Sid Meier's Pirates!

It's a pirates life for me (56.6k warning!)

The absolute height of video game piracy is Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - at least in my eyes it is. I thought, seeing as I didn't particularly like the sailing sections of Assassin's Creed III, that an entire game centered on ships would be my breaking point, but no, I played an awful lot of ACIV because of the freedom the open seas offered.

Now, I can say that it is the height of piracy with certainty not because I can count the number of pirate games I've played on one hand, but because I'm struggling to list many pirate games full stop. Here, though, way back in 1987, is the ACIV of the old days: Sid Meier's Pirates!

It doesn't have any of the assassins versus templars mumbo jumbo to worry about, existing purely as an action adventure simulation of life from the 16th and 17th century, and not a fleeting glance at it from afar, but a researched and complex living world.


I was not expecting this when first jumping in, though, both the colours and the text. The colours I can live with, as whoever had this kind of set up in the past would have to live with too. I'm not well versed enough to know if I can change them or what I can change them to, so get used to it.

Text box after text box sets up the world, where you choose your starting time period, from the mid-1500s to the late 1600s, your nationality, name and special ability. There is of course only one thing I'm good at on that list, so Mr. Cavil had to have a bit of wit and charm. There's a lot of options already, and a lot of text, but thankfully that's not always the case.

The whole point of Pirates! is to explore the world as you see fit. Your starting time period and nationality will mean different degrees of difficulty when sailing the seas - in the early days, the Spanish were everywhere, and being a Spaniard would have been a doddle. But I'm not a Spaniard, I'm an Englishman and I was going to claim the Caribbean for King and Country.

I'm sorry, what? Queen Elizabeth I is on the throne?... I'll just... sail my ship over here a bit...

You don't really get an idea of what the difficulty you select actually is unless you know a little bit about the history of the region, so obviously I had given myself a stupidly hard time of things without realising until long after the fact. Go me. But I have a ship and a crew, and there are seas to sail.

I set out... somewhere... and eventually got used to the controls (relative to your heading if I recall, not the screen). The wind is relentless, so you might as well go with it for a while and see where it takes you. There's a lot of sea to roam, but there are also some tricky landmasses that require some expert maneuvering to get through. You won't get too far through the game without finding a settlement and docking in its harbour, so keep an eye out for them of your journey.

You can do a number of things in each town, from learning what the state of the region is to recruiting new crew, trading with merchants, divvying up your haul so far and so on. It is entirely possible for you to live out your pirate days as a trader, but what's the point of being a trader in a game called Pirates!? It even has an exclamation mark after it. Getting out of town, I hunted down some Spaniards.

Sighting a ship on the horizon gives you some options. There's only one I care about, so we close for battle.

I'm not entirely sure how battles work. All the important stats are there, but how I make use of them in order to blow ships out of the water I don't really know. Somehow, after a tense fight that probably involved crashing into the Spanish ship, I was able to duke it out with their captain.

It didn't go too well.

I believe I was imprisoned, and afterwards felt like out was out of my depth with Pirates! You can retire from piracy at any point if I recall, whereupon your time spent on the high seas is assessed by the game, which proceeds to mock your complete lack of skill in piracy.

Despite having 170 gold pieces upon my person, I ranked in as the lowest of the low, a beggar, no doubt mumbling to himself and periodically shouting "I was a captain once!" in vain attempts to get people to pity me.

I don't know, and frankly, my simulation was over.

Fun Times

Then I remembered I bought Pirates! Gold Plus (Classic), which despite being a mouthful meant I actually had an updated version of Pirates! that I could play, including graphics that I could actually see.

This release of Pirates! is big on the artwork but is the same game. These settlements all look the same, but this one is friendly to me and my English heritage (I learnt from the previous poor judgement in era selection and went for a more level playing field - fewer Spaniards, more Dutch and Frenchmen, lots of opportunities for allies and frenemies),

The Governor didn't have anything for me beyond exactly what I came here to do...

I'd lucked out and taken over a Spanish ship, and thanks to the upgraded graphics I could finally see what was going on. I don't want to make a big point of the graphics, but blue and green vs blue and light blue has only one clear winner when it comes to a game about pirates.

I still hadn't got the hang of combat, either from my ship or swinging my longsword at the townsfolk when taking over a town (cutlasses and rapiers are available to swing too, but c'mon, it's a longsword). Did I mention you can take over towns? Of course you can take over towns. This one proved too tricky, but others crumbled under my mig- well no, most of them just surrendered and gave me the keys to the Governor's house.

Attacking towns from your ship, just like ACIV!

After a shipwreck and an utterly failed attempt at taking on a Spanish ship with little more than a dinghy, I was thrown into jail in Caracas as a result of my pirate rampage. I retired as a brideless bartender (again in Caracas, which either meant I fell in love with the view through my cell window or else couldn't secure passage off the island).

It seems marriage is a big deal in Pirates! I've yet to see why, but then I only had the chance to woo two ladies. I say 'woo', the option is rather thrust upon you. The first advance from a merchants daughter I ignored, and the second from a governors daughter was shot down due to my complete lack of standing. And she may have been taken. I forget. Anyway, I guess my wit and charm need leveling up for next time...

Final Word

I didn't make it into the piracy history books, but I got enough of a taste for salt that the question of Sid Meier's Pirates! vs Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag is a semi-serious one, which I wouldn't have put any amount of money on before playing Pirates! (especially because I didn't know it existed).

Simulations are often known for their depth, their accuracy, their attention to all the details. Sometimes that turns out to be a detriment to a game, but not so with Pirates! You don't need to know everything about the Caribbean in the 17th century to survive. You don't need to be a skilled fighter or navigator to be a success. I don't know what choosing one skill over another actually does - it's not like wit and charm opened up any alternative methods of taking over a town (to my knowledge, at least). The point is that you've got the options available for you to do as you please and, importantly, mix it up when you need to.

I would imagine - if I had played it with a distant end goal in mind, and not just charging for the nearest Spaniard with the pointy end of my sword - I could go about for a few in-game years gathering supplies, gaining allies and generally going about my business until I decided the time was right to strike.

Maybe a governor tasked me with hunting someone down (these kinds of missions were an addition found in Pirates! Gold), which would take me out upon the seas until the job was done, or maybe one of the local women took a fancy to me and I put my land legs on more often.

The possibilities probably aren't endless but with all the various starting options the ways the game can be run allow for a great many different playthroughs each and every time you start the game up. From there, anything could happen, as the economics and politics of the region are in flux and time keeps on ticking.

Pirates! is as deep as you want it to be, and I urge you to at least dip a toe in, especially if you like ACIV - the boat bits, not the modern day gobbledegook.

Fun Facts

Copy protection for the original versions of the game would up the difficulty for any incorrect answers given to the check question. Best you double-check your answer before giving it - or, better yet, play a version without such copy protection 'features'.

Sid Meier's Pirates!, developed by MicroProse, first released in 1987.
Version played: Sid Meier's Pirates!, PC, 1987.
Pirates! Gold (Classic), PC, 1993