Friday, January 21, 2011

Game 40: Pirates!


I can remember vividly a day in the spring of 1992. I had just finished my freshman year at college and I was applying for an internship (my college had a strong co-op program) at an office building in downtown Boston. It was the first time I had ever interviewed for a job (all my high school jobs had come about through the influence of family or friends), and I was absolutely terrified. Paranoid about being late, I had arrived at the building about 45 minutes early, and as I sat there in my uncomfortable shirt and mismatched tie, I thought seriously about just getting up, taking the bus home, and going to bed.

Instead, I pulled a notepad from my backpack and wrote one sentence to myself: "No matter what happens, in an hour you will get to go home with a bag of Doritos and a six-pack of Coke and spend the rest of the day playing Pirates!"

It helped. My nerves calmed and confidence bolstered, I went in to the office and gave the worst interview that any student has ever given. Not only did I not get the job, I'm pretty sure I was blackballed from the entire industry. But true to my word, an hour later I was playing Pirates! on my Mac, and I doubt I stopped all weekend. There was a time when I was addicted to this game far worse than any CRPG. I'd probably still be playing it now, full-time, except that once I had achieved the highest retirement rank in all six time periods, I decided that there wasn't much more I could accomplish with it. I had "won," so to speak. I probably played my last game in 1993 or 1994 and haven't thought seriously about it until I saw that it was on MobyGames's list of CRPGs.

Is this in any way justifiable? Probably not. In one of my earliest postings, I asked "What is a CRPG?" and came up with 10 criteria by combining a Wikipedia article with my own thoughts:

  1. Character identification
  2. Character development
  3. Freedom of movement and choice of actions
  4. Quests
  5. At least a partial focus on combat
  6. Combat at least partly based on probabilities rather than action
  7. Weapons, armor, and items to buy, find, and equip
  8. Game progression through combat and dialog
  9. Interaction with NPCs
  10. Random encounters

Not every CRPG features every criteria on this list. Wizardry has no NPC interaction to speak of, and there are no quests in Telengard. But let's say a CRPG has to have at least 7 or 8 out of 10. Well, Pirates! gets 1, 3, 4, 5, and 10. The others are a stretch. MobyGames's other category, "Strategy," defines the game better.

And yet, ironically, damned if you don't role-play the hell out of this game. When you start, you choose your era and nationality, and depending on your choices, the game gives you a quick backstory: your family was robbed and imprisoned by a corrupt judge and you've just escaped from prison, or you're an adventurer being financed by the king, or you're a peasant farmer who chooses to sign up with some pirates to escape the monotony of the fields. It hardly matters, as the rest of the gameplay is identical, and you have "long lost" family members to rescue no matter what.

All of these would be good names for cocktails.

Among other role-playing scenarios in Pirates! are the options to:

  • Eschew any real "pirating" and instead serve each nation as a "pirate-hunter," chasing down pirates and turning them in to the governors for rewards of title and land (and perhaps a comely daughter).
  • Go privateer. Pick a side and wage war against the ships and towns of your nation's enemies, perhaps even driving out the governors and claiming towns in the name of your flag.
  • Trade. Keep track of the buying and selling prices for different goods in each port, watch the news carefully for signs of prosperity (new gold mine) and calamity (Indian attack, plague) and use this information to make your fortune.
  • Focus on recovering your long lost family members.
  • Become an honest-to-god bloodthirsty pirate, attacking every ship you come across, avoiding all nations, pillaging the silver train and treasure fleet, slinking into dodgy, undefended ports to trade and pick up crewmembers, searching for lost treasure, and otherwise making as much money as you can.

Of course, combinations are also possible. Every game is a new map of your life course. Do you want to start as a pirate but then see the error of your ways, settle down with a wife, and then do missions for your governor/father-in-law? Do you want to make a lot of money fast and retire young? There are a lot of possibilities, and they're all fun. The lesson is that not every CRPG really features "role playing," and not every game that has a strong "role-playing" focus is a CRPG.

I'm not the only Pirates! lover, of course. As Wikipedia chronicles, the game won numerous awards in the 1980s and was one of Computer Gaming World's top 20 games of all time in 1996. It spawned two remakes: Pirates! Gold in 1994 and Sid Meier's Pirates! in 2004.

For those completely unfamiliar with the game, it is set in a vast area of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, bordered on the east by the Lesser Antilles and the west by the interior of Mexico. It goes as far north as the South Carolina coast and on the south deep into Venezuela and Colombia. I suppose this is easier with a map:

Roughly this.

