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Note: Mike's Review of The Kaiser's Pirates was originally posted on BoardGameGeek. We post it here with Mike's permission.
For me, one intriguing chapter of history is the bitter-sweet story of German Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s East Asiatic Squadron’s exploits during the opening months of The Great War. At the request of his captain, Spee detached his fastest cruiser, Emden, to the Indian Ocean to raid merchant shipping until the fast German ship met its match in a newer Australian cruiser (Sydney) three months later. After Spee’s squadron, including cruisers Leipzig and Nürnberg, defeated the British at The Battle of Coronel, more modern ships of the Royal Navy retaliated near the Falklands in the closing days of 1914 where Spee lost his life. Only the ill-fated Dresden escaped to be destroyed three months later. In the first five months of the war Spee’s ships destroyed 273,000 tons of merchant shipping (75 ships). Thus began German commerce raiding in the First World War–the theme for this exciting naval card game.

One of the things that drew me to this game other than my obvious enthusiasm for the theme was the fact that it could be played solitaire. After reviewing the rules and an example of play, both of which can be found at Lost Battalion Game’s web site(, I decided to purchase the game. It arrived four days later via first class mail.

The game comes in a sturdy generic box with a slip cover. A spartan, but functional, cardboard insert keeps the components arranged in the box. A zip lock bag contains eight dice (2 of each: red 4-sided, white 6-sided, green 8-sided, and blue 10-sided) and sixteen (10 red, 6 black) of those ubiquitous wooden cubes so familiar to euro-gamers. The cards are of high quality, nicely coated stock without the black edges that chip away in other card games. They should stand up well to repeated play. Finally, there is a 38 page rulebook.

The cards are made up of four decks: German Warships & Raiders (20 cards), Merchantmen (60 cards), Action Deck (92 cards) and a Solitaire Action Deck (20 cards).

-Merchantmen Cards: Each card has an accurate picture of the ship. Data for the ship includes the name, flag, tonnage and fate of the vessel. The last two items are for flavor only. Additionally, three “coin” values are depicted on the card: Challenge, Response and Defense. (More on “coin” later.) Finally the card depicts a Victory Award value for the ship.

-German Warships & Raiders: Like the Merchantmen Cards there is a picture of the ship including name, flag, and for flavor, captain’s name, armament and displacement. Coin values for Defense and Attack along with the Victory Award value are also shown. Some ships include special symbols. For example, a skull and crossbones next to the flag distinguishes a ship as being a Raider rather than a Warship, a mine symbol signifies mine laying capability, and a coal pile indicates a fuel-hungry ship.

-Action Deck: These cards contain two sections and will give you a choice of three possible actions. Turned sideways, they allow one of your Warships or Raiders to Intercept an opponent’s merchantman. Additionally the sideways Intercept action includes an inherent generic British attack value (coin) allowing it to instead target an opponent’s Warship or recognized Raider (a Raider must be recognized to be attacked). Finally the card’s upright action section can have any one of 39 non-intercept actions, 13 of which are used as reactions to cards played by an opponent. The reaction cards are easily distinguished by having a blue background instead of the tan background of the regular action cards. Each action is fully described right on the card eliminating the need to refer to the rulebook for its use.

-Solitaire Deck: These cards are used to simulate a “Phantom Player’s” hand as your opponent in the solitaire game. I’ll describe them later in this review. They are not used in a multiplayer game.

The full-color rulebook is comprehensive and has some nice touches including a table of contents. Contained in the rules are legends for the information found on the cards and a diagram of how the cards are set up on the table. There is also a guide to the symbols on the cards that refer to the rules that govern their function. A section details each of the 39 action cards, which is particularly useful for solitaire play. Examples of play can be found for both a three player game and a solitaire game. Optional rules are found at the end of the rulebook for tournament play or simply to add more flavor to the game.

There is one minor quibble. The rules are not presented in a linear fashion following the progression of play. For example the assigning of points at the end of the round and setup for subsequent rounds is detailed before the sections that describe how to conduct player turns during the round. The rulebook’s organization can complicate a first time read of the rules, and makes the rulebook more difficult to use as an in-game reference when you’re learning to play. Once you become familiar with the rules this is a non-issue.

