Dead Men Tell No Tales is Back from the Dead
The sheer number of components required to package any board game means that it’s simply not cost effective for publishers to constantly produce if they can’t guarantee the game won’t immediately sell. For that reason, games often go in and out of print and can disappear sometimes for years at a time. The case of Dead Men Tell No Tales, however, is a tad different. It was originally published in 2015 under Minion Games. But in 2019, the founder of Minion Games, James Mathe, passed away, and Minion Games fell into probate. Games produced by Minion quickly became unavailable, and, with ownership tied up in probate court, there was no hope of seeing any of their games back on the market. It took several years, but it was finally resolved, and in 2021, Renegade Game Studios released a reprint of Kane Klenko’s Dead Men Tell No Tales.
In Dead Men Tell No Tales players take on the role of pirates ransacking the Skelit’s Revenge while it’s consumed by flames. To find the ship’s loot, players blindly wander through the burning vessel, encountering dangerous Skeleton Crew swashbucklers, and hordes of deckhands they’ll need to dispose of, all while flames rise and gunpowder kegs explode around them. Of course, it doesn’t do any good to just find the treasure. After dodging all manner of flame and flintlock, players will have to do it again to escape with the valuable treasure they’ve looted.
Dead Men Tell No Tales has a simple structure but presents a lot of complex decisions on each turn. To survive long enough to succeed, players need to keep the intensity of fires, number of deckhands, and explosions under control by spending actions to reduce risk as much as possible without becoming fatigued. On a player’s turn, they resolve three different steps before passing to the next player. Those steps are:
- Search The Ship – The active player draws a new room tile from the top of the stack and places it, ensuring that the doors connect to all the adjacent tiles. As part of this step, a token is drawn from the bag to determine what is inside the new room, be it Skeleton Crew, Trapdoor, or Guard/Treasure token.
- Take Pirate Actions – With the exception of Lydia Lamore who has six, each Pirate has five action tokens that are spent to resolve actions.
- Walk- The default move action. The active player moves their Pirate one Room Tile. Fatigue does not increase by default when Pirates are moving. During a Walk movement, Pirates gain Fatigue equal to the difference of the fire dice values when moving into a room with a higher number.
- Run- Allows Pirates to move up to two Room Tiles instead of one. However, running is more strenuous and adds two Fatigue in addition to normal Fatigue movement rules.
- Fight Fires- The active Pirate reduces the value of the fire die in their room by one point for each action point spent on this action. If the die is lowered to below one pip, the fire is extinguished and the die is removed from that room.
- Eliminate a Deckhand- Similar to fighting fires, the active player can remove a Deckhand token from their current room for each action point they spend. Unlike fires, Deckhands can be removed from rooms adjacent to the player.
- Pick up a Token- To pick up a token on the board, whether it’s grog, a cutlass, or coveted treasure Pirates need to spend and action to pick it up from the Room. It does not take any actions to set the items down.
- Rest- Spend an action token to reduce Fatigue build up by two points.
- Increase Your Battle Strength- Pirates can increase their combat strength by one point for each action token spent on this action. Once the bolstered attack is used in combat, the Pirate’s combat strength is reduced back to zero.
- Swap Your Item Card- At the start of the game, each player is randomly dealt a starting item card. The remaining cards are placed face-up on the table for all players to see. On their turn, players can spend an action token to swap the item in their possession with one of the face-up cards in the supply.
3. Skelit’s Revenge – The last part of a player’s turn can be a little disheartening. After players spend their actions making progress against growing threats, they draw a card from the Skelit’s Revenge deck. Each of these cards depict a colored die and potentially additional icons. When drawn, players increase the strength of every fire die on the board that matches both the color and number depicted on the Revenge card. If the card has a dice without any pips on it, a new dice is placed in Room Tiles where the fire dice was previously removed. The odds of there being a match early in the game is low, but will become progressively more likely as the map grows larger.
