2 May 2017

Peg pirates

About ten days ago I was playing a new tabletop pirate game with my two sons. Each player had a small wooden ship about seven or eight inches long, with painted peg dolls representing the crew. It felt a bit like a cross between playing an episode of Captain Pugwash, a kid's game of make-believe, and X-Wing (for the movement). We had so much fun, laughing and joking, with outrageous boasting and comedy accents aplenty.

And then I woke up.

The whole thing had been a dream. Actually, I have lots of vivid dreams; my wife both mocks me gently, and is jealous of, the comic-strip adventures that my dreams usually become - hers tend to involve all her teeth falling out! I wasn't going to let that it had been a dream stop me, however, and I became mildly obsessed with recreating it as a proper game over the last week, to the extent that I've not touched a paintbrush or written up the two RPG sessions that I've played. Another distraction!

How to go about it then? I wanted the tone to recapture the innocent, no-one-dies, aspect of the game from my dream, so I watched some Captain Pugwash (and was relieved to see that Snopes was correct; the supposed double-entendre names of the characters are purely an internet invention. The cabin boy is called Tom, for instance).

Suitably in the right frame of mind, next I needed....

This was pretty easy. Pinterest is full of examples of painted peg people pirates, some of them for sale, others as inspiration. They can be bought plain for about 30p each if you get them in bags of ten or twenty off ebay.

Being sold on etsy
More tricky. I wanted ships that were big enough for the pirates to stand on in that kid's book, compressed scale, sort of way. That way they could be removed (maybe magnets in the bases to stick them to metal washers sunk into the deck?) when knocked overboard or captured (i.e. they're casualties).

There's very little out there that is between tiny, fleet-action scale ships, and whacking great beautiful 28mm scaled mobile terrain. To be playable, I reckoned 8" was the biggest I could go without manoeuvring become impossible, giving about 6" of deck space to put the pirates on. A spot of research suggested that sloops were about the right sort of vessel to use as pirate ships:

By William Brand on pyracy.com
So that, crossed with the storybook style of, say this:

From "Are You the Pirate Captain?" by Gareth P. Jones and Garry Parsons (Andersen Press)

gives me what I want. I'd just need to build it. Ideally, they'd be wooden, but I want some consistency and ease of construction, so it's over to the ever-reliable Gary Chalk plans as a starting point:

Link to the article and plans is here

Ah, right, the most tricky one, especially movement. I wanted sail setting (furled, battle-ready, full), wind speed, and wind direction to be functional aspects, which was tricky for a quick-play, starter wargame for kids and participation games. I went through a range of ideas, including a rather nifty variation on a sliding sextant that I may return to at some point because it looked fun (but tricky and time-consuming) to make. Mostly, the ideas I came up with would either work for windspeed and direction, or sail-setting and direction, but not both.

My solution was to pinch some ideas from the X-Wing template idea. A ship will turn away from the wind in a gentle arc (length of arc determined by sail setting) if the wind comes from port or starboard, unless the ship is actively steered. It will go in a straight line if the wind is directly behind the ship, and knock it backwards if from in front. The movement arc is placed level with the stern (the back) of the ship and either moved back a short length (for light winds), or forward a length (strong winds) as appropriate. The ship is then moved in an arc (accompanied by suitably "Arrggh, Jim lad!" noises from the player, naturally) along the movement template until it's stern is level with the front of the template. Simples!

These particular examples of the x-wing templates are sold here

Obviously, there also need to be cannon (shooting and perhaps reloading), changing sail, changing course, boarding enemy vessels etc. All of these Actions require a certain number of crew to carry them out. At the start of the turn, each player lays their chosen action cards face down alongside their ship's log (basically a status board for tracking damage, remaining cannon, sails, etc.) and then carries them out as appropriate during their turn (ships move in order of closeness to the direction the wind is coming from). As they play them they must lay the required number of crew tokens on top of the card - if they run out, they can't do that action.

Shooting I think will be d12 per cannon, with 10 being a success, modified by distance. At the moment I think damage cards will be the way to allow a variety of outcomes without needing lots of lookup tables for location and severity of hit. That way sails can be lost, crewmen knocked overboard (or knocked out), holes in the rudder etc. A certain number of hull hits will sink the ship and these will be tracked on the ship's log.

From Drawception
I reckon boarding and combat will also run on a d12, 10=success, approach, with suitable modifiers for the number of crew involved. Simultaneous dice-rolls seems the simplest approach here. No reason why you can't capture an enemy ship if you've captured or driven off all its actual crew.

Well, that's as far as I've got so far. I'm going to exorcise that compulsion by writing these up properly and having a go with card cutouts (or Playmobil rowing boats). If it turns out to be fun, I might even have a go at making the ships and painting peg pirates - a boxed set would be a nice gift around Christmas time if the two Rablings like it.

Of course, it could be dull or dissatisfying, and then I'll let it fade just like the dream...


  1. I rather doubt the dull or dissatisfying, this sounds like an excellent game for two very lucky little boys.

    As for ship models, I believe you can get the various playmobile pirate boats rather cheaply on Ebay, used. Scratch build a new wooden deck over the plastic, and done. If you want to get really fancy, you could probably put down metal, then wood, then have magnets in the base of the peg...

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Lgp :)

      Playmobil is a good shout, and I may go that route, although I'd rather feel I've made it all myself. We'll see...

  2. No chaos updates?

    Or busy walking the plank?

    1. Just... busy. I've had about half an hour's geeking time since this writing this post. I'll need Hermione's time-turner, or the Dr's blue box to get any painting done in the near future, I fear!

    2. Well makes me feel better that I am not the only one with stuff to-do 😀