The attention to historical detail is fantastic. If you visit Jamaica in 1560, you'll find the capital at Santigo Vega, since Spain occupied the island until 1655. This is particularly notable because the town was officially called Santiago de la Vega (almost all encyclopedias have it as this) but colloquially it had been shortened to Santigo Vega, a fact that the researchers of Pirates! somehow dug up. Anyway, return in 1660, and you'll find it in the hands of the English, with Port Royale as its capital. (The town was destroyed in 1692 and was replaced as the capital by Kingston, a fact that I learned with horror on my first trip to Jamaica.) The developers even researched the populations and economies of the various cities.

A city ripe for invasion.

Through this bounding main you sail a fleet of ships, and no less detail is given to the style of ships you can engage and capture: English merchantmen, French pinnaces, Dutch cargo fluyts, and Spanish war galleons among them. You command a crew of rowdy pirates numbering from a handful to several hundred, plundering ships and towns, trading goods, finding treasures, and romancing governors' daughters.

Gameplay consists of five main features:

  • Navigation. As you sail from town to town, time passes. To maximize your useful life, you have to take the shortest routes possible, contend with wind and weather, avoid shoals, and keep track of your coordinates. The original version of the game, unlike Pirates! Gold and later versions, is realistic in its depictions of navigation. While your navigator's sextant can fix your latitude, he can only guess at your longitude based on the position of the sun. And you don't want to check too often, because taking coordinates burns an entire day. You have to be careful not to get stuck in an unpopulated area with no food, or with a discontented crew, who might suddenly mutiny.


  • Ship-to-Ship Combat. When you choose to engage in combat with a pirate, enemy ship, or hapless victim, you enter a tactical combat screen in which you sail around the other ship, firing your cannons and simultaneously trying to avoid his. Your crew reloads at a speed based on their current morale, so it pays to keep them happy. You have to said the appropriate sails (battle sails for damage reduction or full sails for maximum navigability), carefully monitor your damage, and make sure that you don't riddle your enemy so full of holes that the ship sinks, taking useful cargo and hostages with it. A variety occurs when you attack a town from the sea, and you fire not on another ship but on the town's forts.


  • Fencing. If the enemy doesn't surrender in ship-to-ship combat, you enter a fencing minigame in which choose a weapon and you and your foe swipe and lunge at each other until one surrenders. The point of surrender depends not only on how well you fence, but also on how many crewmembers you have relative to each other. If you have 60 pirates and you've reduced his crew to 6, he might fall on his knees after one thrust. If your crews are evently matched, it might take a good 10 minutes of thrusts and parries before one of you wins. You not only fence when capturing ships, but also when trying to extract information about a family member, fighting a rival lover for the governor's daughter's affections, or getting caught sneaking into town.

Four hits later, he surrenders.

  • Diplomacy and Trade. When you enter a town, you have a number of tasks to accomplish, including schmoozing the governor for a quest or promotion; recruiting new pirates at the tavern; seeking treasure maps and intelligence; repairing ships; and trading goods and cannons with merchants. You can only save inside towns, so visiting frequently is important. Sometimes towns are hostile to pirates--or to you in particular, if you've been pillaging that nationality's ships--so you have to sneak in. This limits your available options.

Sugar is so cheap here, I could make a nice profit buying it and selling it in Havana.

  • Land Combat. If you feel like attacking a town an alternate way, you can anchor your ships along the coast and have your band approach the town on foot. If they have a lot of soldiers, they may send battalions out to meet you; otherwise, you can storm the walls and attack the town's commander in one-on-one combat. Sacking a town results in the plunder of its valuables (if they residents haven't hidden them), and occasionally the governor flees, allowing you to install a new one of a more friendly nationality.

Oh, but really, this only scratches the surface. The key to Pirates! is how well you plan, organize, manage, and strategize. Among the many elements you have to consider are:

  • Keeping the men happy. Your crew's morale is dependent on how long you've been at sea, how much gold they see in the hold, and how many fellow crewmembers they have to split it with. A disgruntled crew performs badly in combat and might eventually rebel, so you have to watch it carefully, and every once in a while you have to divide up the plunder, sell all but one ship, and mount a new expedition. Since this process takes about four months of game time, you want to prolong it as long as possible, but not so long that your crew mutinies. You also want to keep a large crew for fighting towns and such, but not so large that they perceive a small share of the gold.

After a month of sailing, my crew has only 27 gold pieces each and thus are only "pleased," not terribly happy.