As soon as one player completes all three steps their turn concludes and the next player does the same. With each turn, new ship tiles, growing fire, and emerging crew increase the risk to players. In order to succeed, players will need to coordinate their efforts and action points to avoid the situation from spiraling out of control. Dead Men Tell No Tales adds a cooperative feature I haven’t seen in other games. If a player doesn’t use all of their action tokens, the unused ones are passed to the next player to use on theirs. It’s a simple addition, but improves the experience of the game by giving players greater flexibility on how they want to plan their turns as a group. We often find ourselves passing action tokens to whomever is in control of Jade or Crimson Flynn whose abilities give them strong influence over Deckhands and Fire Levels.
Despite its visual appearance, Dead Men Tell No Tales’ fire die adds a puzzle element to the experience. Every turn requires players evaluate where they move, the impact on Fatigue, and have to plan in anticipation that the board state will grow significantly worse with each Skelit’s Revenge. Whenever the Fire Level of a Room Tile reaches six, it explodes. Under most circumstances the only immediate effect of an explosion is advancing the explosion tracker but there’s a number of Room Tiles with explosive Powder Kegs in them which can quickly cause things to spiral out of control. Powder Kegs explode and raise the Fire Level of an adjacent room by one, potentially creating a chain reaction. Any tokens in a room that explodes are immediately destroyed, even if they are precious game winning treasure tokens. On the seventh explosion, the game immediate ends in player failure.
If handled improperly, fire level can quickly bring the game to an end very quickly. Then again, Deckhands, Fatigue, and even treasure can cause players to meet their doom if approached too recklessly. While the only way to win is to escape the burning ship with looted treasure, there are six different ways to lose:
- Trapped – If players ever need to place a new Room Tile but there aren’t any available doors to connect it to, they are considered trapped and lose the game.
- Explosion – If the explosion tracker ever reaches the seventh space, the Skelit’s Revenge blows up, taking the Pirates with it.
- Overwhelmed- When a new Deckhand needs to be added to the board but there aren’t any remaining in the supply, the Pirates are overwhelmed by the Skelit’s crew and are defeated.
- No More Pirates- When a pirate is Fatigued, they are defeated and removed from the game. The player then chooses a new Pirate from the game’s supply. If ever there aren’t any pirates remaining to choose from, the crew is too exhausted to continue and fails.
- Untimely Death – Despite their reputation, these Pirates function as a close knit crew and won’t leave anyone behind. If a Pirate dies while returning to the dinghy after all treasure has been looted the whole crew loses.
- Lost Treasure – It’s possible for explosions to destroy too many Treasures, not leaving enough behind for the Pirates to loot.
Dead Men Tell No Tales’ fire die and Deckhands feel a lot like Pandemic, so much so that I struggle t not draw comparisons between the two. Both games feature a spreading threat that needs to kept under a certain value or risk explosive growth. In Pandemic virus tokens are placed in various cities and cause an Outbreak if there are too many tokens in one city. In Dead Men Tell No Tales fire die that explore if there are too many in one room. There can’t be too many Deckhands on board, and you can’t do too much at once or risk exhausting yourself.
We recently reviewed Atlantis Rising, which replaced Pandemic in our collection on the basis that we found worker placement a more interesting primary game mechanic than set collection. I find myself pleasantly surprised to say that Dead Men Tell No Tales will be sitting right next to Atlantis Rising in the WMTG game collection. I really enjoy the sense of exploration and discovery while rushing through the ship. There’s a constant sense of rising danger that can only be reduced with effective teamwork.
You know that the Skelit’s Revenge isn’t going to survive so running through and grabbing what you can before you go down with the ship. We played on the easy and normal difficulties and it was always a tense game where every decision could mean failure so no decisions is ever without consequence. You could make the valid argument that there’s too much to keep track of for a game of this weight, but I make the case that should be consider a strength of Dead Men Tell No Tales. It’s a challenging game that at easier difficulties makes for the perfect next step up from introductory games. At higher levels of difficulty settings, it can be an absolutely savage challenge fit for the most veteran of players.
