aren't any more buyers for that combination again.

Somewhere out there a single Time Policeperson is trying to stop the pirates. His movement in the game is random and largely ineffectual - one has an image of some Laurel & Hardy policeman stumbling through time looking for pirates while tripping over their loot and not even noticing it. Still, he's a constant potential threat, and people tend to treat the token with respect, so it has some effect on the game.

The game lasts for three, um, spielperiode: "playing periods." I guess that's as good a term as any in a game in which time has little meaning. At the end of that time, the player with the highest score wins.

Some Details

The scoring tiles are all laid out on the scoring board at the beginning of the game. Artifact tiles are drawn at random from the bag and placed equally randomly on all the starting artifact spaces on the board. The time police pawn is place in the largest epoch, and the players take turns placing their pawns.

A player turn can include either two actions or three actions, depending on if you restock artifacts or not. At the beginning of your turn you decide if you want to restock artifacts in a given epoch. If you decide to restock an epoch, you'll have three actions that turn. If you opt not to, you'll only have two actions.

An action can be one of three things:

  • Moving your pawn along an outgoing timeline arrow.
  • Collecting an artifact in the epoch your pawn is in.
  • Trading in artifacts for a scoring tile.
You can repeat the same action two or three times in your move if you wish.

So most of the game is greedingly grabbing all the artifacts you can, redeeming them for scoring tiles, moving to other epochs to greedily grab more artifacts while avoiding the time police, etc., etc., and not necessarily strictly in that order ... Almost true piracy, and great fun! I say almost true piracy because you really can't greedily grab anything an opponent has, alas. It does seem strange for a game with Pirates in the title not to allow interplayer conflict and thieving.

Restocking Artifacts

If you decide to restock an epoch, you must do it at the start of your turn. In order to qualify for restocking, an epoch must have at least one empty space to hold a new artifact and be free of player pawns.

So you specify which epoch you are restocking, and draw an artifact tile from the bag. If it's really an artifact, put it in the epoch, and keep drawing if there's room for more artifacts. If it's a time police tile, however, move the time police pawn along the appropriate timeline - half the time police tiles have #1 on them, and half have #2. Then put the time police tile in the space for it, and continue drawing.

When the eighth time police tile is drawn, the playing period is over. Everyone counts their victory points on their tiles and records the scores. All redeemed artifacts and drawn time police tiles are returned to the bag and stirred around. The player continues restocking the epoch if there is at least one more playing period left.

I'm not sure why restocking artifacts grants you an extra action. I suppose it's to encourage players to keep the game moving.

Scoring Tiles

Scoring tiles can be redeemed with artifacts at the cost of an action. Each type of artifact matches a type of scoring tile. There are five of each type: a 2, 3, 4, 5/6, and 6/7. The number refers both to victory points and to how many tiles of that color must be turned in to redeem the scoring tile. In the case of those tiles with slashes, the first number is the redemption cost and the second is the victory point value. Scoring tiles can only be redeemed by the same color artifacts, or by using wild card artifacts.

All of the scoring tiles of the five types are unique. Once the Western Hemisphere 2 tile has been taken, for example, no one else can get another one. This makes the timing in redeeming scoring tiles very important - especially if you see others collecting the same type of artifacts as you are!

Wild card scoring tiles are of three types: 3/2, 4/3, 5/4 - meaning they cost more to redeem than they grant in victory points. In addition, you have to redeem them with different colored artifacts - five different colors, in the case of the largest wild card scoring tiles. There are four of each value.

When the final playing period is over, players sort their scoring tiles by type. You can assign wild card scoring tiles to any type you want. Players who have the most victory points in a given type receive a 2-point bonus, as does anyone who collects at least one of each of the five types.

The Time Police

The time police pawn is a nice element in the game, as it keeps people on edge and moving. The time police don't actually bust people very often (except for Frank who's a time-police magnet). In order to be busted, you have to start your turn in the same space as the time police. So if they move into your space during someone else's turn, nothing happens. If they then move out again before your next turn, you'll get off without penalty.

The time police can zip around the board sometimes! Even if you restock an epoch with only free space, if you draw a time police tile, the pawn moves and you must draw another tile. If you draw another time police tile, the time police pawn moves again, and so on. Players often plan their moves to be far from the time police, but sometimes get caught anyway. This is always gratifying unless it happens to you, of course.