The game is played in three rounds. Each player starts the round with three merchantmen and three warships and/or raiders along with a hand of (normally) six Action Cards. Only twenty Action Cards per player (combined into a single deck) are used in each round. The remaining Action Cards are set aside and not used in any way during the round. After the hands are dealt the rest of the Action Card deck is used as a draw pile. The round ends as the last Action Card is drawn from this pile. In subsequent rounds all 92 of the Action Cards are shuffled and another deck of 20 cards per player is used. Thus players can’t be sure of the exact card mix available in each round. Game length can also be shortened by building the Action Card deck with less than 20 cards per player for each round.

Each player is charged with keeping his merchantmen and German ships safe while using his action cards to cause discomfort to opponent’s Warships and Raiders, and to allow his German ships to prey on opponent’s Merchantmen.

During their turn a player is only allowed to intercept one other player’s ships. Other non-intercept actions can be played against one other player if desired. The intercepts can be augmented by certain action cards, and the intercepted player is allowed to play one reaction card from his hand for each ship intercepted.

The success of the Intercept is determined by resolving the Attack and Defense “coin” of the ships involved. Each “coin” contains a color picture of the dice to be rolled. In some cases this is a single die, in others two or three dice are depicted. The intercepting player rolls the dice depicted in the Attack coin while the opponent rolls the dice depicted in the Defense coin. Each player compares only the highest value of any one die rolled, ignoring the other dice. If the intercept fails to sink or damage a merchantman (damage is marked with a red cube), the intercepted merchantman attempts a Safe Passage by rolling its Challenge coin against its Response coin. If the Challenge result is greater than the Response result (ties fail) the merchantman safely makes it to port. If a ship is sunk the intercepting player receives the Victory Award for the ship, if a merchantman attains Safe Passage the intercepted player receives the Victory Award for that ship.

Once a Victory Award is made, the ship (be it a merchantman or a German ship) is removed to the respective player’s Victory Award Pile. At the end of the turn only the merchantmen are replenished to three ships. Lost German ships are not automatically replaced. The player ends their turn by drawing one action card (regardless of how many they played).

Non-intercept action cards can be played on an opponent such as the “Rendezvous Missed” card that can cause an opponent’s German ships to run low on supply and fuel marking them with a black Limited Supply cube. Some action cards can be used to remove damage, eliminate Limited Supply markers, or add German ships to a player’s line-up. Some can be used to recognize a raider, allowing it to be attacked. Others can “Reflag” a recognized raider to protect it from attack by hiding it again. Another can allow a player to take an intercepted ship as a prize. Ships marked with Damage or Limited Supply cubes suffer negative modifiers to various coin values.

Submarine warfare, a prominent feature of German naval strategy, is also taken into account. The submarines UC-16, U-27, UC-29 and U-41 are found in the action cards and can provide additional attacks on an opponent’s merchantmen. The Royal Navy’s response to submarines can be found in Action Cards as reactions to submarine attacks depicting Q-ships Penhurst (Q-7) and Privet (Q-19).

Once the round is over Round Points are assigned based on the cumulative values in each player’s Victory Award Pile. The player with the lowest value of Victory Awards receives 1 Round Point. The next higher player receives 2 Round Points, and so on with the highest player in a four-player game earning 4 Round Points. However, a player with no Victory Award points is given 0 Round Points. The player with the most Round Points at the end of three rounds wins. There are rules for resolving ties.

It had been my original intention to write only a mini-review on just the solitaire aspect of this game. In order to put the solitaire game in perspective it became more appropriate to include such an assessment in a full review. The reason is simple: there is virtually no difference between solo play and a two-player game. You play as a Live Player (LP) against the game’s Phantom Player (PP).

Some multiplayer games that include solitaire variants completely dilute or eliminate game mechanics to the point that playing solo is a mere shadow of the original multiplayer experience. The Kaiser’s Pirates uses a clever mechanism to avoid this pitfall: the Solitaire Deck.

