Pirates are one of the more popular themes in modern pop-culture, specially made famous after a certain series of movies starring Johnny Depp. It’s no surprise this popularity extends into board gaming. I have compiled a Top 10 Best Pirate Board Games in 2021 as a guide for everyone who is looking to buy a pirate board game or is just generally interested in board games.
Table of Contents
You can use this table as an overview of the article and also as a way to quickly navigate to a game. Just click on a title below to jump straight to that section of the article.
- Jamaica, best family game
- Merchants & Marauders, best thematic open-world
- Friday, best solo deck-builder
- Libertalia, best card game
- Francis Drake, best push-your-luck worker-placement
- Dead Men Tell No Tales, best cooperative
- Rum & Bones, best MOBA
- Islebound, best “euro” open-world
- Treasure Island, best deduction game
- Forgotten Waters, best story-driven adventure
- Conclusion with personal recommendations
There are affiliate links by the titles. I am affiliated with Amazon (as well as with some other stores) and will earn a commission if you buy something through my link.
Designers: Malcolm Braff, Bruno Cathala, Sébastien Pauchon
Published in: 2007
Playing time: 30-60 minutes
Link to BoardGameGeek page
- Easy to learn and very fun to play, ideal for family nights.
- Beautiful artwork.
- Good balance between luck and strategy.
Date: late 17th century. Location: Jamaica. Captain Henry Morgan, the Governor of Jamaica and a retired pirate, invites his former colleagues to the annual race around the island to remember the good old days of looting and impunity. Whichever captain accumulates the most gold on that one lap around the island, is declared the winner.
Behind this funny setting lies a family “racing” game. Sort of like a more advanced pachisi, only that your choices in Jamaica actually matter, you’re not just throwing dice.
Each round, one of the players (the captain for that round) rolls two dice. Players then secretly designate two of their three hand cards to values on those dice (the so-called day and night die). All the cards are then revealed simultaneously and resolved in clockwise order.
Cards indicate actions one can do: load goods or move on the map. Players must balance their actions between both, to not stay behind in the race and to plunder as many goods (=gold).
Another way to earn gold is to make detours. Some paths are longer, but contain treasures. It’s worth considering the trade-off and risk staying behind for some extra gold.
If two players end up on the same spot, a battle is resolved with a die and the winner loots some gold from the loser.
Game ends when the first ship reaches the finish line. Winnings are calculated – the closer to finish you are, the more you get. This is then added to the gold already on the ship (the goods you looted on the way) to determine the overall winner.
Intuitive mechanics and beautiful art make this a modern-classic family board game, that you and your kids will play again and again.
The Crew adds a set of twenty characters, adding another mechanic to the game. You can hire them and load them to your ship like goods and they have special powers and bonuses to help you out. The expansion adds another layer of challenge and is a welcomed enhancement of the base game.
Merchants & Marauders
Designers: Kasper Aagaard, Christian Marcussen
Published in: 2010
Playing time: 180 minutes
Link to BoardGameGeek page
- Open-world game granting complete freedom to players.
- Very thematic, you’ll feel like a real pirate (or a merchant, if you choose so).
- Luck-dependent combat.
Being a pirate is all about freedom (as Hollywood would have you believe) and Merchants & Marauders excels at freedom.
You are given a ship and a captain, the map of the Caribbean is in front of you and the rest is up to you. You can be a good guy, earning your living with honest trade or you can be a dirty filthy pirate, raiding other ships.
The core mechanics are pretty straightforward. Each turn, you get three action points and you spend them doing any combination of the following three things:
- Move between zones or between port and sea.
- Scout, meaning you look for other ships. This can mean both NPC (non-player-controlled) ships or ships from other players.
- If you’re at a port, you can interact with it. Recruit crew, buy/sell goods, repair, upgrade or even buy a new ship.
Raiding merchant ships is pretty simple and is solved by drawing cards that determine whether a part of your ship gets damaged or the other ship escapes. If you’re successful, you keep the cards you drew as goods (if you can fit them into your cargo space).
