Sets and Factions
In 2004, Wizkids launched the Pirates of the Spanish Main product line. The first set introduced three factions - Pirates, English, and Spanish. Spanish Main (SM) was the first set I bought and it is still my favorite set.
The second set came out in 2005 - Pirates of the Crimson Coast (CC). This set introduced the French, the Schooner ship type and forts. This is another classic set with a TON of great ships and crew.
Pirates of the Revolution (RV) came out in 2005 as well, featuring the introduction of the American faction. Revolution (RV) is generally considered the "best" set, with very fast ships and fantastic crew to match. RV also marked the first time Events were used as well as new Tins with varying artwork.
Pirates of the Barbary Coast (BC) was the last set from 2005. The Barbary Corsairs and their Galleys gave players the best "minor faction" to use.
Pirates of the South China Seas (SCS) is by far the hardest set to acquire, the first set released in 2006. The Jade Rebellion and their new ship type, Junks, highlighted the set.
Pirates of Davy Jones' Curse (DJC, 2006) easy to acquire and features the Cursed and their sea monsters. Wizkids also came out with the Special Edition Box.
Pirates of the Mysterious Islands (MI, 2006) featured the new Mercenary faction and introduced Submarines.
Pirates of the Frozen North (FN, 2007) saw the Vikings sail into battle aboard their Longships. Icebergs were featured as a new terrain option.
Pirates At Ocean's Edge (OE, 2007) was a large set that got produced in huge quantities, featuring a ton of different ship types as well as new types of sea monsters.
Pirates of the Caribbean (POTC, 2007) saw Wizkids partner with Disney to produce a movie-themed set, with only the Pirates and English as playable factions.
Rise of the Fiends (ROTF, 2008) signalled the decline of the Pirates game. New "pokeships" alienated much of the player base and the set was smaller than most that came before it, with an abundance of slow ships.
Fire & Steel (F&S, 2008) continued the trend of the game delving more into the fantasy aspects, with new ships equipped with movable steel blades and huge flamethrowers.
Savage Shores (SS, 2008) became the last set of Pirates CSG. The set was only the size of half of a normal set (just over 50 game pieces), released in Scavenger Pack boxes instead of the normal game packs.
Why was Savage Shores so small? Wizkids intended to release Return to Savage Shores soon afterwards, but they were shut down by Topps only a few days after Savage Shores was released in the heat of the financial crisis. Here is a spreadsheet for RtSS.
Factions in Pirates CSG
In Pirates CSG there are 10 different factions, which are also referred to as nations or sometimes countries. The "major factions" are the Big 6 - English, French, Spanish, Pirates, Americans, and Cursed. The other four factions are generally known as the "minor factions" because they were (mostly) only around for one set and therefore don't have nearly as many ships and crew as the Big 6.
Within the Big 6 there is a Big 4 (English, French, Spanish, Pirates) and a Big 5 (Big 4 plus the Americans). This isn't too important, but the Cursed are not nearly on par with the Big 5 and the Americans aren't as strong as the Big 4. I've ranked the factions in the Rankings section.
The English are the best fighting faction in the game, reminiscent of the real-life Royal Navy. They were introduced in the first set and therefore have more ships than most other factions, giving them a ton of options. They do have some good gold runners, but it's much easier to find English gunships. They also have a lot of named crew options, making them a powerful force to be reckoned with.
The French are one of the most balanced factions in Pirates, excelling at both grabbing gold and sinking enemy ships. They are similar to the Spanish in this regard, although the French prefer boarding more than most other nations.
The Spanish, like the English, have been around since the first set and are one of the best factions to play as. I find them to be better at getting gold than fighting, although they do both very well. The Spanish also have a lot of cool crew and a large number of ships that give +1 or +2 gold bonuses, which is very valuable in both small and large games.
Pirates is the name of the game, so it should come as no surprise that the designers made the Pirates the best faction. They have more ships and great named crew than any other faction. The Pirates often have ships that are similar to those of other nations, yet they have them at a lower cost. The Pirates are the best faction for running gold and one of the best fighting factions.
The Americans got off to a strong start in RV and received more great ships in BC and SCS. Although America is one of the best fighting factions, they lack fast ships with large cargo holds that can grab gold. SS partly made up for this deficit, but America could still use some better gold runners. American ships are often more expensive than similar ships of other nations, making them the hardest faction to play as out of the Big 5 (the 5 factions discussed so far).
The Cursed are one of the hardest factions to play. Their ships are typically slow and expensive with large cargo holds. Speed is huge in Pirates CSG, and the Cursed have a need for speed. There are some exceptions, but most of their ships struggle to keep up with the gold ships from other factions. The Cursed are one of the most interesting factions when you consider all of their sea monsters, some of which are quite playable and a lot of which are not. They also possess a high number of expensive and devastating named crew, although most of them are better used in higher point games (80+) than the standard 40 point format.
The Barbary Corsairs were only featured in one set (BC), but it was a grand opening as they received no less than 38 ships in that set alone, partly because BC was the only set that didn't feature the Pirate faction. The Corsairs are the best of the "minor factions", with a lot of great gold ships and a fair number of solid support ships that can fight adequately.
The Jade Rebellion was the feature faction in the South China Seas set, much like the Corsairs in Barbary Coast. They're better at fighting than running gold, but they're solid at both. They don't have a high quantity of ships, but fortunately they make up for it with high quality ships and without doubt the best set of named crew of any of the minor factions.
The Vikings were only present in the Frozen North set, and they're almost exclusively a brawler, with many slow ships and the powerful Longship keyword, which gives you two shots per mast instead of one. The Vikings suffer from slow speeds, small ships (nothing bigger than 3 masts), and a lack of good named crew. They are still a dangerous foe, but not the biggest threat to win the game.
The Mercenaries (or Mercs) are the least playable faction in Pirates. The Mercenary keyword prevents a ship from docking at its own home island (HI), which severely cripples their gold game. At least one canceller is needed to make a pure-Mercenary fleet viable, unless you use one of the two ten masters that came out in Savage Shores. These huge ships have the Dories keyword, letting them unload cargo if they're within S of their home island. Beyond their flaws, the Mercenaries are an average faction with a fair share of solid gunships and interesting named crew.