Each card in the Solitaire Deck is used in a horizontal format, and contains two sections. Along the top of the card is a Defensive Action and, optionally, a Special Action. The lower half of the card is used to generate actions taken by the PP during the “game’s turn.” The lower half is divided into four sections each specifying a certain action. The section used depends on the result of a 4-sided die roll. Each action mirrors one normally found on an Action Card.

During the LP’s turn one Solitaire Card is turned over per Intercept to provide the PP’s response. The card will depict a Reaction and a 4-sided die roll (odd or even) determines if the Reaction will be used. Even if the Reaction will be used, it may not be germane to the particular Intercept (or mine attack) in which case it is ignored.

While the PP is dealt a hand of Action Cards, its sole purpose is to allow the LP to draw from it two random cards into their own hand by using the “Recon Aircraft” Action Card. The PP’s “hand” is instead simulated using the Solitaire Cards. During the PP’s turn a Solitaire Card is turned over and a 4-sided die is rolled to determine what action (if any) the PP takes. If the action is an intercept, additional Solitaire Cards are drawn to possibly augment the intercept using the depicted Special Action if one is present on the card. You keep revealing cards and rolling that red 4-sided die to generate PP actions until certain conditions trigger the end of the PP’s turn. The Solitaire Deck is then shuffled, and one action card from the draw pile is discarded face down to the discard pile to signify the PP’s card draw.

Because there is so much information to cram on each Solitaire Card the text normally found on an Action Card to describe its use is not presented on the Solitaire Card. Until you gain familiarity with the various Action Cards, there is a very handy alphabetical reference in the rulebook. If required, the Solitaire Card depicts the coin it uses for a given action.

Solo game systems that strive to provide balanced play are sometimes at a disadvantage against a live player. This game compensates by providing the PP with the possibility of an unlimited number of each Action Card not subject to the normal Action Card mix. Statistically, the PP ends up playing a reasonably balanced game.

I like games where decision-making is balanced with luck. The Kaiser’s Pirates finds a pretty good balance here. I like dice. They hate me. The use of multiple, different-sided dice help balance out the luck factor. I’ve seen Attack Coin where the Intercept using 10-, 8- and 6-sided dice succeeded by rolling 5 on the 6-sided die (perhaps rolling 1’s on the others) against a Defense Coin roll of 2 on a 4-sided die–narrowly saving what should have been a “sure thing.” Additionally the use of Round Points can help mitigate a run-away Victory Award situation in a given round. Luck is a factor, but victory in this game still depends on adapting to the situation with a good strategy. Because of the random Action Card mix, you won’t find yourself getting into a rut where you’ll be employing the same strategy over and over again. The game can play differently requiring flexibility on a player’s part. Replayability is good.

Not surprisingly, hand management plays the major role in the game. There are those tough decisions to make regarding the use of your cards. Do you save a reaction card to use in your defense, or do you play it for the Intercept? Do you exploit an opportunity by playing all of the cards in your hand knowing that you’ll only draw one card back into your hand at the end of the turn?

For fans of the theme, the flavor text on the cards is also fun. More than once I’ve seen a player select a merchant for their raider to intercept based on the merchant’s fate text revealing that, historically, it was lost to that particular raider. Players can attempt to repeat history or defy it. I find myself watching to see if this time Emden, Dresden, Nürnberg or Leipzig (all depicted in the game) will make it out alive. The artwork on the cards is great and evokes the period. Overall component quality is top notch.

This is a must-have game if you’re a fan of naval card games such as Avalon Hill’s Naval War, DVG’s Modern Naval Battles, Phalanx’s Naval Battles (also by Dan Verssen), or other similar titles by LBG. While not in the strictest sense a wargame or simulation, it maintains such high fidelity to its theme that it would be appealing to anybody that’s interested in the subject as it does model WWI commerce raiding in an abstract, but tangible way. Finally, if you want a good, balanced solitaire challenge, you’ll find one in this game.

The Kaiser’s Pirates portrays the exhilaration and dangers of commerce raiding in The Great War where the hunters ran the risk of being the hunted. Spee understood this only too well. After his success at The Battle of Coronel he put into Valparaiso where, it is said, he was presented with a bouquet of flowers. Spee accepted the gift saying, “Thank you, they will do very nicely for my grave.”

Happy gaming!
-Mike Brugato