Back when PopCap was still synonymous with nothing more than Bejeweled, and long before Johnny Depp had perfected his Jack Sparrow swagger, a small development team of six were creating one of the most unique massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) on the market today.

Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates (Y!PP to those that love it) has that magic that all MMOGs are trying to capture: it appeals and satisfies both the casual and hardcore player; it can be played – all of it – for free, or you can spend boatloads of money if that is your preference to really put on a show; and, get this… people actually role-play! Yarr!

Of Puzzling Pirates or Pirating Puzzles

If you've never experienced Y!PP, the single most important thing to understand is that all actions are performed through puzzles. Swordplay feels something akin to a Tetris-y like game, Bilging is a somewhat restricted Bejeweled and so-on. For some players this is the hardest part of the game, abstracting that those falling blocks that are shared with your crew against another crew amount to a full-scale sword fight! Lose a few hundred Pieces-of-Eight a few times, though, and suddenly the idea kicks ye in the britches.

There are three types of puzzles: Duty Puzzles, Crafting Puzzles and Carousing Puzzles (also known as Multiplayer or Parlor Puzzles). These make up the standard play of any MMORPG on the market but in a rather non-standard manner. It is possible to play only one of the three categories and never play the other two – I've done it – but we'll get to that in a moment.

Duty Puzzles are the meat of pirating. This is what sailing a ship is all about be it a tiny 7-man Sloop, sleek 18-man Baghlah, or mammoth 75-man War Frigate. One size does not fit all in this game and should you choose the path of the captain, one will be built to fit your appetite for plunder. Although Swabbies (Non-player Characters) can help fill out missing crewmen, no ship runs well without a full complement so ye'll be manning quite the motley bunch on some of the larger ships.

The primary duty stations aboard any ship consist of Sailing, Bilging, Carpentry and Gunning. These are what keep a vessel afloat and pulling in the booty. There's a navigation post for the presiding officer and a spot up in the Crow's Nest for spotting ships if plundering is what's called for. Uninhabited islands allow those with the requisite pass to go Foraging for limes, pineapples and other perishables the Captain can trade in for additional booty when the ship reaches shore.

Each puzzle is unique and depends upon the other to keep the ship moving. If the carpenters don't keep the holes plugged the ship fills with water which slows it down. This requires the bilgers to pump faster to clear it out. If neither keeps it up those at sails not only cannot sail against the wind but give the captain no maneuverability regardless of how clear the hold is. And the gunners… gunning is difficult. Expect to gun only after practice, lots and lots of practice.

Hey Bonnie Lass, Where Ye Be Gettin' That Thar Purty Hat?

With few exceptions, everything in Y!PP is created by the players. Did I mention, everything? Need some new knickers? Head to the tailor and order the style and color, and then wait for them to be made. Did your sword crumble during that swordfight? Aww… better head to the blacksmith and order a new one – don't forget to get ask for some nifty enamel colors so it matches the new knickers. A ship, a ship, my kingdom for a ship! I do hope you've been saving because even a sloop will cost you and takes days. Then there's decorating the house with all kinds of finery like a bed, a portrait of you and the first mate, perhaps a pillow for yer pet rat? It all has to be ordered and made.

It sounds simple enough… except well… you see…

Puzzlin' is the casual side of Y!PP and if all you ever want to do is jump in game, plunder a bit or help out at a shop that's just dandy. There is always work to be had. Then there's the hardcore, the RPG, the economy, the part I like to call F.U.N. Running a shop!

Plundering isn't just for fun, though the cries of your enemies as you strip their hold of basic commodities like hemp, sugar cane, iris root, nettle… I hear what you're thinking. Why on Poseidon's Blue Oceans would I want to plunder weeds? The shops! The shops need basic commodities to make supplies that go into making finished products. For most items this isn't a single-shop affair but a process of 3-4 shops before reaching completion.