Soon you will gain bounties to your name and there will be NPC ships coming after you. Your bounty may even entice other players to try to collect it. Either way, eventually a full ship to ship combat will start, usually ending with a lot of damage to both parties. You can try to sink or board the enemy’s ship. Successful boarding grants you the ship with all its cargo.
Although the stats of your captain and the ship matter in combat, it’s worth pointing out that luck also plays a significant part. Fortunately, it’s not game over if you lose your ship. You simply start over with a new captain and basic ship. It’s not ideal losing all your belongings, but you do keep your glory points and stashed goods, so losing your ship is not the end of the world.
Collecting 10 glory points is what wins you the game. Everything you do is just a means to earn them. But they’re not easy to come by – you only get them for significant in-game achievements: buying a galleon or a frigate, raiding a merchant for 12 or more gold, selling in-demand goods, stashing gold to your hideout, completing special missions, and destroy other ships.
The gameplay is fast, thematic, and engaging. You have a lot of freedom, there is always something to do. Losing your ship is not detrimental and, with your bounties cleared, you get the opportunity to try out a completely different approach.
Merchants & Marauders is not a eurogame with careful planning, analyzing, and calculating the best move. But I think this is a good thing. It’s a thematic (Ameritrash, as they are called) open-world game, where you sail and make your moves by your gut feeling, always praying to have the gods on your side.
Just like a real pirate, you never know what adventure awaits you any given day.
If you thought there is a lot to do in the original game, here comes Seas of Glory expansion. New features such as changing winds, smuggling, and crew satisfaction add to the already rich game. Eleven new challenges and five variants further ensure that there will always be something fresh to do.
Designer: Friedemann Friese
Published in: 2011
Players: 1 player only
Playing time: 25 minutes
Link to BoardGameGeek page
- Only for one player
- Very quick gameplay
What happens with all those sailors lost to the sea, either by combat or storms? Perhaps some are saved, others are less lucky. But if there’s Robinson Crusoe (or Tom Hanks) among them, chances are he’ll end up marooned on a deserted island.
Now enters Friday, one of the natives Robinson met and became his faithful friend. (Idea for a board game name: Wilson). You play as Friday, fighting hazards the island throws at you and preparing for the final showdown: fighting two evil pirate ships and helping Robinson Crusoe to escape from the island.
Friday is a special game – it’s a solitaire deck builder. You start with a basic deck of cards. Each round you draw two danger cards and decide which one of them to fight. It’s a tough choice. But the tougher the fight, the greater the potential reward.
Then you draw cards from your deck to check if you beat it. If you win the fight, you get to keep the danger card and add it to your deck.
If you don’t beat the danger card, you can spend life points (lose too many and you lose the game) to draw more cards or choose to fail. This gives you the option to remove a played card from your deck (a way to get rid of useless cards). But of course, you end up without a new, stronger card for the round.
As rounds go by, you fight tougher and tougher cards, until the last round, where you fight a pair of pirate ships. You better have your deck prepared by then, because Friday is a tough nut to crack.
Friday is a very challenging, quick, and simple game. It’s something you bring out if you are on your own and have half an hour to kill. You will probably lose, but you’ll also want to try again because beating a tough game makes winning all the more pleasurable.
Designer: Paolo Mori
Published in: 2012
Playing time: 40-60 minutes
Link to BoardGameGeek page
- Simple, yet strategic card game.
- Good-looking art and quality components.
- Deterministic (not much luck involved).
Do you know what all pirates want before they retire? That’s right, that one last big hit, a big loot to assure them a safe retirement. You play as one such pirate, but the competition is harsh. You’re not the only one looking for a pension!
Libertalia is a card and hand-management game. If you don’t like luck affecting your games, you’re in luck with Libertalia (sorry for the bad pun). There’s no luck involved, just pure strategy. Here’s how it works (the mechanics are a slightly more complicated Love Letter).
