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Live the Life!


  "Forget the points, the mathematics - just have an adventure. Go do things and wander around this world!" - Sid Meier


Sid Meier's Pirates! can refer to any of three related games. The original game was released in 1987; an Updated Rerelease called Pirates! Gold came out in 1993; and the latest game in the series (reverting to the original title) was released in 2004. The basic premise of the games is the same: You start out as a new Pirate captain in the Caribbean Sea with a Letter of Marque issued to you by one of four nations (England, France, Spain, or the Netherlands). The game is a Wide Open Sandbox, allowing you to take a wide variety of actions: Go the traditional pirate route and attack other vessels for loot and plunder, romance beautiful governor's daughters, search for other pirates' buried treasure using Treasure Maps, clear the high seas of all rivals who would stand in your way, or even go the boring "peaceful trader" route. One notable feature of the game is that the protagonist can never actually die; defeat in combat (or failure in other regards) generally leads to being either thrown into a Cardboard Prison or marooned / cast away on a desert island, both of which you can eventually escape from. Also, unlike many other games, age does affect your character; his fencing and dancing skills decline noticeably with age.

Compare Uncharted Waters.

Tropes used in Sid Meiers Pirates include:
  • Adaptation Distillation: In older versions, the different nationalities and starting years would actually give you different background stories. Montalban wasn't selling families into slavery through the entire 1600s. (Or was he?)
  • Alternate History: A large crew can completely reshape the geopolitical situation of the 17th century Carribbean. Capture every town for the Dutch, if you care to. Do it in 1560 (in the original version), before the Eighty Years War even begins. Did you just start the Dutch Rebellion yourself?
  • Anachronism Stew: Named Pirates from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries all sail together. But how cool is it to take on Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, and Jean Lafitte in the same game?
  • Another Side Another Story: The 1680 Spanish "Costa Guarda" game can feel like this.
  • Armor Is Useless: Played with. Certain captains - particularly Spanish military - wear curiasses and breastplates, but they don't seem to be any tougher than unarmored captains. On the other hand, the Leather Vest and Chain Curiass that you can buy are so useful that they're practically a Game Breaker on any difficulty short of Swashbuckler, especially since the latter makes your character virtually immune to sword thrusts. In the ground combat minigame, certain defender units will be shown as wearing armor, and while they are more powerful than unarmored militia, they aren't by a great degree.
  • Artificial Brilliance: If you start greatly weakening a faction's overall presence in the Caribbean, they will start launching a number of naval invasion fleets to recapture their colonies. Enemy ships also react differently based on what they are. Trade ships surrender very quickly, especially if badly outnumbered or outgunned. Smugglers will always try to run away, and since they're sailing in Sloops they've got a good chance of escaping. Pirates, warships with invasion forces aboard, and Rayomondo/Mendoza will try to ram to bring you to grips, but if you've got a large enough crew they'll try a few broadsides with grapeshot to tip the odds in their favor. Pirate hunters, however, will try to wipe out your sails with chain shot and beat you with grape shot before moving in for the kill, making them one of the more frustrating opponents to fight. Big, powerful warships - especially Spanish treasure ships - will try to destroy you with massed broadside fire.
  • Awesome but Practical: The War Galleon gets used a lot, if only because finding a Ship of the Line is hard, and both Baron Rayomondo and Colonel Mendoza use the War Galleon exclusively, so you'll never want for a big ship with a lot of cannons.
  • Battle Thralls: More than one type in this game. Sometimes after your boarding party takes over a ship, some of the surviving enemy crew are impressed and ask to join you. Also, when engaged in ship-to-ship combat your cannon fire will often send members of the enemy crew overboard. (If you use grape shot, this happens an awful lot.) They'll float there, clinging to a piece of wreckage, and if you sail over them you automatically fish them out. They then become part of your crew.
  • Big Bad: Marquis de la Montalban in the 2004 version is the man behind your family's enslavement and your main nemesis.
  • Boarding Party: You can board enemy ships and defeat their captains in order to capture them and their valuable cargoes.
