Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #200:

Anatomy of a Game: Pirate Master

by Shannon Appelcline

Well, it's certainly been a while since I wrote a TT&T column here at Skotos. I'd always intended to end this column last year with #200, but then my last few columns on collective choice fell through, and so I never got to say my final goodbyes.

Though I remain with Skotos Tech and I continue actively running Skotos Games, RPGnet, and Xenagia, my central focus has turned away from game design, and that's the main reason that I had decided to bring TT&T to a close.

Of course I've continued writing in other venues. My current online columns are Gone Gaming, all about board games, and A Brief History of Game, a RPG history that I'm working on turning into a book (and which is on hiatus for several months as a result). I'm also thinking about starting a new science-fiction column for Xenagia. I hope you'll join me in those other arenas, even when I'm not here writing TT&T.

However every once in a while game design thoughts still invade my head, and so I've returned today to talk about the latest reality game show, Pirate Master.

Pirate Master was the newest reality game show by Mark Burnett, the producer of Survivor and I say was because it was unceremoniously asked to walk the plank last week, canceled mid-run, even though it was the middle of summer. It just doesn't get much lower than that.

The basic premise was a familiar melding of Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race. The standard episode went like this:

  • The players were divided up into two crews.
  • These two crews then contested to win a treasure.
  • If the captain's crew won, he stayed captain, otherwise the winning crew picked a new captain.
  • The captain got to select two mates.
  • The captain divided up the loot among the winners.
  • The captain and his two mates elected three players to get a "black spot".
  • The remaining crew members--other than the black spotted crew, the captain, and his mates--then voted one of those players out.
  • Meanwhile they also had the option to mutiny against the captain, which required the unanimous consent of the crew, plus the mates.
  • Later a royal pardon was introduced which could give one player immunity.

I'll talk about most of these topics at more length ...


The members of the Pirate Master crew were a somewhat odd lot. I got the general impression that they hadn't seen reality shows like Big Brother and Survivor before1. This left them in a particularly virgin state, where there had no preconceived notions about how to play the game.

This is a pretty sharp contrast to other reality shows. Survivor, for example, is now old and hoary enough that good players feel like they need to immediately form an alliance of 4 or 5 people. On Big Brother, on the other hand, there are set traditions about "pawns" (people put up for elimination who you don't intend to go) and "backdooring" (where you use the "veto" competition to make someone safe from elimination, and then put your real target up).

On Pirate Master, however, there were no existing traditions, and it was fascinating to see how they developed over the first several weeks of play. When the first captain and his mates were deposed, for example, there was a real danger that all three would immediately be blackspotted. This would have created a tradition of revenge, where a new captain immediately went after the entire set of previous officers. When the second captain was deposed, he tried to create a new tradition, where the captain was always blackspotted following his reign, to attempt to make captains accountable for their actions.

At least the latter tradition has held: the three former captains to date were all blackspotted the week after their reign, but only the last one was immediately sent home.

Overall it was an interesting social exercise that shows how traditions develop within games. You might never intend them, but players will introduce their own meanings to what happens in your game--and their own almost ceremonial ways of doing things.

(Which is also a reason to try and control the culture of your game during early weeks, which is something I'm sure I wrote about in some past article.)

It's All About the Money

I think the most fascinating element of Pirate Master is that it introduced real money into the game. Traditionally most of these elimination reality game shows give each player just one commodity: their vote. Pirate Master instead gave all the players real money, to the tunes of tens of thousands of dollars won each expedition.

They brought at least two notable elements into the game:

First, it introduced jealousy. The game show producers tried to set up the tradition that the Captain got half of the loot, his mates got some large fraction after that, and the crew the remnants. Most of the captains have offered more equal amounts to all the winners, but there were still emotions of greed and jealousy that created potential problems every week--and I count introducing real emotions into a game like that generally beneficial.

(The power of these emotions is shown by the fact that other reality game shows frequently touch upon them, even when not explicitly introducing them into the gameplay. For example, over in Survivor there's usually a car given awaytoward the end of the show, and the winner of that car has never gone on to win the game; likewise players who have money in the "real world" also tend to disguise that in the game lest it be counted against them.)

Second, it introduced barter. You now had something to trade rather than just votes. This came up very quickly, when the captain bribed one of the crew members to be his eyes and ears among the other players.

Money also was closely related the "royal pardon", showing how introducing a new element to a game can make everything more interesting. The pardon was a get-out-of-jail free card. If you were voted out when you had the pardon, you stayed and the next player went. However, the pardon had to change hands each week (until it was used). It changed hands through a blind bid auction. Each week anyone who wanted to made a secret bid for the pardon--prior to the black spots being given out--and the highest bidder got it, to use or else sell on the next week.

The pardon never actually got used before it expired, but nonetheless its presence was a constant focus in the game, and a constant source of game machinations. Often the person who held the pardon from the previous week became a target because the captain knew that was the one person who wouldn't be able to bid on it for the next week.

It was also the source of my favorite gameplay move, which happened in last week's episode: the captain withheld $10,000 from the share of the player who held the pardon, then bid that on the pardon. In doing so she paid out the fair share, but did it in such a way that no one else could get the pardon, and thus her picks for elimination were safe.

The Problems ... with Mutiny and Disconnects

Though Pirate Master had some innovative and interesting game design, there were problems too.

The first had to do with mutiny. As noted the crew could either vote against the black-spotted pirates or else vote to mutiny. However a mutiny could only come off if all the voting pirates agreed and the mates did too. This was a pretty impossible hurdle to leap, and I don't know how the game designers every thought it was possible. Through the first eight weeks of the game there wasn't a single vote for mutiny, and I don't think it was ever much of a consideration. It might as well not have been there.

It was on week eight that this shifted. As you'll recall before that there were three officers and three black-spotted pirates every week. On the first week that left 10 pirates to vote, and on the seventh week it left 3. Clearly this wasn't sustainable as the crew continued to drop in size.

So on week eight the game abruptly changed: mates were dropped and the number of black-spotted pirates dropped to two. This is overall a design that should continue to work until the end of the game. Mutiny is also more possible now that the mates are gone.

However, it created an inelegant discontinuity in the game. I really liked the group dynamics of a captain have two mates that he worked with, but I'm not sure it was worth the prize of the game abruptly shifting focus.


It was the money that really caught my attention in Pirate Master. It really speaks to the power of giving players not just one barter token, but many, and how much of a game can be made up purely of player interactions--if you just give them the power to do so.

1. I actually got the impression that many of them were recruited from a Ren Faire, a commune, or Berkeley, but that's neither here nor there.

[ <— #199: Collective Choice: Experimenting with Ratings | #201: Anatomy of a Game: The Amazing Evolving Race —> ]

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