Pirate’s Cove by Days of Wonder: First Impressions

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Gamestorm 15

Pirate's Cove Box Art

Game Info

Publisher: Days of Wonder

Year Published: 2002

Number of Players: 3 to 5

Play Time: 90 minutes

Set-up Time: 5 minutes

Learning Curve: Low

Ages: Rated 8 and up

Table Size: Medium to Large


At this year’s Gamestorm 15 convention, I had the opportunity to play Pirat’es Cove, a game about stealing treasure, killing pirates, and bragging about it at the tavern. Though I only got to play it once, I found the experience very enjoyable and this game is now near the top of my wish list. What makes it so fun? I’m glad you asked.

Game Description

BoardGameGeek has a pretty thorough description of Pirate’s Cove:

Come aboard and sail to Pirate’s Cove… the legendary hideaway of thieving pirates and cutthroat buccaneers. The tales of those legendary pirates of old who’ve fought and survived these mysterious waters still haunt all those who yearn for a life at sea. Armed with a secret map and starting with a modestly outfitted sloop salvaged from last winter’s storm, you set sail to Pirate’s Cove – your eyes filled with visions of treasure and fame, your lungs filled with the salty air of the High Seas.

Your objective: to battle for the rights to plunder and become the most famed and feared Pirate the world has ever seen. To do so, you will need to navigate shrewdly, fight recklessly and pillage mercilessly. You will gain fame by winning battles; burying gold and treasure; and bragging about your exploits at the Tavern. At the end of twelve months, the pirate with the most fame will be declared the most fearsome Pirate of the High Seas!

The game has 12 turns and at the start of every turn, each pirate must decide (secretly) which of the 6 islands they will visit. All players reveal their navigation directions simultaneously and then the turn is resolved. If any two or more pirates end up at the same island, Combat ensues.

Combat resolution is determined by the strengths of your ship and the results of cannon fire (dice). The goal of combat is to scare away rival pirates so that you are the only pirate left at the island. If you stay in combat too long, your ship will suffer and make subsequent turns more difficult, so there is a fine balance of when to stay and fight and when to let the bigger ship have its booty. If you flee from combat, you end up at Pirate’s Cove where you receive a small compensation for the turn. Once all conflicts are resolved, then the bounty for each island is given out.

Each island (except Pirate’s Cove and Treasure Island) offer various amounts of Fame, Gold, Treasure or Tavern cards. The bounty is skewed so that some Islands are clearly better choices than others, so it can force you to decide (or bluff) if you think you can take the island should other pirates go after the same bounty. Once you have your bounty, you can purchase upgrades for your ship. Each Island offers a different ship component. The four parts of your ship are: Sails (determines speed and initiative in combat), Hull (how much treasure you can carry), Crew (needed to man the cannons), and Cannons. (The lower number of Crew and Cannons determines how many dice you roll in combat).

There is also an island with a Pub that offers useful strategy cards to help you in all aspects of the game. The last island is treasure island which offers no real bounty other than the chance to bury treasures that you have in the hull of your ship. Buried treasure is converted to Fame (which is the ultimate goal of the game).

Other random elements of the game include the dreaded Legendary Pirates who are highly dangerous ships that patrol the islands in order. One of 5 different Legendary Pirates (which include famous names like Blackbeard and The Flying Dutchman) is drawn at the beginning of every game, and stays until defeated. If you end up at the same island as one of them, you had better have a strong ship and helpful allies or they will blast you with their powerful cannons. However, if you can manage to sink their ships, you can score a good amount of fame! But beware, once you defeat him/her a new Legendary Pirate will appear to wreck havoc in the islands.

At the very end of the game, there is a chance for everyone to tell “tall tales” about themselves to increase their final fame standings. These tall tale cards are gained at the pub and offer yet another fun “pirate” mechanic. In all, Pirate’s Cove offers you the chance to truly play like a pirate where you can fight and plunder your way to victory.


  • 1 Board map
  • Pirate ship miniatures
  • 5 Pirate Ship Mats and Captain’s Wheels
  • 5 Wooden Fame markers
  • 20 Strength markers
  • 112 Illustrated cards:
  • 60 Treasure cards
  • 6 Legendary Pirate summary cards
  • 42 Tavern cards
  • 4 Blank cards
  • 44 Doubloons
  • Treasure chests
  • 6 wooden dice
  • 1 Rules booklet
  • 1 Summary Card
  • 1 Days of Wonder Online access number

If it looks like there’s a lot too it, don’t worry; it’s actually very easy to learn and play.


Pirate’s Cove has a number of mechanics which work in tandem to keep things fun and exciting. Each turn, players use their Captain’s Wheel to steer toward one of 6 different islands on the game board. The Captain’s Wheel is a simple cardboard device with a pointer arrow that can be turned to any of the numbers between 1 and 6, each of which corresponds to one of the game’s 6 islands. These choices are made in secret at the start of each round and revealed simultaneously. If two or more players select the same island, they wind up going after the same treasure and combat ensues.