  • Butt Monkey: Spain. They have the highest ratio of "really valuable stuff" to "ability to defend self".
    • And since they are the dominant power of the day, they vastly outnumber all the other targets, sometimes even put together.
      • Their ability to defend themselves varies greatly depending on the time period you choose. Spain in 1660 may be a Butt Monkey, but Spain in 1620 will not take kindly to your piracy and will make a point of letting you know, and Spain in 1680 will answer any piratical actions with wave after wave of Pirate Hunters.
  • Camera Screw: Your opponent's moves in swordfighting are occasionally obscured by action happening in the foreground, particularly other dueling crewmembers, or a crewmember falling from above. Since swordfighting in the game depends entirely upon watching your opponent's move and reacting accordingly, this can be enough to turn a fight sour.
  • The Cavalier Years
  • Card-Carrying Villain: You always know when a ship belongs to one of your main enemies, because it is labeled EVIL!
  • Chain Link Fence: You can elude the authorities in the stealth sections by jumping over short walls.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: The only way to get maximum points is to be ennobled by all four nations, which means at some point you're going to have to switch sides and sail for someone you just got done plundering.
    • You can do this to other pirates and natives. Tell them to attack a city, and the moment they set sail, assault and destroy their ships. Then cruise around to every faction's ports in the area and get points for destroying the pirate/native threat.
  • City of Gold: In older versions, they're lost Incan treasures.
  • Combat by Champion: Subverted with duels between captains, while it is possible to win a battle by defeating the enemy duelist, there is also an ongoing battle between the crews, and if you are utterly unnumbered it becomes impossible to defeat the duelist (at least in 1993 Gold version).
    • In the new version, being the last man standing means that you automatically surrender to the opposing captain the next time you're hit, regardless of how well you were doing in the fight beforehand. Theoretically, though, it is possible to win a battle with only yourself as the remaining boarder/defender; you just have to avoid being hit at all. This is not as easy as it sounds, as once your crew is completely wiped out, the enemy captain will become extremely aggressive and be able to dodge attacks you were connecting with just moments before.
  • The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard: AI ships seem to take no damage from sailing into rocks. Also, while your character's swordsmanship decreases with age, it seems that ol' Marquis Montalban drank from the Fountain of Youth.
  • Cool Boat: The Brig of War, Mail Runner, Royal Sloop, and Ship of the Line are the best of their respective classes. The latter is the rarest and most powerful ship in the game.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: After the final battle with Montalban, he will hand over a ton of gold and any specialists you're missing in exchange for his life. He also becomes your cabin boy (though there are no in-game consequences).
  • The Dev Team Thinks of Everything: Every single ship you encounter in the Caribbean actually has a "mission" that it is set to complete, be it sailing from one port to another to deliver people, supplies, or soldiers. Allowing them to complete these missions causes the target port to grow larger and stronger and wealthier, so blowing up every ship you see might not be in your best interests. Different ships also have different effects; smugglers, for example, won't boost the target port at all but will boost the port they launched from. Military payroll ships boost military strength across the entire faction's ports by a small but noticeable amount. An invasion fleet will decrease the strength of the port it was launched from. Grain and regular trade ships will boost population when they arrive at their target port.
  • Diagonal Speed Boost: Land battles allow diagonal movement in this manner.
  • Disney Villain Death: Strangely averted with the Marquis de la Montalban, considering how grievous his offenses were and the fact that your climactic battle with him takes place on the top of a tower.
  • Distressed Damsel: If you romance a Governor's Daughter enough in the 2004 version, then when you next visit the port the Governor will tearfully tell you that she has been kidnapped by the Evil Colonel Mendoza and beg you to hunt him down and rescue her. (Successfully doing so leads to the opportunity to propose marriage shortly after.)
  • The Dog Shot First: The instant you buy a dueling pistol, other pirates will start kicking off swordfights by shooting at you and missing. This, of course, gives you the moral authority to shoot them in the shoulder, giving you a slight advantage.
