Yo ho ho and a bottle of fun: Sid meier’s pirates
By: Katelyn Vause
If you’re a fan of old school flight simulators or the Civilization series, the name Sid Meier probably rings a bell. A pioneer in the world of computer games, Meier has an impressive catalogue of titles credited to his name, with Sid Meier’s Pirates being one of them.
To be clear, there have been three versions of Pirates, one from the 1980s, one from the 1990s, and one from the 2000s. The version I played is from the 2000s, though I would love to be able to play the two preceding versions at some point.
According to his memoir, Meier had the idea for Pirates after spending years largely focusing on flight simulators. Also according to his memoir, Meier is a big proponent of players having the ability to make interesting choices, and certainly a game about pirates would be an adventurous one. The majority of what people know about pirates is, of course, highly romanticized. And instead of trying to overdo it on realism to compensate, Sid Meier’s Pirates really leans into that romanticism. The result is an incredibly fun game that allows you to feel like a real swashbuckler (minus the scurvy).
The inciting incident of the game is that the evil Marquis Montalban enslaves your family for unpaid debts. As a child, you managed to escape, and now that you’re an adult, you’re ready to sign on with a major European power in order to gain wealth and find your lost family. You can pick what year you start, as well as if you want to sign on with the Dutch, French, English, or Spanish. I chose 1600 and signed on with the Dutch.
The consequence of this choice was that the majority of the Caribbean was controlled by the Spanish. This meant there was lots of plunder available, but it also meant I would find myself traveling long distances to find a friendly port if I angered the Spanish too much.
While you can work for anyone, you have to pay attention to the constantly shifting power dynamics. Trying to get in good with the French? Check to see who they’re at war with, and then attack their rival’s ships and settlements. You can even give a settlement to another country if you attack it enough times. However, the Spanish in particular will fight back and refuse to trade with pirates they deem enemies. The only way to get around this is to either start doing them favors or don a disguise you can buy at a tavern.
I love this, and it adds a certain flavor of realism to the game. I already knew about the existence of pirate hunters and privateers, and it added stakes to the game when merely passing too close to a Spanish port meant they would send a ship out after me thanks to me attacking one too many of their treasure ships.
However, even this has a workaround. If you want to enter a town where you’re unwelcome, you can try to sneak in at night and find the building you want to enter. One time, I accidentally entered the governor’s mansion, and he was none too pleased to see me.
You can, of course, also just invade.
While doing a completionist run of Pirates means tasks can get a bit repetitive, I was impressed with the variety of things I could do. I could dance with governors’ daughters, hunt for buried treasure, attack notable pirates, escort ships, search for missing family members, complete bounties, trade with merchants, and more. There aren’t really any rules about the order, though you are given clues about certain things, like the locations of missing family members, one at a time. But the places where the rules are looser allow you to make a dazzling narrative.
For example, when I was just starting out, I ran into Henry Morgan, who was, at the time, the most notorious pirate on the Spanish main. A few cannonballs and one lightning fast sword fight later, and I had defeated the living legend. This meant my rank went up, and I obtained mountains of treasure. The treasure, in turn, meant I could upgrade my ship much faster than in a normal game, giving me an early advantage. And that’s the beauty of Pirates. In a lot of games you’d have to start at the bottom of the list of pirates and work your way up; in Sid Meier’s world, if you want to take a giant gamble, you’re welcome to.
One of the things that makes Pirates so interesting is that it has one of the more plot-relevant and compelling aging systems I’ve ever encountered. In the bottom left corner you can see the days tick by, and hear a small “ding” every time a new month starts. Time passes, and the game makes you aware of how you’re spending every month. As you get older, not only do you look it, but you feel it too. By the time I was in my 40s, even with my trusty rapier, I was much slower in combat than when I was in my 20s. This means you’re forced to prioritize and plan; it’s much easier to hunt for buried treasure when you’re old than it is to get into bar fights.
Something else that you have to keep in mind is crew morale. They will sing shanties happily if you’re constantly making money, but if you run out of supplies or are out at sea too long without doing anything adventurous, their mood sours. Occasionally, you’ll capture a ship who has an experienced quartermaster on board, which helps. But eventually, men will begin deserting and you’ll be forced to stop in a port to divide the plunder and rest for a few months. But even this plays in to the aging system, as you don’t want to do it too often or you’ll run out of time to accomplish everything. I was extremely stressed every time I saw my crew begin to anger, and did my best to find some gold to distract them.
When you arrive at a port, you have a variety of things you can do, from visiting the leader to getting your ship serviced. But my favorite thing to do was to visit the tavern. In the tavern, you can recruit men for your crew, purchase rare items or information from a shady man in the corner, or hear gossip from the barmaid or barkeep. Talking to the barkeep is my favorite, because if he has no juicy information to share, he will simply ask you about your parrot.
There were several other moments throughout my run through that made me laugh out loud. When the bartender is not asking about your parrot, he would often share gossip about other ports. Nearly all of the bartenders in my game were, for some reason, obsessed with the governor of Eleuthera’s daughter. They would constantly motion me over and ask if I had met her, as they’d heard she was quite beautiful. I had in fact met her several times, and had even taken her to a ball, but I didn’t see what all the fuss was about personally.
Another thing that brought me much delight was whenever a ship would be labeled as “EVIL!” If someone had information about your family or had kidnapped your girlfriend, they were labeled as such. This was good, because fighting these men over a dozen times got a bit repetitive.
The game has flaws and dated elements. For example, there are three tiers of governor’s daughters you can romance: plain, attractive, or beautiful. All of the women are as skinny as a Barbie Doll, and the beautiful ones have large, partially exposed breasts, more makeup, and a big smile. At a certain point in your relationship, your future wife becomes a damsel in distress that you have to rescue, and while she occasionally offers you helpful information, she really has no other purpose other than to be yet another trophy on your list of accomplishments.
The most glaring element that is ignored is the implications of the European presence in the Caribbean in the first place. If you do deeds that certain countries like, they will reward you with acres of land (what exactly you do with that land is left out, but if you paid attention at all in history class, you know what was happening in the areas surrounding these new settlements). You can visit Native American villages, and while they will send out war canoes to attack settlements sometimes, you don’t really see them actually interact with the Europeans. Again, I recognize that the game’s representation of pirates is highly romanticized, and that extends to its representation of the Caribbean in the 1600s as well.
After marrying the governor of Tortuga’s daughter; finding all my missing family members, all lost civilizations, and all known buried treasure; and becoming the most notorious pirate in the Caribbean, I retired from pirating at the age of 43. I was in failing health, and my land-locked occupation was being the governor of Tortuga. This was fun, as I got to create a head canon around the idea that once my father-in-law passed, I had the wealth, influence, and family connections to easily become governor and live out the rest of my days in comfort.
I cannot recommend Sid Mierer’s Pirates enough. It’s cheap and available on Steam, and while you might have to finagle with some settings to get it to run on your computer, it’s definitely worth your time.
Have you played this classic, and which version was it? Let us know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org!