Players may choose to go to any of the islands for a number of reasons. The islands are places where players can upgrade one aspect of their pirate ship: the hold, crew, canons, or sails. Each of these four ship parts has an associated game mechanic: the hold can store more cargo, which means the player can carry around more pirate treasure. Crew and canons are used to determine how many dice a player rolls when in combat with another player (or one of the game’s Legendary Pirates), and sails help determine who goes first in combat. It’s important to upgrade your ship, so moving around from island to island is a good idea.

Additionally, each island may have some amount of treasure to be gained. As the treasure piles up at one location, more and more players will be enticed to isit that island, which means battle will be common as pirates fight for their share of the booty. When two or more pirates wind up at the same island, they determine who gets to attack first based on which player has the best sails. Going first means you have the potential to damage your player’s ship before they get a chance to destroy yours, so building up your sails is a must. Of course, it’s also important to have a sturdy crew and a lot of canons, so it’s wise to keep everything in balance.

As players fight, they roll the dice and count successes. They’re able to roll a certain number of dice based on the number of canons or crew they have (whichever is higher), and more dice means more potential successes. If I remember correctly, a success is achieved by rolling a 5 or a 6 on a 6-sided die. For each success, one point of damage is dealt to the opposing player’s sails, crew, cargo, or hold (attacker’s choice).As a ship takes damage, it may lose certain abilities; a reduction of crew or canons means the player won’t get to roll as many dice on their turn, while a reduction of the hold means they may have to drop some of the treasure they’re carrying. If any of a player’s four attributes is reduced to zero, the ship is destroyed and the player has to return to the starting island. The winning player takes control of the contested island and gets to grab all of its treasure and make any ship upgrades he may choose.

There are a number of special cards that may be acquired at the Tavern island which have a variety of game effects. Some of these may be worth victory points while others will help a pirate in combat. These cards add another dynamic to the game that can really help an underdog player in a time of need.

After a player collects treasure, he needs to bury it so nobody else can get to it. If he makes it back to Treasure Island before someone else destroys his ship, he can offload his booty and earn victory points for it. Players may only carry as much treasure as will fit in their hold, so there is plenty of incentive to upgrade; the fewer trips you have to make to Treasure Island, the more you get to spend hunting for treasure.

The game ends after 12 rounds, and naturally the person with the greatest number of victory points is the winner. There aren’t a lot of complicated scoring mechanics, so it’s simple to tally up victory points and determine a winner. All of these mechanics work together to make for a game that is strategic even as players have to push their luck. It strikes a balance between taking chances and making tactical decisions, which I really enjoy. I would recommend Pirate’s Cove to anyone who likes pirate-themed games and anyone who enjoys a bit of risk-taking with their strategy games.


Pirate’s Cove is a great game for all ages, but there are a few accessibility concerns that may be important to point out.

In-game Text: There is a moderate amount of in-game text, particularly on the special cards that each player may acquire at the Tavern. These cards are supposed to be secretive, so it requires a bit of trust if you need to have someone else read them to you. The text may be such that it is too difficult to Braille them, and even with my electronic magnifier I had difficulty reading them — though that may be due to glare from the sleeves they were in.

Additionally, the Captain’s Wheel is labelled with numbers that correspond to different islands on the game board. I had trouble using this wheel with a visual impairment. Eventually we all agreed that I would just announce the island I wanted to travel to as other players revealed their Captain’s Wheels, and that seemed to work out well enough.

Finally, each player has a play mat in front of them that they use to track how many sails, crew, canons, and hold points they have. These scores are tracked using a doughnut-shaped wooden token that fits over fairly large-print numbers. It took some work, but even with a visual impairment I was able to keep track of these on my own. Without any vision this may prove difficult, but some raised dots or Braille on a mat specifically altered for a blind or low-vision user would both make sense and not detract from the game’s overall experience.

Game Board Dependency: Much of the game takes place on the game board, which may be hard to see even close up. Depending on the table it may be difficult to reach across to maneuver pieces as well. It’s common to designate one or two people to move everyone’s pieces around, usually whoever has the longest arms, so that doesn’t pose too many challenges. However, visually impaired players may need someone to help announce which islands have treasure on them and where the Legendary Pirates are located on any given turn.

Fine Manipulation: Pirate’s Cove contains several small pieces that get moved around quite a bit. Treasure tokens, doubloons (used for buying upgrades to your ship), strength tokens (used for tracking your ship’s upgrades), the Captain’s Wheel, and playing cards all must be handled regularly. This can be a lot to keep track of. A card holder or Scrabble stand may help for handling the playing cards, but additional assistance may be requested of other players for handling some of the other pieces. Players may also be required to roll as many as 5 dice at a time. A dice rolling cup makes this challenge much easier.

4.5 / 5 stars     
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