  • The Dragon: Baron Raymondo is one of Montalban's henchmen, and the guy you have to go after to get any news about your family members' locations.
  • Easily Forgiven: Did you "accidently" sink/capture one of a faction's ships? No problem! Just pay the nearest governor for that faction a thousand gold, and they'll forget it ever happened, and will even encourage you to strike at their own enemies.
  • An Entrepreneur Is You: Possible, but not really that exciting. Made difficult to do as a long-term strategy by the fact that a week passes whenever you enter a town, and the town's limited supply of money for that week.
  • Exactly What I Aimed At: Used amusingly in the duels with the "named" pirates. After you do this a couple of times, the pirates start subverting it with their Genre Savvy, but it's always immediately Double Subverted.
  • Faction Calculus: The land battles in the 2004 version have different unit types for the Pirates (Subversive) and the European Defenders (Powerhouse). Generally-speaking, the pirates will be much more effective at close-quarters combat than the defenders, while the defenders will have much greater ranged ability. The only units the defenders have which can engage in reasonable close combat are groups of Native American axemen and the very rare cavalry unit. Combat ultimately boils down to using the local jungle and rocky terrain to shield your melee and ranged troops until they can get into range, and avoiding open fields like the plague unless you're close enough to hit the enemy with your melee units.
  • Fragile Speedster: The Pinnace and Pinnace class ships, from Mail Carriers to War Canoes. Sloops to a lesser degree, with the Royal Sloop being a borderline Lightning Bruiser.
  • Geo Effects: In land battles, terrain offers all sorts of advantages. Hiding in the forests affects the visibility and location of units, and Cavalry are incredibly weak in them. You also gain an advantage in melee combat if you attack from higher ground.
  • Gotta Catch Them All: Family members, treasures/lost cities, and the map pieces to find them
  • Gotta Kill Them All: In newer versions, the Named Pirates. They might not die, but their portrait gets a big red X, and you never see them again.
  • Grievous Bottley Harm: In bars you will sometimes see a captain who is bothering the barmaid. You have the option of fighting him in a duel. If you win the duel, you end up pushing him back to where the barmaid is standing, who breaks a bottle over the poor sap's head, ending the fight.
  • Guns Akimbo: The "Brace of Pistols" item gives you two pistols to open a fight with.
  • Hero of Another Story: Captain Sydney, whose memoirs appear in the manuals as in-universe explanations of game mechanics. If translated into player character stats, they describe a 1620 English Adventurer[1] who scored high points in Romance and Lost Relatives, and low points in Named Pirates, Treasure Maps, and Promotions. And he sure liked to whip the "papist dons".
    • Sydney was the default name of the protagonist in the previous game on the Genesis, with the default time period being 1620.
  • Idiosyncratic Difficulty Levels: A hallmark of many Sid Meier games.
  • Infinity Plus One Ship: The Ship of the Line.
  • Insurmountable Waist-Height Fence: Can actually be used to your advantage in the Stealth Based Missions; while you can climb over them, the guards can't.
  • I Surrender, Suckers: If you pummel the ship of an Evil Spaniard (the Marquis of Montalban or Baron Raymondo) hard enough, the ship will raise the white flag and surrender as soon as you board it; however a swordfight with the villain in question will ensue.
  • Joker Immunity: The older versions had a variety of evil Spaniards to chase down, but the 2004 version recycles Montalban, Raymondo, and Mendoza, giving them this status.
    • To drive the point home, you cannot sink a ship belonging to any of these three, regardless of how many times you score a massive hit with all your cannons at close range - You have to board it and fence the villain. In fact, you can use Grape-Shot to whittle their crew down to just 1 man (presumable, the villain himself), and it will never drop below that.
  • Made of Iron: Ships manned by the Big Bad or The Dragon never sink; their hull damage will never go beyond 99% (ships normally sink when hull damage reaches 100%)
  • Master of None: The Brig of War is not nearly as popular as it might be, despite being the game's quintessential Lightning Bruiser, because players tend to fall into two different camps on tactics: "ram them quick and start a sword fight" or "pound them into splinters with your guns, then board." The former prefer Royal Sloops (or for the truly elite or crazed, Mail Runners), while the latter go for the Ship of the Line, leaving the Brig of War without a particular niche.
