Postmortem: Sid Meier’s Pirates!

Postmortem is an exhaustive deep-dive in to an older title, courtesy of freelancer Martin Offerman.

A fortune to be had. A family to be rescued. Revenge to be served.

Your destiny awaits you.

Have you considered piracy? You’d make a great Dread Pirate Roberts.

Today’s Postmortem is a game that will set you on a course for a swashbuckling adventure. That game is Sid Meier’s Pirates!

Those who are familiar with this title and its history will know that its roots run back to a fairly early age in gaming technology. The original title was released in 1987 on the Commodore 64. It would be 17 long years before its re-imagining on PC in 2004, and subsequently Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and Playstation Portable, which featured graphics substantially updated from the Commodore 64 version.

The story places you as the son of what would pass for a middle-class upbringing in Europe. Your family had gone into massive debt, for ambiguous reasons, to a cartoonishly evil Marquis de la Montalban. Your family is about to finally reclaim their wealth and restore their honor when their treasure fleet returns with riches from the Caribbean.

That is, until the Marquis interrupts the festivities in order to inform your family that the fleet has been lost, yet your family’s debt must be repaid nonetheless. As his goons press your family into servitude, you have no choice but to dash off into the night with nothing but the clothes on your back, and a locket bearing a painted portrait of your family.

Some years later, you reappear at a tavern, now a man ready to take on the burden of finding your family and restoring their fortune. Presuming that your family has been taken to the Caribbean, you must book passage to the New World. The voyage, however, does not go well, because of the captain’s cruelty. He pushes you and your fellow sailors beyond the breaking point, leaving the crew with no choice but to mutiny. You lead the rebellion and, in a daring move taken from an Errol Flynn movie, slide down the rigging from the crow’s nest to force the captain to surrender. Your crew maroons the poor sod on some deserted island and turns to you, as the leader of their mutiny, to become the new captain of the ship.

Ship in hand, and with a loyal crew singing old (new?) shanties in high spirits, you arrive in the Caribbean, free to act as you see fit. Will you be the swashbuckling rogue who captures the governor’s daughter’s heart? The mercenary who goes to war at the behest of nations? The discoverer of lost treasures of ancient civilizations? The dread pirate captain who becomes the scourge of the seas, more feared than even Blackbeard himself?

You are left wide open to plot your course, to make the rules as you go. The New World is waiting for you to plunder its riches, both of gold, and of adventure.


All mechanics in the game are crafted to support this exploration and removal of restrictions on the player.

Some aspects of the difficulty in this game are self-imposed, as you will have to manage voyages at sea with crew that may not always take kindly to you, and nations that will actively hunt you if you capture or sink too many of their ships. If you make risky choices, the game may punish you. On the other hand, high risk can come with high reward.

There are a few broad categories to break down that support the functions of the game: crew morale; skill (at sailing, trading, planning assaults, dueling, and even dancing); and time.

As the captain of a crew, it is important to keep your sailors happy. The most obvious way to do this is to obtain gold, and the more gold, the better. There are a variety of ways to do this in the game, ranging from being an honest merchant to being the dread of the seas. For example, the in-game economy allows for you to buy some goods low in some ports, and sell high at neighboring ports.

But, come on. We’re not playing a pirates game to be merchants. We’re playing a pirates game to fire all our cannons into the broadside of a ship, plunder its riches, and make people walk the plank. Harr harr!

Depending on both where and when you are sailing, there will be a varied number and type of ships. This, in turn, will determine the types of cargo that can be plundered from ships’ holds, should you choose to attack. If you would rather not send some of the finer ships to Davey Jones, you can capture the ship, and, if you run across the fabled Ships of the Line, you can choose to make it your flagship. Repeating this process can allow you to become the Commodore of your own pirate armada of up to eight ships (provided you have enough crew to maintain them, that is).

Capturing and sinking ships is one of several ways you will develop your reputation, both with the local governments–the Dutch, French, English, and Spanish–and with the local people. When you sail into port with a high reputation fresh off a plundering voyage, it will be easier for you to recruit more people into your crew, which will allow you to take on bigger targets, and so on. You can even lay siege to ports and capture them, plundering the entire city’s coffers.