So what happens when you get busted? Well, it's not all that bad, though it can hurt a little. First, you can't restock an epoch. Next, you lose one artifact from your largest set. Then you lose all of your wild card artifacts. Then you must take your first action (of only two since you can't restock) to move away from the time police. There, that wasn't so bad - unless you had a lot of wild card artifacts, of course ...

Special Artifacts

There are two special types of artifacts. Four of each of the sets of 14 artifacts have movement symbols on them, and two of each set have swap symbols.

Discarding a movement artifact allows you to teleport to any epoch without needing to follow timelines and without having to take an action to move. As such, they're actually very powerful, and get used a fair bit. It's a trade-off, though, as it cost you an action to pick one up and you're not using it to redeem a scoring tile ...

You may exchange a swapping artifact with any artifact held by any other player without costing you an action. Of course, he can just swap it right back on his next turn, so these are usually used immediately before redeeming scoring tiles.

Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?

It's very weakly themed. In fact, one of the designers told me that Time Pirates wasn't their original, or even second or third theme for these mechanics and the time pirate theme was added by the publisher. It's okay, it sort of works, and you can almost see it. But the artifacts are very generic and have nothing to do with whatever time period you travel in, and that weakens the theme. I mean you can pick up a Western Hemisphere artifact in 900 AD and it looks exactly like a Western Hemisphere artifact you find in 1999 AD. Somehow I doubt this would be a common occurrence if time travel were a scientific fact.

And as mentioned above, it's a little difficult to tell some of the tiles apart at first, and set them up on the scoring-tile board. But that's something you get used to.

Much worse is the scoring problem. Because you score your victory points after each playing period, and then retain the scoring tiles, those you pick up in the first playing period will score three times for you. Likewise, those you pick up in the second playing period will score twice for you.

This creates the ideal condition to breed a runaway leader. Get an early start in the game, and there's little point in playing out the final period. This is largely because there's not much you can actively do to hinder an opponent, so it's very difficult to gang up on the leader. (About the worst you can do is see what artifacts he's going for and try to get everyone else to pick up the same type to make it harder for him to get a large set. Unfortunately, this means it's harder for everyone to get a large set, and he'll just go for the rainbow collections then, anyway, allowing him to collect wild scoring tiles.) Thus, the leader has an equal chance to do as well in the second and third periods as everyone else, and his first period lead will continually add to his later period scores, pulling him further and further ahead. Bummer.

Proposed Fix: well, being me I have to propose something. I haven't tried it yet as I write this, mind you, so take it with a grain of salt. But I will try it next game and adjust this section after I do so.

Proposal #1, very simple: the end of a playing period is simply that: time passes, return the exchanged artifacts and drawn time police chits to the bag. Do not score tiles. Only score once at the end of the game. Thus, there is no repeated scoring of tiles drawn early in the game.

Proposal #2, perhaps needlessly complex: after the first and second scoring periods, the leader must discard a scoring tile of his choice. The discarded scoring tile is put back in the box - it is not available for further redeeming, and is not revealed to other players. If there are ties for leader, they all must discard a scoring tile of their choice, unless everyone in the game is tied, in which case the rule is ignored.

This second proposal will change the game, I admit. But it changes it for everyone, so that's fair. (The change I see is that everyone will try to grab at least one of the smallest value scoring tiles to have something cheap to discard in case they're in the lead.)

Some people find the restocking/extra action thing to help the leader, also. That is, it generally speeds the game up when you restock a lot, because time police tiles are what causes the period to end. So the player in the lead usually wants the game to end quickly, while he still has the lead. Consequently, he restocks a lot - and is rewarded with an extra action if the game continues! Others don't restock very much, as they need more time to catch the leader, but only get two actions per turn because of this.

An easy fix for that problem is simply to give players two actions each turn regardless of whether they restock or not. In fact, that's how we mistakenly played our first game, and we enjoyed it.

Summing Up

I like this game, and will like it more when I find a fix for the scoring problem. While it's not in the same class as the truly great games, it moves quickly, without a lot of down time between turns. It occupies a nice niche: light and quick enough to be fun, but rewards skill. Luck is fairly minimal, actually, but it feels like a lighter game, which traditionally are more luck-intensive.

There are different strategies you can use for victory: go for lots of low-value scoring tiles, go for the big ones, go for wild card scoring tiles, restock a lot to have many extra turns, restock very little to make the game last longer, mine epochs that others ignore, go head-to-head for artifacts with others, etc.

Consequently, I find it plays differently every time and there's always a joyful moment when the time police catch someone who never takes a chance and always stays far away from their immediate path. Delightful!

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