I have a secret: I really like collectible card games. I like the strategy, the lore behind the cards, the way they work together even after expansions, and I especially like getting together with friends. However, I really dislike building the decks, waiting on friends to get together, and spending the money to get the cards to make the right decks.

is why online collective card games (CCGs) are so cool. And I’ve found one with pirates!

Ok, I wasn’t the one who found it. My son did when he was about 6 and it wasn’t online at the time. It was still a card game, but it was a card game with a twist. Known as Pirates of the Spanish Main, it took CCGs to a whole new level of collecting. Where other games just had you lay your cards down in a certain order, this one had you punch pieces out and actually build things. Things like ships! And islands and treasure… When you fought, you rolled your dice and if your cannon hit, your opponent removed a mast from his ship. It was all very exciting for a 6-year old. (And very expensive for his mother.) Thankfully, he found Pokemon.

A few years later, Worlds Apart Productions (now known as Sony Denver), the creators of a nifty online collectable trading card game called Starchamber announced they’d be publishing Spanish Main under the title Pirates CSG Online. (The “CSG” stands for Constructible Strategy Game.) “Ok,” thinks me. “I’ve played a few CCGs online and I like ’em. But just how are they going to recreate the whole ‘build the ship’ aspect of this one?” Never underestimate the ingenuity of game developers.

Pirates CSG begins when you build your deck. I know what you’re thinking – I do! “Boring!” However, this is an online game which means you have the advantage of searching and sorting (no big piles of cards); you can have one copy of a card and use it in multiple decks (cheaper!); you can use the game to tell you if your deck meets the requirements of the game (easier…); and it’s pretty hard to find a time when there isn’t someone to play with (no more loser friends).

Many of the cards are based upon actual ships and people from the era of big ships. And, as the online game has had six expansions after the initial launch there are a lot of really great “flavors” to choose from: Spanish Main, Davy Jones’ Curse, Crimson Coast, South China Seas, Mysterious Islands, Oceans Edge and Revolution. You can play as the Chinese in their metal covered turtle ships with some of the most conniving pirates that ever sailed the seas! Not that a few of the French femme fatales didn’t have claws of their own. It all depends upon how simple you want your deck to be and how much money you wish to spend.

Back to deck building…

The goal of the game is to be the first to take half the booty on the ocean. This means you either need a few big strong ships with large cargo holds or a lot of itty bitty ships that are very fast. Each ship has a value from 1-20 that is determined based upon how many sails it has (sails also equals cannons), the amount of cargo it can hold, and how far it can move each turn. You can modify a ship by putting a captain, shipwright, explorer or any number of crewmen aboard. Each of these has a value as well. A standard game has a deck value of 40; once you reach 40 points, you can begin. I usually end up with 4 ships and a few crew members. The friend I play with most often likes to bring out sea monsters – giant squid, sea serpents – it’s a riot.

Next you place the islands you and your opponent will fight over – each of you places 3. If you so choose, you can throw in a coral reef, some fog and a whirlpool or two just for fun! She’ll let you know where your home port is; then you can tell her where she’s going to lay anchor. Then it’s time for the booty.

You’ll be given a panel from which to choose treasure. A standard game (nearly everything in this game can be modified from standard) contains no fewer than 8 items at a value of 15 coins. Want to throw in a cursed map? Go ahead! That’s 1 item worth 1 coin. Then throw in a doubloon worth 5 coins. Next, some rum. Keep going till you get to 8 items at 15 coins because when the booty is randomly distributed throughout the islands it will be done so with the 8 items your opponent chose as well. Some good and some bad…

comes the really amazing part. This game isn’t played out as a card game at all. It’s done completely in 3D with ships! (Or sea monsters if that’s what you chose!) Those cards you built your deck with earlier were only the descriptions of your fleet and who would be manning it. The real fun is in actually maneuvering your ships to the islands, taking the booty and trying to get it back to your home port before the giant squid your opponent put in her fleet tries to board your ship and crush it to pieces.

There will be times you land on an island ready to take your plunder and all you get are a bunch of curses. Perhaps you’ve been playing a while and have expanded your deck to include cards from the Mysterious Islands collection. No one knows what will happen when you land – those islands are just plain weird… sending treasure hither and yon, removing booty from the ship. Things get really interesting when you sail into the Crimson Coast and start adding forts to the islands you’ve plundered. There’s nothing quite like taking down a schooner with the cannon from a fort in the morning.

Remember how I said your cannon are equal to your masts? And, how in the paper version, when you shot a mast you removed it from the ship? The same applies in the online version. You’ll fire your cannons (or smack your squid flippers) at a ship and if you hit, your opponent chooses a mast that is destroyed, or a flipper, or my personal favorite – a loop from a sea serpent. It’s great when the serpent goes swimming through the sea missing its middle loop.

Yeah, I’m geeking out now.

Still, even as an admitted fan of CCGs, it’s rare to find a game that is so simple at its core that is so much fun. The 3D translation is beautiful. The reflections on the water, the seagulls, the fog – which can be dangerous!

And the music! It’s not the same track looping over and over again. It’s dynamic, changing with the conditions of your crew. Do well and it’s a sprightly jig. Do poorly and you’ll hear your own dirge long before your time. The music is reason enough to play.

Unfortunately, the company that produces the paper version of the cards was shut down due to economic reasons just this past November. There’s been no word on how this affects the online game as it has been running for more than a year since expansions ceased for the paper cards.

The good news, the most excellent news is the community for this game is mature, seasoned and very welcoming to newcomers. There are sponsored tournaments every weekend; developer involvement; and the players love to start up their own tournament whenever they can get 8 people involved. Questions posted in the forums are readily answered. Requests for practice games always go heeded.

But there is a catch! Because the community is composed of such a large portion of veterans, they are rarely found in the casual lobbies. Don’t let 4 empty lobbies deter you! Go to the trade lobby and there you will find the community, busily trading their cards and playing games. Say hello, tell them you’re a new player and listen to the shouts of hurrah! Then, prepare to be boarded.