That jaunty new blue hat you'll be wearing for the holiday ball will have started on any number of islands, gone to an Apothecary where – through the magic of the Apothecary puzzle – it will be made into blue dye; the weaver will buy the dye and apply it to the cloth made from hemp; and then the tailor will take the colored cloth and cut it into a jaunty new hat for the holiday ball. All of this completed in player owned and run shops.

On its face it sounds rather simple but the owner(s) must buy commodities/goods, pay labor, pay tax, pay rent on the stall, and ensure supplies are in stock and funds in place to receive orders all while making a profit. Underbidding the competitor is always a goal as well.

Wait, you mentioned carousing… something easy…

Aye. What with all this plundering and blacksmithing and swordfightin' what's a pirate to do fer' a spot o' fun? Err… ok swordfightin's fun but there's got to be more. Just visit the local Inn and any barkeep will tell you there's plenty. Ask him (or her) politely and he or one of the local Old Salt's will challenge you to cross swords, a game of Rumble (fisticuffs), or a Drinking match.

If you're feeling lucky or bolstered by a bit of drink you can challenge another player and wager on who will win. There are tables for multiplayer games. Be careful, some of those Brawlers may slap you about with a fish if they've been out to Atlantis lately!

If you check out the game tables you're likely to pick up a game of chance. There are many to choose from: Spades, Hearts, Texas Hold'Em, or Treasure Drop. If you've played Plinko you'll have some idea of Treasure Drop; but, the general idea is to drop coins that flip levers back and forth until your coins reach the bottom where they earn points. You want the most points.

It's hard not to find a tournament occurring – why just the other day I won me a snow pirate by drinking four other sea salts under the table! Most require no entry and nearly all are put on by players. And if'n you enter an Inn that appears to be abandoned for the moment, fear not; the tables are shared throughout the Archipelago. There'll be players enough once you sidle up to the table.

Why am I Green When Everyone Else is Yellow?

Ahh, so you've noticed that you're a greenie – other games call this n00b but other games don't have a nifty Piratey chat filter in place. As you play, your name will shift from green to yellow. It's an instant visual indicator of the relative newness of your character to the game; while in some games this might be considered a detriment, the Y!PP community is open and welcoming to new players. The need to man a 75-man War Brig negates rudeness rather quickly. Any able body will do.

However, more important than your relative newness is your Puzzle Standing and Experience. Unlike traditional RPGs, Y!PP has two titles instead of levels. The first is your Puzzle Experience which is based upon the amount of time you spend playing a puzzle. This will determine the difficulty of a puzzle during an encounter. The second is your Puzzle Standing which is relative to all other players on your archipelago or ocean.

Parlor games are when you're Standing – your ability relative to the rest of the players – first becomes obvious. A game of Texas Hold'Em may be restricted to players of Standings Able-Master only, the first four measures of ability; or, it may be restricted to Grand-Master to Ultimate, the final three. In doing so, it reduces the chances that players will be mismatched and lose their Pieces of Eight. Captains who have the option when hiring jobbers (pick-up players) for a crew may compare Standings if time allows or the mission is critical.

Here Be Dragons

And some missions are critical! Ships can be lost in the depths of Atlantis. The Brigand Kings and their Flotillas can test the mettle of the mightiest pirate. Only recently, the Cursed Isles with their Zombies and Skellies have been found – it takes a brave soul to enter those waters. Or, at least those with a Bravery Badge…

And if I've done my job right (or at least can write my way out of a paper sack) you should be on the edge of your seat yelling, “Free!? This game can't possibly be free!” Well, yes, it can and is. But it takes a bit of patience to play for free and there are options.

Doubloons, Pieces of Eight and All that Booty

Two Oceans (known as servers or shards on your common vanilla MMOG) are subscriber Oceans – Midnight and Cobalt. Each Ocean is distinct and separate. The islands on Midnight are not found on Cobalt and vice versa. For $9.95 USD (with discounts for extended purchases) all of the content is immediately available. Both Oceans are veteran Oceans with mature economies, players and regular events.