Each player starts with an identical set of cards. These are randomly drawn from a larger deck to ensure variety. Then players place the cards (crew members) on the main board, which is a ship. The higher the rank of the crew member, the more booty tokens he gets you.
So, where’s the catch, you may ask? There are several:
- Crew members also have special abilities that come into play during the round. Some even have recurring abilities, that grant you bonuses even in subsequent rounds. Make sure to play them early (of course, these are usually low-ranked)!
- After the first six rounds, players draw six new cards (again identical), but the three cards from before stay in their hands. Thus, in later stages (there are three stages), each player’s deck will be very different, yet with careful card-counting, it’s still possible to know opponents’ hands.
After all three stages (campaigns) are through, the player with the most money wins.
You will use 18 of the 30 different cards, making the game different each time. Although the game is not that complicated, with luck being such a low factor, new players will have a hard time against experienced. Remember to cut them some slack!
Designer: Peter Hawes
Published in: 2013
Playing time: 90-120 minutes
Link to BoardGameGeek page
- A mix of worker placement, deception and bluff.
- High quality components and art.
- Theme works well with the mechanics (supply and voyage phases).
What do you call a pirate that is given a government grant and protection to carry out his operations against an enemy? Yep, that’s a privateer. A legalized pirate, but a pirate nonetheless, especially in the eyes of the enemy. There were many privateers employed, but perhaps Francis Drake is the most famous.
You play as one of the privateers. The Queen of England has authorized you to disrupt the Spanish Empire in the Caribbeans. You have 3 voyages (rounds) to do as much damage as possible (=collect victory points). There isn’t direct interaction between the players, just a fierce competition for supplies and treasures.
Francis Drake is mainly a worker-placement game. Each of the voyages is split into two phases:
1. Supply phase
You (and your fellow privateers) are in the port of Plymouth. Your task is to prepare for the voyage ahead. You visit the shops one by one: hire crew members, buy guns, trade goods, gather supplies, or visit special slots, like the Queen (can upgrade your Frigate into Galleon), the Governor, the Admiral, or the Informer, each giving special ability.
The trick here is that you must visit the shops in order, but you can skip ahead. This is also important because if you’re the first one done with supplying, you’ll be the first to pick the slots on the Voyage phase.
Balancing your supplies is crucial. You want to be fully prepared for the voyage, but delay your departure too much and all the good slots in the Caribbeans will already be taken. You have to plan your journey ahead (you don’t have to arm if you only plan to trade and vice versa) and occasionally take a risk or two.
2. Voyage phase
Now is the time to place your discs on the Caribbean slots. There are four types: trade ports for trading, towns for capturing, forts, and Spanish Galleons (require you to own a Galleon) for conquering. Capturing objectives grants you prizes; resources and victory points. The first one to plunder a location also gets a bonus.
When the discs are placed, they are flipped, exposing a number on them. This determines the order at a location (only two slots at each location).
Deciding which discs to put where is the meat of the game, especially when you consider that you do not have to plunder a location you put a disc on. You can only bluff or block other players from plundering for bonus.
After all the locations are through and you have spent your resources, you return to Plymouth to prepare for the next one. First one to return is the first one to supply…
For the next two voyages, the supply line is changed, just to avoid every supply phase feel the same. After three voyages, points and loot are counted and the winner is declared.
Francis Drake is a great mix of worker placement (+ hidden placement), bluffing, pressing your luck, packed in an appropriate theme, that just works well together. The artwork is beautiful and components are of high quality, from the thick map, plastic barrels, and ships to gold, silver, and jewel tokens.
There are two small expansions available: Montezuma’s Legacy and Spain’s Revenge, which slightly alter the missions and rewards in the Journey phase.
It’s best to purchase them as a package Francis Drake: The Expansions, which contains both expansions and comes with rules and components for 2 and 6 players.
