A Boardgame Legend Passes

A few days ago, legendary boardgame designer Richard H. Berg passed away. It is hard to overstate the impact this man has had on games as a hobby – 189 published games and expansions on boardgamegeek speaks for itself. He was a singularly ambitious boardgame designer, and continually pushed the boundaries of the hobby. I remember him best for the Great Battle of History games, which I enjoyed quite a bit, as well as Successors and Pax Romana, but I’d like to talk about another of his designs in this post.

Over the years, I’ve received many mails comparing Pirates and Traders to Sid Meier’s Pirates! I’m flattered by that comparison, of course – SMP is one of the seminal computer games developed and Sid Meier is a legend in his own field. But the two heaviest influences on Pirates and Traders initially actually came from two other games – Pieter Spronck’s Space Trader and Richard H. Berg’s Blackbeard. The former for the basic idea that some kind of trading game with combat might make sense on my just-bought Android device; the latter for the idea that it doing something with Caribbean pirates would be more fun than yet another plain Space Trader clone and that doing this in a turn-based format could work.

Boxart from Blackbeard (image from BGG, courtesy of kvn299)

I played Blackbeard a deal back in my university days, both as a multiplayer game and as a solo game (at which it works very well – possibly better than as a multiplayer game, actually). It helps if you realize that I’m a huge history geek and all if his games are heavy with historical chrome. And while I don’t always agree with his interpretations, it is always entertaining to examine how those interpretations inform his designs. He was also an interesting – albeit occasionaly caustic – on-line presence on Consimworld (and later Boardgamegeek). And while I’d rate his long-time collaborator Mark Herman as probably the most influential game designer I know of (certainly for me, personally), Berg is just so prolific a game designer that anyone who’s played a lot of board wargames, has probably run into one or more of his games. I certainly played many of them – and they invariably shaped my thinking of game design as a result.

Map from Blackbeard (image from BGG, courtesy of kvn299)

Blackbeard informed a huge number of the choices I made in the original design of Pirates and Traders. The boardgame leans towards a more realistic and gritty take on the pirate’s life, and the original Pirates and Traders was brutal as a result. Anyone who think’s the current game is difficult, should try version 1.0 of the P&T – it was far worse. Merchant ships were nasty and it was very easy to die in the first few years of gameplay. The first set of trade goods was inspired by the list in the design notes of the board game. The first map was also heavily inspired by the ports available in Blackbeard (although that game has a hex map, and P&T was more region-based). While P&T is by no means a clone of the boardgame in terms of game mechanics, I tried very hard to emulate that “gritty” feel that I had when playing the boardgame.

It wasn’t necessarily a 100% success, in that respect. Blackbeard is a brutal, brutal game to play (you’re liable to have your career cut short very easily), and I eventually realized that this might not actually be ideal for a – relatively – heavy role-playing game for mobile devices. And of course, over the years the game has developed massively away from the early, simpler gameplay. Nevertheless – without Blackbeard – Pirates and Traders would probably never have come to be in its current form. So if you enjoy the game, next time you play the game, have your imaginary buccaneers fire a three-volley salute for Richard H. Berg: boardgame designer extraordinaire.