  • Optimizing your fleet. You want the right balance of ships to be effective in combat (I prefer the maneuverability of a sloop or barque, even when taking on a galleon) but also with enough cargo space for goods and a large crew, but not so much that you slog through the Caribbean at a snail's pace (that's called "mixing metaphors").
  • Politics and intelligence. If you want to rise through the ranks among the English, then you have to attack England's enemies and avoid attacking its allies. But enemies and alliances can change constantly, and you have to keep careful track of it. In worst cases, your favored nation is suddenly at war with no one, and you have to resort to peaceful ways to make a living until they get belligerent again. Meanwhile, successfully sacking towns involves keeping track of the town's population, economy, and defenses. As you visit taverns and hail ships, you get news of faraway events, such as new gold mines, plagues, and Indian attacks, all of which change the desirability and ease of plundering those towns. You can also get some intelligence on where the Spanish treasure fleet or silver train is going to be at a particular time, intercept and plunder it, and enjoy a bounty of gold.

From this I can discern that Gran Granada and Puerto Bello would make lousy targets right now, but Bermuda might be a ripe fruit, and if Santa Marta has changed hands, I might find a friendly port there now where previously it was hostile.

  • Interpreting treasure maps. As you explore, you'll find random treasure maps, but more important, you'll find maps with clues as to the locations of your family members. Sometimes these maps have sections torn away or hidden, so you have to carefully study the available features and determine where the X is most likely to be. You also have to be sensible about heading off to find treasure--sailing all the way to Central America for 6,000 gold pieces rarely makes sense, for instance, but if you have other business there...

This one is comparably easy.

  • Optimizing your travel. Let's say you have a treasure map indicating a point on Cuba, a quest to capture a pirate operating near Panama, and a clue that someone with knowledge of your mother is in Trinidad. Meanwhile, you have a cargo hold full of sugar you want to trade in Port Royale, and it's been six months since you last visited a French port to get a much-deserved promotion. Taking into consideration the season and trade winds, you have to construct something like a traveling salesman algorithm to minimize the amount of time it takes.

Eventually, you get older and less healthy, and it's time to retire. The game gives you a final score, and outlook for the rest of your life, based on your accumulated wealth, title, and family. The top rank is the "king's advisor."

The original game manual came with a delightful series of embedded commentary called "memoirs of captain Sydney" that provided useful clues and context to the game. These were repeated in the 2004 re-release.


Embedded in all of this gameplay is a wealth of information, both historical and technical. Because of this game, I learned a lot about the geography and history of the Caribbean. When I was invited to visit Trinidad and Tobago on business, I knew where it was, and that it had been owned by the Spanish, French, and English at various points in its history. I know that running before the wind is not the most efficient way to sail. And the game teaches real skills about logistics and management. If I thought it was a real CRPG, the answer to "What have you learned?" would be easy.

For my character, I chose to play in "The Bucanneer Heroes" time period, which starts in 1660. I decided that I would be Spanish, but furious that the Spanish system of justice had allowed my family to be robbed and torn apart. I would ally with whoever was an enemy of Spain, and wage war against my former country while simultaneously trying to recover my family members. I chose "skill at medicine" for my "special ability"; I almost always do, as it prolongs your useful life and increases the chances you'll be able to accomplish all your objectives within your career.

"Wit and charm" would naturally have been more true to life.

As I started the game, Spain was at war with France, so I headed off to find a French port and obtain a letter of marque (another term I learned from this game) allowing me to attack Spanish ships on France's behalf. Tomorrow, I will relate the adventures of Captain Gatomalo but then get back to games that are more defensible as CRPGs.

Coincidentally, yesterday I was teaching a day-long class that wasn't going so well, and I grinned as said to myself, "No matter how the rest of the day goes, tonight you can go home with a bag of Doritos and a six-pack of Coke and play Pirates!" Well, ha ha, joke was on me, because I couldn't get it to work, and my wife asked when I'd stopped drinking diet, and an entire bag of Doritos doesn't sit so well when you're 40. But now I'm playing again, and all is right with the world. Arrrr.

26 comments:

  1. Great first post. My brother and I used to boot the computer up with this game and play for hours and hours. We didn't realize that you could divide up the plunder so we would play our characters all the way into their fourties (I think) without collecting any personal wealth and always wonder why we scored so low at the end of the game.

    When I was a kid I'd take the manual with me to restaurants and pester my family with facts about pirates and the Caribbean in the 17th century. It's the only manual / map I really regret losing or throwing away.

    Neither of the two remakes were as good as the original.

    I'm definitely going to enjoy this series of posts, and we can all ignore the fact that this less an RPG and more a simulation game.

