Yes, but is it ART?

by Carol Townsend and Judy Stucky

What makes a good game? We all know one when we see it, or rather, when we play it. A good game is one we want to play again, often immediately after finishing the first game. A good game is one where we've had fun, where we might have learned something (either about the world or ourselves), or sharpened our skills in a particular area. Ultimately, whether or not a game is "good" depends on who's asking the question. A good game is often defined by personal taste and style preferences, and sometimes very little thought is given to game mechanics, playability, and other considerations. We know a good game when we play it, but how can we evaluate a game before purchasing, to know that our gaming dollars are being spent only on the best?

To start answering that question, let's look at a game I consider to be on the opposite end of the spectrum. A game that is, in my opinion, so bad that I should have sensed it long before opening the box. We're running a contest this month to gather your opinions of games we should all avoid and, in that vein, let me introduce you to one of (again, in my opinion) the world's worst games: Capt'n Pike's Cruising North America.1

Manufactured and distributed by IWS Enterprises of Hastings, MN, Capt'n Pike's Cruising North America is a nice enough looking game: The box is somewhat reminiscent of an old world treasure chest, and has a few bits of game information on the top cover. The box bottom is blank and there is no picture of the game in play anywhere on the box. I often want to see what I'm getting before I buy it; having a picture of the components on the box helps me know what I'm getting for my gaming dollars. The text on the outside includes the following paragraph:

"A fun and interesting board game with a nautical theme. Choose your vessel and cruise the West Coast, Gulf Coast, East Coast, Mississippi River system and the Great Lakes while answering nautical questions about weather, navigation, boat handling, marlinspike, seamanship, local points of interest and history. Great fun for all who have owned a boat and dreamed of cruising." 2

This paragraph should have told me right away that this game isn't for me. I'm not a boat owner, and I don't dream of cruising. I don't even know what a marlinspike is. 3 Cruising, by the way, is also defined on the box top:

"Cruising: A waterborne excursion involving one or more people. A cruise may be deemed successful if the same number of individuals who set out on it arrive (sic) at some form of dry land, with or without the boat." 4

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think most people would define the cruise at the start of the original Gilligan's Island TV show as a success. Perhaps the Skipper or Gilligan didn't read the rest of the box top where it says:

"Caution: The map contained herein should not be used for navigation." 5

At this, let's open the box and look at the map and the other game components. The very large square board (almost 24 inches on a side) shows a skewed Mercator projection of most of North America skewed because the map shows that Alaska is north of Montana6. There are no political boundaries shown, but the major rivers are well indicated. Nothing is labeled, so you can't learn that this river is the Rio Grande, or that one is the Ohio River. Not even the Great Lakes or the oceans are labeled. I assume this means that if you are playing this game, you are enough of a seaman to know your waterways without being told which is what. This is only part of what disappointed me about the game. What could have been a great tool to teach a bit of geography was wasted.

North America is divided up into five zones by color on the map. Each zone is basically one water system, though the Rio Grande is lumped in with the Mississippi zone, not the Gulf zone as I would have expected. There is a place on the board to put the 200 card deck (though only one spot, not a spot for the draw deck and another for the discard pile), and the board is surrounded by a coordinate system (1-21 on the East-West line and A-U on the North-South line). This coordinate system is not used in any way.

The game also comes with small motorboat figures as player pieces, chips that match the zone colors, and a die. The rest of the three-inch deep box is filler; they could have easily packaged this game in a one-inch box. This is one thing that annoys me about some games: the large box suggests there is a lot of game inside. When you open it, you're often disappointed. There is a one page direction sheet which attempts to get the player into a nautical mood by suggesting that the directions "are best understood if read aloud in your best pirate voice." 7 Aarrgggh mateys! Shiver me timbers and let's see what the gameplay is like!

Basically, the game consists of "cruising" to the five various zones and answering three questions correctly in each zone. The first player to do this wins. Simple enough as a game concept, but that's where the elegance of this game ends.

At the beginning of your turn, you roll the die. If you roll a 1 or 6, your turn ends without being able to answer a question. The game explanation for this is that the player's craft has experienced a problem and must fix it. There is nothing you can do to "fix it" except to lose your turn, which you will do one-third of the time you roll the die. Luckily, on a 2-5, you can choose to answer a question, either in the zone you're in, or a new one. Movement rules are non-existent: after the die roll, if your turn is continuing, you may choose to stay where you are or move to another zone. The rules state that "you may stay in each zone until you've answered three questions, or sail from zone to zone in random fashion."8 There is nothing about logically moving from zone to zone: you may jump from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes without going through the Mississippi River system if you wish.