Dead Men Tell No Tales
Designer: Kane Klenko
Published in: 2015
Playing time: 60-75 minutes
Link to BoardGameGeek page
- Challenging cooperative gameplay with a lot of things to look after.
- Fun theme and good components.
- Can suffer from the alpha player syndrome.
We’re sailing slightly into fantasy waters with this one. You and your crew have finally taken Skelit’s Revenge, the most feared ship out there. But it’s not over yet. You must now board the burning ship and take its loot before it gets destroyed or the skeletons and guards get you.
Dead Men Tell No Tales is a cooperative game. It reminded me a lot of Forbidden Island, only with more theme and meat.
Each player controls a pirate, that all have unique special abilities. All are useful and fairly balanced. Your goal is to find and recover loot tokens from the ship. The number of tokens you have to recover depends on the difficulty and player count.
The ship you’re on is represented with tiles, that are drawn from a deck every turn. Every tile has a d6 die, stating how much fire there is. If it reaches 6, the room explodes, destroying everything in it and increasing fire in adjacent rooms. If there is gunpowder in a room, it can go off even at lower numbers. Random tokens (treasure, deckhands, and enemies) are also drawn for tiles.
Players get 5 action points per turn, which they can spend doing any combination of the following:
- fight fires,
- eliminate deckhand,
- pick token,
- battle strength and
- swap items.
Some actions increase your fatigue meter (rest to lower it), if it gets too high, you can’t enter rooms with too much fire and you can die in the worst-case scenario.
You can eliminate guards and skeletons by combat. This does not cost an action, but if unsuccessful, it will increase your fatigue and you may even be forced to retreat. Note that enemies are not the same as deckhands: deckhands must be removed by action (or they prevent you from entering the room), while enemies must be dealt with by combat as you enter their room.
When your turn ends, it’s time for the ship to do her stuff. You draw a Skelit’s Revenge Cards, causing various effects to take place: raising fire levels or adding more deckhands.
While there’s only one way to win (retrieve the loot and make it safely back), there are several ways to lose:
- Explosion (explosion meter reaches the end)
- Trapped (can’t legally place a new tile)
- Overwhelmed (you run out of deckhand tokens to place)
- Lost Treasure (if treasure tokens get destroyed in explosions)
- Untimely Death (if a pirate dies after the treasure has been looted)
- No More Pirates (if a pirate dies and there are no more character cards to replace him)
As you can see, there are a lot of things to look after and only a well-coordinated team will succeed, especially on higher difficulties. Fire and deckhand mechanics will be your main opponent but don’t take too much time, or you’ll become trapped in a burning ship!
Dead Men Tell No Tales is a great cooperative game, but just like other cooperative games with open information, it suffers from the alpha player syndrome (people telling others what to do). You know how people you play with are. In a good company, this is a very fun and enjoyable experience.
As if there weren’t enough ways to lose, The Kraken expansion adds another condition. To win, you must also kill the Kraken. If he destroys the ship, you lose. All win/lose conditions from the base game still apply, so you’re guaranteed to have your hands full.
Rum & Bones and Rum & Bones: Second Tide
Designer: Michael Shinall
Published in: 2015/2017
Players: 2, 4 or 6
Playing time: 60 minutes
Link to BoardGameGeek page
- MOBA board game.
- Interesting pirate/fantasy theme with nice miniatures.
- A lot of cool different factions available with expansions.
If you are a fan of MOBA video games (multiplayer online battle arena, with DOTA or League of Legends being among the most prominent titles) and wondered how would a concept like that work out on a tabletop, look no further. Although Rum & Bones is not the only MOBA board game (Cloudspire comes to mind), it’s the only pirate-themed.
In Rum & Bones, your playing board are the two pirate ships, entangled in a fight and ready to board one another. They are connected by three bridges – paths on which your ordinary pirates march towards each other.