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  2. Aaar!

    Made a great read, especially since I must shamefully admit I've never played a Pirates! game... I'll have to look into that.

    Are either of the modern ones any good, or should I play this original version?

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  3. I really enjoyed reading this post. Pirates was one of my favorite games. Thanks for the entertaining commentary. Keep up the great work.

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  4. Great post! So informative! Wargaming is the mother of role-playing games. In my opinion, Pirates! is a role-playing game in a much more purer way than a lot of traditional crpgs because it has in its core the offering of freedom of choice. As you said, you can't help but role-play in it because you get so many different ways to get things done and all the while the game addresses you as a fictional character in a narrative, not a god's eye meta-overlord like a lot of straight strategy games.

    My favorite from that era of Microprose is 'Sword of the Samurai'. I hope you play it, it has a similar thrill to Pirates! but in a different setting. It was also designed by a paper and pencil game designer and its focus is again on doing thins in different ways.

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  5. Andy, I didn't like some of the features that were removed in Pirates! Gold, such as the need for a sextant and the ability to turn over pirates to governors for promotions. But it's still a good game, and with better graphics. I understand the 2004 re-release preserves the spirit and basic gameplay of the original while adding some additional mini-games and cutscenes.

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  6. 7hm, I agree: the manual for Pirates! was literature. Thanks for your feedback, Robin & Helm. It looks like I'll do two more postings on Pirates! but keep them to one day.

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  7. Not that I don't enjoy reading about the "proper" CRPGs, but I find this detour extremely welcome. Good reading!

    --Eino

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  8. "Pirates! is a role-playing game in a much more purer way than a lot of traditional crpgs because it has in its core the offering of freedom of choice."

    I agree. The great thing about games like this is that they give you a certain framework within which to play, and then you basically make your own story. I like this approach better than the linear gameplay imposed by so many story-driven games.

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  9. I played both of the remakes and found -- even at the higher difficulty levels -- that they were so easy as to lose steam. During the initial ramp up from pinnace (or whatever the little ship you started with) to full-on armada, where you're finding new ports and loading up with cannons and so on, is always amazing. Then owning the sea for a while is great.

    But after that, the game always petered out for me. The quests were so repetitive, and the gameplay too. The challenges maxed out within a couple hours of gameplay and then continuously declined. Fortuity would sometimes let you engage a decent enemy, but even then it was easy.

    Was I missing something? My recollection is that I played on highest difficulty.

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  10. 7hm, your story is a riot. It must have been incredibly challenging keeping your crew happy--or even functional--for a 15-year voyage.

    Ultimately, I think we have to accept that a "role-playing game" is not designated such because it is about "role-playing" but because it reproduces the trappings of pen-and-paper RPGs, including inventories, attributes, levels, character classes, and so on. As Andy says, many of these games actually suffer in their role-playing creds. Because I like role-playing so much, I sometimes wonder if I'm not in fact playing games in the wrong genre! But Pirates! does have the rare characteristic of being a strategy game that is, nonetheless, primarily about the life of a single character. Compare this to Warlords or Civilization where it's less clear who "you" are.

    Anon, I did have something of the same experience. As I say in my final rating posting, the game was never very "hard," even at higher difficulty levels, once you've mastered the basic controls. You never die in Pirates!, although you might lose your ships, go to jail, suffer a blow to your honor, and so on. Thus, if you're a purist like me who doesn't believe in reloading, you generally don't want the game to be TOO hard. When I take a look at Pirates! Gold though, I'll play at the highest level and see if I can't include some screenshots (sadly lacking here) of the more negative things that can occur to you: starvation, mutiny, imprisonment, cowardly backing away from dueling for your fiancee's hand, and so on.

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  11. Dear CRPG Fanatic: This is indeed one of the best computer games ever made. I used to play at a friends house. I played a Spanish captain, and blundered into my nation's own treasure fleet on the first voyage! Usually I would just play privateer. This game reminds me of an earlier one; perhaps you have heard or played it. Its called Seven Cities of Gold. You play a conquistador. You must negotiate with Queen Isabel, outfit an expedition, sail to the new world. Be nice or horrible to the natives and so forth.

    Great posts. Thank you again

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  12. Now, now, JJ: I'm a CRPG ADDICT. "Fanatic" takes it a little extreme.

    I'm glad you liked the posting. I never played "Seven Cities," but it looks like there was a PC remake in 1993.

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  13. Dear CPRG Adddict,

    Forgive my mistake.

