I've played a number of multi-player games in my days. Most of them text based, but I've watched over the shoulder on others and have been rather aware of their comings and goings and some of the problems each have had. Puzzle Pirates strikes me as something that builds off of those and opens up multi-player online games to a demographic that typically does not play such games.

Back in the day, there was Ultima Online. It was the first of the MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game). To some extent (the interface and some of the core concepts), this is what Puzzle Pirates reminds me the most of (wait! Walk away now! It is much better than Ultima Online). One of the things that Ultima Online had was a faucet drain economy.

In such an economy, the game has faucets of resources and things that drain them - you ran out of arrows and had to buy new ones, which came from a fletcher, who had to buy wood from someone chopping wood. The issue here, is that someone had to be chopping wood (and pay $10 a month to chop wood, or other menial tasks). In this setup, wasted arrows were a drain, and the forest was a faucet. Other drains could include derogation of equipment, taxes, food, potions, and anything else that is consumable.

One problem that MMORPGs and similar games have is player killing. Player killing can be from actually killing the person the game and stealing their equipment to more a more subtle but none the less harmful of ridicule or harassment of other players in the game.

So, Puzzle Pirates...

Puzzle Pirates is built on top of puzzles, similar to those found at PopCap Games or Yahoo! Games, and a few that are more classic. All tasks in Puzzle Pirates are games (as opposed to UO above where attacking or harvesting was a matter of clicking on something and waiting) and thus much more fun.

By moving away from swords and spells to puzzles, Puzzle Pirates has been accepted by people who wouldn't think of playing Diablo but quite enjoy playing simple games. Most notably, this demographic includes a substantial number of women (compared to the male dominated world of most MMORPGs).

A clan type system (called Crews and Flags) is built into the game. A player belongs to a crew, a crew belongs to a flag. Crews have advancement up from cabin boy to senior officer (there can only be one captain in a crew) - decide how to divvy up the money from a trip and who makes the decisions (captain, captain and senior, or all officers). Flags own islands and have rivalries.

There is an emphasis upon player owned - players own clothing, weapons, ships, businesses (to make clothing, weapons, ships, and buildings). This economy is funded by going and foraging for supplies on far off islands and raiding computer controlled brigands. Drains on the economy include equipment degrading over time, hiring computer players (filling spots in the ship), taxes, shooting cannon balls, and losing to computer controlled players in battles.

Player killing is not something that happens. One doesn't lose anything not wagered in a sword fight. In ship to ship combat, if the two flags are at war, it will be possible (not available at the time of this writing) to sink the other ship (a rather devastating hit to the crew), but picking on easy crews (never single players - something classically done by player killers) leads to an invincible and very difficult computer controlled ships pummeling you. Harassment is dealt with in game, and while there are occasional innuendos (people love joking about (cannon)balls - "Captain, we're all out of balls!", "well, load your own then") the environment remains fairly clean. All experienced players realize that new players are the lifeblood of the economy and experiences such as those mentioned on Ultima Online are rare (one guy got a talking to from the captain when he made fun of the lack of another member of the crews ability when learning a puzzle).

Not wanting to stereotype, but one of the things that I have seen is a bunch of female characters standing in the tailor's shop trying on different clothes (I recall a remark "it has a nice shape to it, but it makes me look like a circus tent"). Guys are a bit vain too and some crews have colors that they all wear (white with red trim).

The Games

Similar to Dr. Mario, sailing is a matter of dropping pairs of items onto the board and having 4 in a rows match up. Matching multiple four in a rows is the key to performing well.
Bilge Pumping
A game similar to Bejeweled, this pumps water out of the bottom of the boat. If there is too much water in the boat, sailing is not effective
This game involves placing pentominos in a hole. As the ship takes damage in sea battles, the carpenter's job becomes very important. Failing to fix the holes allows bilge water to accumulate.
Most similar to the game Chu Chu Rocket for the Dreamcast. Each gunnery station is responsible for loading and cleaning four guns. Each gun must be loaded with powder, wadding, and a cannon ball in that order. After a gun is fired or if it is misloaded, using a cleaner will clean it up. The challenge here is that each of the items is bouncing around the hold (and off each other). In combat, cleaning and loading guns fast is needed.
Navigation is made up of two parts, open sea sailing and sea combat. Open sea sailing deals with three rings that can be selected and rotated. Stars are droping down and taking places on the rings. The goal is to match up stars with positions on the rings or in groups of or more. The later game is 'powered' by the sailing game (people doing well in sailing give the navigator more options) and the gunnery game (being able to fire cannons) and is divided up into turns where each ship moves and shoots or tries to grapple with the other ship.
Sword fighting
Similar to Toki Toki Boom on Yahoo Games, this is a game with pairs of blocks in four colors fall down. Placing these squares in shapes makes for a 'fused' piece. Occasionally, breaker pieces also fall down and when matched with the colors send pieces over to an opponent's board. Fused pieces send large blocks, unfused send single blocks. The type of blocks sent is determined by the weapon that you are using. It is possible to gang up on one player and is a useful tactic in sea battles.
The drinking game is similar to Alchemy and involves placing similar colored or shaped blocks next to each other and controlling a line. This game is not too often played compared to sword fighting and is occasionally used to pass the time on ship or in the pub.
At the time of this writing, there is only one crafting game available - brewing. This game involves moving bubbles together in lines. Clear bubbles are the best, black are the worst. It is possible to throw out a row of bubbles (black). The direction the bubbles may move is constrained by the color of the bubble and its adjacent bubble.