Viridian, Sage, Hunter, Opal (German language) and Malachite are all known as Doubloon Oceans and work from a unique dual-currency system. Each Ocean is unique from the other and the maturity of the economies and communities depends upon when each was opened, Malachite having been the last. [Ed. – A newly opened ocean is very difficult to get started. No shops, no ships, just ocean!] But, they run a true player economy.

When any new pirate begins his journey he learns the basics – a Duty Puzzle and how to Swordfight – is gifted a bandana to go with his pirate rags then made to walk the plank into the wild blue yonder with nothing but a few Pieces of Eight (POE) in his pockets. From here he can join the Navy and learn the various skills while earning his keep. It's slow, steady work but honest and earns an honest wage.

To help the new pirate earn more POE until such time as a Parlor Badge can be purchased, the Inn alternates days on which games of chance are open. Additional POE is available 4 days a week by working at shops until a Labor Badge can be afforded. And any Independent Pirate (that's you!) can become a Jobber (working non-crew member) aboard a pillage if the captain is hiring. More often than not, the split will be in your favor.

Once enough POE have been saved up, the newly minted will want visit the Doubloon Exchange where other pirates have placed Doubloons – coins purchased outside of the game at a rate of about $.22 USD a piece – on exchange for POE. Trade in saved POE for the Doubloons and you'll have yourself enough money to buy a Labor Badge: This allows you to take on a job at any 3 shops and earn money as long as there is work and money to pay you even while logged off for up to 3 days at a time. It's the best way to start bankrolling additional POE.

A Parlor Badge will open every game at the Inn all the time so you can lose that hard earned POE from laboring the moment you earn it. If you want to head out to Atlantis, you'll need a Bravery Badge as these are dangerous waters – but don't worry, the badge lasts for 30 days, not one trip.

Still, that Doubloon exchange is mighty important because the secret to the economy of Puzzle Pirates is that except for the most basic items – the basest sword, pants and shirt – everything costs both currencies. Want a better sword? Sure thing! But it will cost you both POE and Doubloons. And the sword will rust and wear out over time so I suspect you'll be wanting another one eventually. Of course, there are ways to reduce wear and tear by storing your fine items properly but furniture is a bit costly and again, it costs both currencies.

The dual currency feels a bit odd at first. Then you start to notice that the Ocean is always busy. Those with very little time tend to buy a lot of Doubloons and put them up for exchange; those with little money but a lot of time really fill out the community and trade the POE they earn for the Doubloons on the exchange. In the middle are those just their enjoying a bustling community that thrives.

Of Eggs and Islands and all things Creative

Of all that makes Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates unique I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the community. Each Ocean has its own particular personality – some do more barroom tournaments, some have more Blockades (huge battles to determine the governor of an island), others are so full of veteran players they love to brave the Flotillas and Davey Jones' locker.

But it is important to remember that the islands for these Oceans were created by the players using island editing tools given them from Three Rings Design. Every Spring there is an Egg Painting contest and the winning designs are placed in game. Games occurred during the Olympics; there's a Gingerbread Bake-off for the holidays – these are both Three Rings sponsored but the forums are overwhelmed with art, poetry, story, song and avatar contests.

It doesn't stop with the forums – Three Rings' offices are festooned with the art of the players and have been for the five years the game has been running. The community, having shown support for the game has received a support from the designers unlike any other and it shows in each handcrafted island or a simple note sent to the office with a single line written repeatedly, “I will not read the YPPForums During Work.”

As I look over this tome of a review and realize there are many features of this game I've not mentioned, most unique in its genre. But, it's free! What have you got to lose? 20 minutes to download on your PC, Mac or Linux-based PC! 2-3 nights with your friends and family (my kids LOVE this game) … What more could you ask for?

Oh… yes, eventually, MAYBE you can have a shoulder parrot but I'm going for the octopus.