But it’s not them who decide the outcome of the battle, they are after all nothing more than mindless grunts. Each side also has five hero pirates who are much stronger, more agile, and can turn the tide of the battle. They can even bypass the bridges via swinging rope and get behind enemy lines quickly. Or fall into the check and lose the entire turn if your die roll is unlucky.
Goal of the game is to be the first one to collect six victory points. You do that by destroying strategic points on the enemy ship: rudder, spawn points, cannon etc, and also by killing the Kraken, which joins the fight from the depths, when such criteria are met.
Although there are only two sides, more than two players can play, forming teams. This works pretty well, but the game is still best experienced as a two-player game.
So, if you’re looking for a pirate-themed MOBA best, Rum & Bones is your best bet, or more specifically, Second Tide, which is a revised and updated edition. It comes with several changes, most notably with a new dynamic leveling system, new ships, and alternating activation of heroes (players take turns, activating them and performing moves one by one).
Second Tide is a standalone game, but it can also be integrated with the original.
Plenty of expansions are available for both editions. Their main purpose is to add new factions and heroes, increasing variety. Several (fantasy) flavors are available: fairy tale, orcs, inquisition, dead, sea monsters, helrokkers, a pirate faction that relies on tricks and schemes and so on. Miniatures included, of course.
Designer: Ryan Laukat
Published in: 2016
Playing time: 60-120 minutes
Link to BoardGameGeek page
- Simple and engaging mechanics, with various strategic options.
- Very appealing art style.
- Smooth and fast gameplay.
Ryan Laukat is a prominent game designer and the founder of Red Raven games. He’s famous for doing the entire design himself, together with art. Above and Below is probably his most famous game (some components from Islebound work as an expansion for it!) and Islebound is set in the same universe.
Each player takes on the role of a clan leader and sets sail on the (semi)modular archipelago. You can hire crew, complete quests, collect treasure, build buildings, trade with islands, conquer them, or win them over with diplomacy. You’ll earn renown (victory points) for your deeds which is what wins you the game.
The concept is easy to understand – it’s a simple move and take action mechanic. Movement is a must (how far you can move is determined by your ship’s speed), while the action is optional. Possible actions are:
- Trade with an island: pay something to get something else in return.
- Conquest an island with military power.
- Obtain the island by paying diplomacy.
- Collect treasure (gold paid to the bank by other players).
Owning islands is pretty important. Not only does it earn you renown, but when other players use its services, the paid costs go to your pocket directly. Once the island is conquered, it’s also significantly harder to re-conquer it (enemy must pay double strength or diplomacy).
After that, you also get a free action. That means that you can complete a quest (you gain diplomacy) or construct a building in your capital. Buildings are another very important mechanic of Islebound. They give renown and also act as the trigger for the game end. That happens when the first person completes 7 buildings.
The strategy revolves around clever management of your crew (they have different, specialized abilities), conquering key islands, completing valuable quests, and then racing towards those 7 buildings. The mechanics are well-balanced and thought out and there are a lot of things to look after.
Board tiles are double-sided, the second side being “advanced”, which takes care of replayability. But it would be nice to have different end game triggers. Right now, every game turns into a race for those buildings. It gets a bit old after a dozen plays.
Metropolis Expansion adds new building cards with more valuable metropolis cards. These are harder to obtain (certain prerequisites must be obtained to get them) and are worth more renown. The expansion adds a new layer into the race for buildings, a mini-game of its own. It mitigates the “race for buildings” problem from the base game and is a recommended addition.
Designer: Marc Paquien
Published in: 2018
Playing time: 45 minutes
Link to BoardGameGeek page
- A fresh approach to deduction genre, with a map you can draw on.
- Engaging gameplay, getting into each other’s heads.
- Easy to play with great art and components.
After the bills are paid, all the grog and ladies are gone and you’re still left with plenty of booty, that you just can’t have it sitting around on your ship (you need space for fresh booty, after all), what do you do with it? You bury it in a secret location, of course.