On the other hand, you can sometimes bite off more than you can chew. Whether you tried to take a warship with too few crew, or got outmatched in a siege, you could lose everything, even be marooned on a desert island or left to rotin a cell for a few weeks or months. You can even be marooned by your own crew, if they mutiny after being too unhappy for too long at sea.

So, it goes without saying: keeping your crew happy is important.


Perhaps even more important, however, is your skill at being a pirate.

If you cannot become the daring rogue that we all have buried somewhere within us, your crew will not take kindly to you to begin with so grab your cutlass and a bonny lass!

Many of the mechanics that require skill are broken up into a series of “mini-games.” In the case of ship-to-ship combat, there are a set of controls for steering your ship, furling and unfurling your sails, and changing the type of ammunition your cannons use. The type of ship you own and the type of ship you face off against, in addition to the number of crew aboard each ship, can change your approach. In some situations, it is better for you to hold off, circling a larger, slower ship to break its masts and whittle its crew numbers before you board. In others, it may be better for you to simply ram the ship and charge aboard. These situations are difficult to capture in a couple short paragraphs, but you will feel the weight of your larger frigates battling the wind, or you will relish the tight corners your sloop can take around enemy ships. The results of combat will also stick around on your ships, and you will frequently have to make repairs to your fleet at port. One might think to try to escape these costs as long as possible, but given that damage to your ships’ sails and masts directly affects the speed with which you navigate the map, you will want to keep your ships in a good state of repair.

If, on the other hand, you decide to lay siege to a port, you are greeted with a turn-based strategy game, in which you command your crew toward enemy lines and the port. There are ways to gain advantage: shooting from cover, positioning your units on high ground, and so on can give your motley men a fighting chance against more disciplined soldiers, cavalry, and cannons. And, if all else fails, you can simply make an end-run around the soldiers and try to assault the port directly.

In both ship-to-ship combat and assaulting ports, there will eventually come a time when you will be forced to engage in a duel with the ship’s captain or the captain of the guard. The fencing controls are somewhat intuitive, though they require decent reflexes. This is particularly the case at higher difficulty levels. The crew numbers on either side of the fight also play a role in your duel; the fewer crew members on either side of the fight, the more slowly the corresponding duelist will move, and the easier (or more difficult) it will be for you to win the day.

Sailing into hostile ports need not always require an assault, however. You can sneak into town in a stealth-based mini-game in which you make your way through the darkened streets, hiding behind hay bales and garden walls to avoid the town guards. You can make your way to the tavern, the merchant, or any other place you ordinarily could go if the port were friendly. However, it takes some time (real time, not game time) to do so, and comes with a risk of being locked in the local jail if you are caught. There will be occasions, however, where this risk is worth it, as a friendly port may be too far away for your immediate needs.

If you sail into friendly ports, however, you may visit the governor to review the latest news. At the outset of the game, visiting a port from each nation may net you a Letter of Marque to sink other nations’ ships. These allegiances shift over the course of the game, however, in a way that feels somewhat organic. For instance, if you are sailing under French colors, and attack a number of Spanish ships or assault and capture several Spanish ports, you may instigate a war between the French and the Spanish. On the other hand, left to their own devices, they may work out relationships that benefit one another. As you form friendships with the nations, you will work your way up the ranks in their mercenary armies, and your appearance, including the size of your hat, will change accordingly.


Visiting the governor also has another benefit to the character: their daughters. (Let me explain.)

Often, governors’ daughters will have secret information for you, like maps to famous pirates’ treasures, lost civilizations with untold riches, or even hints to the whereabouts of your long-lost family. They may also present you with gifts that may give you an edge while at sea, such as items that give you a starting advantage in a duel, or help keep your crew in high spirits on long voyages. To make sure to receive these benefits, however, you may have to break out your dancing shoes. In a rhythm-based mini-game, you follow your partner’s lead; the better you are, the more impressed she is, and the greater the reward you may receive. In addition to impressing your bonny lass, she may begin to take an interest in you, which leads to its own daring quest to save her when she is inevitably captured by the villainous Baron Raymondo. (If you play the game like a certain Captain Sparrow and try to find a woman in every port, you will see quite a lot of Baron Raymondo.)

