THE LEGOFICATION OF LIFE
When I was growing up, Lego was much simpler. There were no big movie tie-ins with Star Wars and Harry Potter, no video games such as Lego Batman and Indiana Jones, no such thing as Bionicles, and certainly no Legoland Windsor. The height of sophistication was Lego Technic - a way for the older boys amongst us to build something substantial but still feel like we were playing with our ageless childhood favourite. I now have kids of my own, and the Lego empire seems to have grown exponentially since my childhood days. As such, it's no real surprise that the Danish block-maker has diversified into family games. On a summer trip to Legoland, my daughter spied "Pirate Code" (Catalogue No. 3840) in the main shop, but rather than pay the £16.99 asking price, I used my best negotiation skills to delay the purchase until I had a chance to find out if it was available cheaper elsewhere. My instincts paid off, and a couple of days later it arrived from Amazon for a much more reasonable £9.99.
BUILD IT TO PLAY IT
Lego's games have a predictable twist - you actually have to build them to play them. Opening the box, I was in equal parts impressed and dismayed that there were around 250 parts to assemble, including the six-sided coloured (rather than numbered) dice. What I hadn't noticed in the shop (or at the time of on-line purchase) was that the game is marked as suitable for ages 8+, so a little parental intervention was needed to put the game together for our 5 year old daughter. Initial construction took around twenty minutes, and I must admit, I enjoyed every minute of it. A detailed pictorial instruction booklet is provided in the box (in addition to the multilingual game rules). The good news is, when you have done it once, the game can be partially dismantled and stored very quickly. Efficient disassembly instructions are printed on the inside sides of the box.
EVEN PIRATES HAVE RULES
Once constructed, the game is shaped like a big X-shaped cross, accommodating two to four players. At the centre is a skeleton pirate Lego figure with a cutlass, standing on a pedestal. Each colour-coded end of the cross has a pirate chest and a "play" area just in front of it. The game is relatively simple. Each player takes four different coloured "gems" (there are six colours available) from the gem chest, and then sets a secret code inside their own pirate chest, which the other players must decode. Play starts with the youngest player, who rolls the coloured die, taking one gem that is the same colour as he has rolled, and a second of his choosing. He can then guess at either one player's code with both gems, or split them across two players.
FIND THE TREASURE
The area in front of each player's pirate chest has a coloured "guessing" area, a gold "solved" area, and a brown "discard" area to the side, each of which have four slots. The idea is to get both the colour and the sequence right. If the colour is correct, but the sequence is wrong, the gem stays in the coloured guessing area. If both are correct, it goes in the gold solved area. If neither are correct, the gem is moved to the brown discard area. Play moves clockwise, and the winner is the person whose code remains unbroken for the longest time.
Lego suggest a number of different variations, the most useful of which (for us at least) is a quicker version of the game where you guess at three gems instead of four. The average (unaltered) game takes between 15 and 25 minutes to play, so the abbreviated format tends to suit our 5 year old, who can be easily frustrated and lose patience if things drag on (and she's not winning!). Another variation is what Lego call "Skeleton Bonus" where you get three guesses if you roll the colour white on the die - you place a single gem in the hand of the skeleton pirate standing at the centre of the board before play starts, and then replace it each time it is removed.
MORE HIT THAN MISS
The game is easy enough to play, and the concept is also simple enough for younger players to grasp. Even though our daughter is a few years short of the suggested age, she gets a lot of fun out of playing, although I suspect at least part of her excitement is down to being able to spend some quality time with both of her parents. The only niggles -minor ones at that - are that the gems are a little fiddly to manipulate, the red and orange gems are difficult to tell apart once they are secreted in the player's pirate chest, and because of the nature of Lego, some of the bits can come apart f you're not careful while playing. Lego actively encourage you to experiment with the set up and the rules to find what work best for you, and this encourages imagination, inventiveness and adds to the fun of the game. There is even a web site where you can upload your "house" rules and see how others have adapted the game for themselves (see games.lego.co.uk).
A major bonus is that all of the Lego colourful "bricks" included in the game are compatible with all other pirate themed Lego products (and Lego generally), so if worst comes to worst, you've bought 250 Lego bits for £9.99 with the added bonus of a game on top. Obviously, if its primary use is as a game, then you will need to keep the components separate! To add to the fun, we bought a couple of small Lego kits (around £5 each) in the pirate range to enlarge the playing area, add some more characters, and generally enhance the experience of playing (and building) the game. This is an advantage that few (if any) other board games can offer in terms of variety and longevity.
"X" MARKS THE SPOT
Pirate Code is essentially an updated and simplified version of Mastermind. The game differs from its venerable granddaddy in two basic ways - it builds in an element of luck (the colour you roll dictates at least one of your gem choices) and it allows players to both make a code, and break other players codes. Although the game concept may not be original, the uniqueness of Pirate Code lies in its "Legofication". By marrying together a classic board game with the much-loved brick-building format, Lego are on to a winner. It represents excellent value for money if you can find it for a tenner. The suggested age of 8+ is about right for independent play, but kids as young as five can participate in a family version of the game with a little help.
© Hishyeness 2010