The premise of Treasure Island goes something like this. Captain Long John Silver has been cornered by his crew to give out the location of his treasure. Threatened with life, he has no other choice, but to give directions. Or perhaps misdirection? Surely the old buccaneer has an ace up his sleeve and is planning to escape and get the treasure for himself.
The game mechanics behind this are pretty clever. One of the players (preferably the most experienced) plays as Long John. He marks the location of the treasure behind his screen and then gives out clues to other players. Those move on the picturesque island, interpreting clues, looking for treasure.
Searching is done by drawing circles on the map (small and large search) and if the treasure is in it, you win. Erasable markers, rings and rulers are provided and the board looks really cool with all the searches and other lines on it.
Long John has a couple of bluff tokens available, meaning he can lie twice per game. Players can check that (to make sure they’re on the right track), but it costs an action.
After a while (day 17 in game terms), Long John escapes and heads for the treasure himself. If he gets there before the players, he wins. This is a great way to break the deadlock (if the players get stuck) and move the game along.
Of course, a lot of the gameplay happens behind the scenes. Observing what other players are doing, where are they searching, how are they moving, and assembling the clues together. Even if you find out where the treasure is, you must be careful to not go for it too obviously or an avid co-player might pick up on what you’re doing and get there ahead of you.
It’s similar when Long John joins the search. He knows where the treasure is, but he can be damn sure other players are following his every move and being outnumbered, he’s in a delicate position. You must trick other players, leading theme elsewhere … or go straight for the treasure and make them think, you’re tricking them. It’s that kind of game.
Designers: Mr. Bistro, J. Arthur Ellis, Isaac Vega
Published in: 2020
Playing time: 120-240 minutes
Link to BoardGameGeek page
- Immersive story-telling.
- One of the best app integration to date.
- Ultimate pirate adventure.
For the last title on our list, I’ve got something special in store for you. Forgotten Waters is a crossroads story-telling adventure. This means that you’re a part of a pirate ship crew, going from one adventure to another, making decisions, performing skill checks, and accepting the consequences.
Each adventure is a separate scenario, that takes about 4 hours to complete and you get the option to “save the game” half-way through, dividing the game into manageable 2 hour chunks. To win a scenario, all players must survive. Each player also gets a personal agenda, making individual wins a possibility as well.
The game works as a blend of several components and mechanics (personal sheets, various tokens and markers, hexagonal world map with location book, dice and so on). But what really holds everything together and makes it more then just the sum of its parts, is the fantastic digital app.
The storytelling in the app is nothing short of world-class. Lighthearted pirate humor with jokes (Monkey Island comes to mind), immersive narrative with voice acting and even ambient music. The lines between a board game, video game, and book are have never been so blurred, making Forgotten Waters a brilliant multimedia experience.
Sure, Mansions of Madness (2nd Ed.) and LotR: Journeys in Middle-earth already showed us what can be done with a good app, but I dare to say that Forgotten Waters is one step above them. If you have a group (the game is best played with at least 3 players) that is looking for a cooperative and highly imaginative adventure with a top-notch narrative, you’ll have a blast with Forgotten Waters.
Now that we’re done with our list, hopefully, you’ve got a good idea of which should suit your play style the best. This time the theme is more or less the same with all the games. They all capture the pirate spirit pretty well, the theme comes alive and you’ll feel like a pirate.
It’s game mechanics that set them apart. From family race game (Jamaica) to solo deck builder (Friday), open-world games (Merchants & Marauders) to story-driven crossroads game (Forgotten Waters), there’s something for everyone. Frankly, you can’t miss with any of the games on the list, they’re all pretty awesome.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a deductive game full of bluffing, clues, and deception, Treasure Island is the way to go. Or Francis Drake if you’re into history and up for some privateering.
But if you press me into a corner and force me to single out just one pirate board game, I’ll go with Forgotten Waters. It’s accessible to everyone and offers an excellent narrative experience, worthy of Guybrush Threepwood himself.
What is your favorite pirate board game? Do you agree with my choice?