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  14. "Ultimately, I think we have to accept that a "role-playing game" is not designated such because it is about "role-playing" but because it reproduces the trappings of pen-and-paper RPGs, including inventories, attributes, levels, character classes, and so on. As Andy says, many of these games actually suffer in their role-playing creds."

    Quoted for truth.

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  15. I was going to play this game, but decided it was too "twitchy" for my taste.
    I love the idea of the game though, and reading the manual was interesting and educational reading.

    Too bad Sid Meier didn't use the opportunity to make his remake in 2004 into a more advanced game with CRPG stats for your captain and other captains, item upgrades and make the battles more tactical. I guess instead of doing a remake that would appeal to the CRPG crowd, they instead did a remake to appeal to those who were too young to play it 10-15 years earlier.

    Anyway, the consensus seems to be that the original Amiga version is the best version. Naturally the graphics and sound are superior to the contemporary DOS versions, but in the Amiga version you can also get extra "quests" from the governors.

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  16. I'm not sure you don't need to better explain what you mean by "too 'twitchy.'"

    But I agree about the missed opportunities in the update.

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  17. Pirates! fans might want to check out Uncharted Waters - New Horizons, which probably is on your list somewhere since it was released on PC even though the console versions are far more well known. It's basically a somewhat more complex Japanese version of Pirates...

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  18. Pirates is the game that got me hooked on computer games. I have the Xbox 2004 version and I fire it up four or five times a year.

    What an INCREDIBLE game.

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  19. I want to point out the comment that Helm made above to anyone who appreciates this blog for its historical aspects.

    Helm said:
    "Wargaming is the mother of role-playing games."

    Before pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons, there were many table-top war games that established the methods (probabilities, dice, attributes) which were integrated into and still form the infrastructure of RPG mechanics.

    A recommended starting point for anyone interested in reading about RPG pre-history is the Wikipedia entry on Avalon Hill which released the first commerical wargame in 1954.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avalon_Hill

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  20. Ah Pirates! I remember playing this at a rather young age on my father's AtariST (was same version than the IBM but with better graphics). Truely a great title.

    I hate how in the latest remake (2004?) they stripped "The Silver Empire (1560)". It was one of my favorite era with 1640... I use to joke that my Long-Lost Grandfather was the Pirate from the 1560's, lol.

    Can't wait to see how your game is going to go.
    Nice choice of game to review.
    -- Francois424

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    1. I hope you ended up liking the next two postings. I think I tested the patience of some readers, as the game is clearly not a CRPG under any reasonable definition.

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  21. Have to admit I am one of those few who never played Pirates!, but looking to try it after reading your synopsis.

    As mentioned above it reminds me of 7 Cities of Gold, which I did play on a C64. Also a bit of Defender of the Crown (that fencing screen in particular). Both of those were later ported to PC if you feel like taking a quick break from CRPGs someday.

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  22. Indeed, Pirates is a role-playing game in the true sense of the word. It's a make-your-own-career kind of game. As such, it is probably the second game in this genre, the first one being Elite. Most of these make-your-own-career games take place in space. The X series, Privateer and most importantly, EVE online, which is also sometimes called an MMORPG - so these two genres go well together. Playing this game in the context of this blog is really not far-fetched at all.
    There are several ways to define RPGs, either by their ability to allow role-playing or by technical aspects, the pace of the plot, the characteristics of the character... you don't have to do it the way all RPGs since Akalabeth have done it, even though that game "founded" the dominant RPG school of today.
    Oh, and I have played Pirates in its different incarnations all my life. Just last week I reinstalled the Firaxis remake, which is still fun though maybe a bit too fast and "arcade like". The old Pirates! was slower, there was more mystique and the ancient graphics actually facilitated more immersion.

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    1. I agree that there are several ways that you COULD define RPGs, but my feeling is that the weight of history--from both developers and fans--has been to define them a particular way. Pirates!, however much you may "play a role," is simply not a CRPG under any common definition of the term. Anyone who says "but it IS an RPG because you can role-play!" is missing the point. When it comes to COMPUTER role-playing games, literal "role-playing" has never been an essential part of the experience.

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    2. Yes, "the weight of history" is what I call the "dominant RPG" school, i.e. Akalabeth and Ultima/Wizardry, then the Infinity games, to the Elder Scrolls games. High fantasy setting, a main quest with numerous side quests, the character stats...
      I already find it hard to regard the roguelikes as RPGs, but then I never played them because I was born too late and started playing on Commodore systems. Reading this blog has already changed my opinion and now I regard them as a different school of CPRGs.

      Delete

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