What this does is make the map totally useless. You could simply have boxed up the questions and chips (in a much smaller box), and when one person answers 15 questions correctly, they win. The 3x5 sized cards have five questions and answers printed per card, and there is some correlation between question number and zone number, but this seems to be for convenience sake. Since it doesn't really matter where your ship is (you can move it at any time anywhere you want), then it doesn't really matter if you have a ship to move. The game could have been done much more cheaply (no board or ship tokens), or much more intelligently (invent movement rules that matter). They chose to do neither. As it is, it's a sad disappointment.

The questions aren't much better. They are either so difficult that only an avid boating enthusiast would have a chance at getting the question correct, have nothing to do with boating, or are so simple as to insult your intelligence. Here are a few sample questions9:

  • Early boats traveling the Erie Canal were powered how?
  • What's a boat's LOA?
  • The White House first had indoor plumbing installed in this year.
  • This is the second largest lake whose boundaries are completely contained within the U.S.
  • Near Mile 985, the House of Refuge was built in the 1870's for this purpose (it is now a museum). [note: the question does not say what waterway Mile 985 is on]
  • Where is amidships?
  • What is the distance from the Tennessee River to Mobile AL?
  • The cruise ship Explorer of the Seas has how many bars?
  • He was captain of the HMS Bounty and set adrift by his crew.
  • How tall is the St. Louis Arch?
  • What is the length of the Columbia River?
  • Gangster "Ma Barker" retired to this Windy City.
  • Heading south on the ICW and seven miles south of Norfolk Route #2 you travel through what? [note: ICW is the Intercoastal Waterway, a fact gleaned from other questions]
  • What is the greatest depth of Lake Superior?
  • T/F: In 1924 Ed. B Bremer, owner of Schmidt's Brewery, was kidnapped, held for ransom, and released unharmed.

Most questions are multiple choice, with some True/False and some "ya just gotta know it" questions (like the Ma Barker question). There seem to be an abundance of alcohol related questions (which should be a concern if one is mixing drinking and boating as seems to be the idea here) and many questions that have nothing to do with boating (White House plumbing, for example). When playtesting this game, most of the time people would say "of COURSE that's the answer... how could I have not known THAT?!?" in a rather sarcastic tone.

Whether or not you answer the question correctly, you only get one question per turn. Your turn is over after you've answered. This is a very frustrating part of the game; there should be some reward for answering a question, more than just getting a chip showing your score.

Finally, the game is too expensive. For $39.99 I expect to get a lot of stuff in my game. In this game, I get a useless game board, some questions, tokens and a die (I could have scrounged the tokens and die from any of a number of games already at home). Distributor information shows that a game store will only get the industry standard pricing (i.e., 50% off MSRP) when ordering 10 or more cases of the game (at 10 games per case). No game store is going to be able to afford to buy even a case of these games, as they will simply sit on the shelves.

Capt'n Pike's Cruising North America does what every game manufacturer should avoid. They have game parts included which are truly not integral to the game (map, ship tokens). Their trivia questions are either very trivial or very difficult, or have nothing to do with the subject matter. The game is too expensive for what you're getting. But mostly, the game just isn't fun. And that's what really counts in a game: if you had fun, it was worth it. If you didn't have fun, then whatever price you paid was too much.

Finally, just remember Capt'n Pike's personal guarantee: "If you are not delighted with my game, I will keel haul ya, clap ya in irons and throw ya in the hold!" 10 Gee, thanks, I'll pass...on the keel hauling and the game.

1: More information about the game can be found at
2: Box text, Capt'n Pike's Cruising North America, copyright 2003, IWS Enterprises.
3: I now know what marlinspike (or marlinespike) is. According to "The nautical term Marlinespike comes from the name given to a sharply pointed, iron pin that is used to splice line. The word is also used today to describe knots and bends used in nautical applications."
4: Box text, op. cit.
5: ibid.
6: You can see the map as the background picture of
7: Direction sheet, Capt'n Pike's Cruising North America, copyright 2003, IWS Enterprises.
8: ibid.
9: All questions are from Capt'n Pike's Cruising North America, copyright 2003, IWS Enterprises. Answers are withheld so that if someone actually plays the game they aren't given an unfair advantage from reading this article.
10: Box text, op. cit., and

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