All in all, this is a well designed game with many subgames that mixes the worlds of MMORPG with single player and multiple player games.

The game itself can be downloaded and played for free, though as a free/trial player, you are not capable of getting the best looking clothes, more effective weapons, or advancing much in rank. The monthly cost is about $7-$10 (depending on payment plan).

As a Y!PP pirate of about a year, I feel compelled to at least expand the puzzle list up there. (Disclaimer: Puzzle Pirates, not unlike, say, StepMania, exists in that sort of indefinite post-beta phase. I can't speak for other MMORPGs, but the game structure is volatile, and new puzzles can pop up at any new release. The core of the game is more-or-less constant, though.)

Sailing: Yes, it's like Dr. Mario, and yes, rows/columns of 4 score. (I use "score" loosely - one of the overriding policies of Y!PP is "no numbers". Experience and standing are given by vague terms, not absolute stats, for example.) The important part, however, is the target platforms. Patterns of the 3 colors will appear - a triangle, for example, with one color at the hypotenuse, one at the right angle and one between the midpoints, or a 2x2 in a checkerboard pattern - and these affect the performance of the ship the most. Targets are also the only thing that contribute to navigation in battle.

Bilge pumping: Is really more similar to Tetris Attack, just with reverse gravity. You can only switch horizontally, but you're not constricted to switching toward a 3-in-a-row. There are also 3 special blocks - a crab that stays put until it rises above the water line (which rises and falls as the bilge level itself does), a puffer fish that takes out a 3x3 group of blocks, and a jellyfish that takes out every block that matches the one you switched it with.

Navigation (non-battle): Not only increases the effectiveness of the other ship puzzles, but allows the navigator to permanently memorize the paths between islands (towns, as it were).

Swordfighting: "The type of blocks sent..." is kind of misleading. The shape and size of what you send is merely dependent on what you break. Unfused blocks send over half the volume you broke; fused blocks send over the same volume, and nearly always in the same shape you broke. (Gravity-type combos double, triple, etc. the effect.) The colors that make up that garbage depend on the sword you wield - more expensive swords have more intricate patterns that don't lend themselves to providing easy-to-clear garbage. (For example, the foil - the default, green, fresh off the island sword, pretty much sends 3 columns of solid color, with the occasional 4th color to make things interesting.)

Rumble: An alternate to swordfighting. More or less a 2-base version of Puzzle Bobble or Snood or all those marble bouncing games. Different weapons ("bludgeons") affect attacks the same way different swords do. The addition: if you hold your firing button for a second, then hit a cluster that would break otherwise, the cluster won't break and the fired marble will stay glowing. Do a bunch of these and break the first one for a better combo.

Drinking: Somewhat recently had "mugs" added, which give bonuses to the players depending on certain events. For example, extra turns when you complete a row, or points when an opponent completes a row you were part of.

Card games: Three other recent additions, all played the same as their meatspace equivalents. Hearts is Hearts, Spades is Spades and Poker is Texas Hold 'Em.

Crafting: There are now 3 crafting puzzles, and the hope is for a puzzle for every shop. Distillery ("brewing") is pretty much as m_turner said. Shipwrighting involves switching blocks on a 5x5 grid to match a set of patterns associated with different ship parts, and Alchemistry (not to be confused with PopCap's "Alchemy") involves manipulating a set of pipe segments to make a path between tanks of potions (in each primary color, at least as was taught in elementary school) and empty potion jars at the bottom.

Other minutiae:

There are two kinds of servers, or Oceans. Subscriber oceans cost US$10 per month, with no limits; Doubloon oceans cost no commitment to buy, but use a micropayment system (the doubloons) on top of the normal currency.

The nature of the trial period has changed. Originally unlimited puzzling (with exception of gunning and navigation, which are only available to certain grades of crewmembers, of which non-subscribers cannot be a part) but only 10 logins available, Y!PP now allows for unlimited logins, but limited puzzling, only allowing one or two days a week per puzzle. For example, outside of battle, you can only swordfight on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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