Should you seek out these lost cities, treasures, or family members, you will have to sail ashore, often in the middle of nowhere. Here, however, is a key difference between the PC version of the game, and the console ports: if you play on a PC, you will actually disembark onto dry land, and have to use landmarks seen on the map to find what you are looking for. If, on the other hand, you play on a console, you need only sail into the patch of land near where the map says the treasure is, and the game will skip this section. Some purists of the original release, like me, miss this portion on the console version, though the benefit of saving time is difficult to deny.

All of this adventuring, however, can take a great deal of time, and in this game, your time is limited. This aspect of the game is probably the most important, in terms of both when you are, and how long you will take to do what you set out to do. At the beginning of the game at the tavern, in addition to asking for your name, the bartender asks for the era in which you will be traveling. The starting era directly affects the type of game you will be forced to play, as some strategies will be more difficult to use in one era than some others. You can start anywhere in 20-year increments, ranging from 1600 to 1680. In 1600, for example— called “Merchants and Smugglers”— there are relatively few ports and ships, leaving you with difficult options to keep your crew’s spirits high. On the other hand, the passage of time to the 1660s and 1680s, respectively called “The Buccanneer Heroes” and “The Pirates Sunset,” have allowed the nations to develop their ports and plot trade routes between those ports. There is significantly more plunder to be had in this era, but at slightly higher risk, as privateers and pirate hunters alike may be sent after you.


In the actual game, time plays an increasingly important role as you play. As your treasure hoard gets bigger, and you spend a longer time at sea, your crew will become disgruntled, wanting to take their share of the plunder and return to port to spend it. One way or another, even the most skilled player at this game will be forced to allow their crew to take their share and leave the seafaring life behind, at which time the player will have to begin recruiting anew.

In addition, the game subtly adds aging into your character. Over time, it becomes more difficult for you to win a duel, or react at the right time in a dance with your charming lady. This eventually comes to a head after a minimum of 25 in-game years, when the ravages of the seafaring life force you into retirement. You can sail on for longer than 25 years, as long as your crew is content to join you on your voyage. However, once they call for a last share of the plunder, you hang up your hat and retire.

Just how you retire is dependent on how you fared on your adventures: did you defeat the top ten most notorious pirates of the sea, including Blackbeard? Did you find their buried treasures? Did you find all your long-lost relatives, and exact your revenge on the Marquis de la Montalban? All of these things, among others, act to award “victory points,” which determine your station in your retirement years. Will you retire a beggar on the streets, penniless and broken by the knowledge you will never see your family again? Or will you retire a governor of a city, a legend among the seas with a larger treasure hoard than all the other notorious pirates of the Caribbean? Only how you play will decide.

The relatively charming nature of the game and the “high score”-type ending allows the game to have a decent replay value, as you always are left wondering if you can crank up the difficulty, or try starting in a different era, or try playing the game in insane and unintended ways. For example, is it possible to capture every port in the Caribbean for the English? There’s only one way to find out!


With all of this in mind, Pirates! is not without flaw.

Many of the in-game sequences can feel repetitive, as you will be essentially forced to play through at least some of them in the course of the game. Some mini-games are also easier than others. For example, on a level of difficulty that was comfortable for me, I found it very easy for me to “cheese” my way through dueling because of the way the opponents’ “stunned” animation often left me able to quickly thrust my rapier and force them backward a step with no fear of reprisal. At the same time, the city assaults, while fun, often were too difficult to actually “win” against the city’s soldiers. I could avoid this by doing an end-run around the city’s soldiers to force the captain of the guard to duel me, but this led to many unrealistic wins of 100 motley pirates against a garrison of 300 regulars.

With all of this in mind, however, the game is a swashbuckling package of adventure. The charming character and characters of the game are apparent the moment you load up the game, and there are plenty of little touches and Easter eggs to be had. (For instance, set your computer or console’s clock to September 19. You will not be disappointed.)

If you’d like to take to the high seas and become the Dread Pirate Roberts of your dreams, this game will likely satisfy your craving for the salt air, and given its current price in the used bin or on Steam, you won’t have to worry about spending all your booty in one place.

Shiver me timbers, because I give Sid Meier’s Pirates! 4 gold doubloons out of 5.



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