Overall, I really like the components provided. Tiles and player boards are thematically illustrated and durable; two details rarely found at Dead Men Tell No Tales‘ price point. I find that to get both of those qualities, I’m typically paying Kickstarter prices for over-produced games that I end up playing less often than I have with this one. Dead Men Tell No Tales is easy to find at only $40.
Despite how much I love the artistic value of the components, they aren’t without their flaws. The dial on the Fatigue boards effective and look and work fantastically, but returning five of these double thick boards to the box can be a challenge. They do fit, but it can be tight, even with the assistance of the provided insert. My biggest gripe however is the tile artwork. It’s wonderfully detailed and thematic and is filled with fiery orange explosions. Unfortunately, the light in the doorways that indicates where doorways are uses the same color palette as the fire illustrations.
Since the artwork is so busy, it’s not as easy as I would like to identify where doors are. To solve for this, there are two blue pips printed on either side of the door to help identify, but even they can get lost in the busy artwork. I do love how thematically illustrated Dead Men Tell No Tales is and the artwork serves the function, just not as well as it could.
But that’s me nitpicking. Even with my favorite games, like Betrayal at House on the Hill, Nemesis, and Gloomhaven, I want to make sure I’m highlighting both their strengths and weaknesses. With Dead Men Tell No Tales, if I didn’t share my my small complaints on the components, I really wouldn’t have any negatives to highlight to balance out our review. So when I say I’m nitpicking, I’m really nitpicking.
Dead Men Tell No Tales provides players with a delightfully challenging game without being inapproachable to new players. Despite its complexity, the round structure is easy to understand and all the pieces fall into place after the first couple of rounds, making it easy for new players the get comfortable with their first game. The number of treasures players need to retrieve scales nicely with the number of players without increasing the difficulty. Players can choose the difficulty setting they want regardless of how many people are at the table.
If the base game didn’t already have enough moving parts for you, the Kraken expansion will finish the job for those who want more.The Kraken Expansion adds, you guessed it, a kraken! The expansion can be added to any configuration of Dead Men Tell No Tales and essentially adds a boss battle into the mix. The Kraken phase is added to the end of a player’s turn where a card is drawn from its deck, indicating how the Kraken will move or attack. Since the Kraken’s powerful tentacles can easily devastate the players’ crew, it’s only natural they get a few additional tools fight back. No pirate game is complete without a set of cannons and these handy pieces of iron pack a mean punch.
Yet, as fun as it is (and I love the cannons), I wouldn’t call it an essential expansion. There’s already so many moving pieces in the base game that unless you’re really familiar with Dead Men Tell No Tales, adding The Kraken can push the experience over the line from hectic to outright too much to enjoy.
Honestly, I didn’t expect to like Dead Men Tell No Tales. In recent years, my taste in board games has steered ever more toward heavier and more complex games. Until it was on the table, I couldn’t see how Dead Men Tell No Tales would meet my expectations, but instead I found it surpassed them. It provides a challenging and rewarding cooperative experience without being difficult to learn. The vast number of crises to keep under control can feel overwhelming, but the methods of doing so are easy to understand, making it a friendly experience for new players. It’s a shame that I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy Dead Men Tell No Tales when it first released seven years ago, but it’s better late than never. Dead Men Tell No Tales will be taking it’s rightful place in the WTMG Board Game Collection, right next to Atlantis Rising.
Two, three, and four.
2 – 5 players
60 minutes, 90 with the Kraken expansion.
Dead Men Tell No Tales is an approachable game for new players. Since there are so many mechanics to manage, it might be too much for people who are entirely new to the hobby, but it’s a good next step for anyone who has some introductory board game experience.
Components are delightfully thematic and beautifully illustrated. However, they’re so detailed that it undermines some of the functionality.
Where treasures end up on the board is simply luck of the draw so players will have to focus on exploring the ship no matter how familiar they are with the game. For that reason, it can’t be “solved” and will always be able to offer a challenge. As players become more familiar with Dead Men Tell No Tales they can choose to increase the difficulty for a more interesting experience, providing a high replay value.
A copy of Dead Men Tell No Tales was provided by the publisher.