  • Mighty Glacier: Galleons. Frigates and Ships of the Line almost fit, but with the caveat that their max speed is higher than any other ship's (though their maneuverability against the wind is terrible).
  • Mini Game: The dancing, the swordfights, both naval and land combat... As a matter of fact, Pirates! might well be a Minigame Game.
  • Mayincatec: And Olmec!
  • Misbegotten Multiplayer Mode: In the Wii version. Player 2 gets to adjust sails and control a parrot.
  • Never Say "Die": The game almost never actually shows anyone dying as such. Swordfights are always settled with the loser yielding, falling overboard, or being knocked out. Casualties from ship-to-ship combat are abstracted and never seen. No mention is made of the fate of any enemy crew that doesn't decide to join your band of rogues, though it's entirely possible they're simply marooned -- not that that is really a better option. The only place anyone is shown as actually dropping dead is during land battles.
  • Nice Hat: In the 2004 version, part of the dress uniform for Admirals and above. Lower-ranked characters may obtain a hat that nets them more invitations to grand balls, and therefore more romance opportunities.
  • Nintendo Hard: The highest difficulty level, Swashbuckler. Getting a perfect score of 127 on this level takes a great amount of patience and skill, and probably a bit of luck.
    • It is possible to "cheat" the system: because you can go to the next difficulty level any time you divide the plunder, you can spend most of your career in the lower difficulty levels, then jump to Swashbuckler and claim that you did it. Your share of the loot is smaller at lower difficulties, but it's still easily possible. There's absolutely no advantage for doing so, however.
  • Non-Lethal Warfare: In the 2004 version, swordfights end with one participant surrendering, going overboard, getting knocked unconscious, etc. In the older versions, all duels ended with a character surrendering, and your character never died. On the other hand, it is generally avoided with crewmen; direct hits from cannonballs and grapeshot will leave some crewmen treading water, but for ever man left at sea there's a dozen crew who are simply killed outright. In addition, losing a land skirmish ends with the pirates fleeing and leaving a number of clearly dead men behind.
  • No Stat Atrophy: Averted, as noted in the main article.
  • Obvious Beta: The game shipped with several intended features Dummied Out. For example, as originally intended, you would have needed to build up your relationship with the Indians and the Jesuits, but instead, they just trust you completely all the time, making the items that are intended to improve your relations with them absolutely useless. Firaxis claims this was due to a rushed release date.
  • One Hundred Percent Completion: A perfect score is 127 points. Strangely, you don't get points for rescuing your grandfather (if you already have all four map pieces to find him) or finding the final lost city (under the same condition), meaning you can get a perfect score without completely fulfilling your quests.
  • One Ship Armada: You can practically conquer the Caribbean by yourself for whatever country you want, or just rampage around the high seas, destroying everyone's ships.
  • Orphan's Plot Trinket: The family locket, in the newer version's introduction. It's actually the final straw that launches your career in piracy.
  • Parental Abandonment: In each of the games, your character's Backstory always involves his parents (and the rest of his family for that matter) disappearing, and it becomes up to you to find them. The 2004 version plays it even more straight, as your parents are notably absent from the intro and are not among those you rescue.
  • Pirate Booty: Both averted and played straight. While most of your profit is probably going to be made by plundering merchant ships and selling their cargoes at the nearest friendly port, the "Ten Most Noteworthy Pirates" in the game do have buried treasures that you can dig up (which will obviously tick off the victim; you are stealing his hard-"earned" gold, after all). Also, there's the Spanish Treasure Fleet.
  • Pirates: No-brainer.
  • Pirate Parrot: Referenced by the bartender when he has nothing important to say. In the Wii version, a taunting parrot is controlled by Player 2.
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Averted like hell -- you are actively encouraged to attack peaceful ships, plunder cities, and cause mayhem. However, it is theoretically possible to get a half-decent score without engaging in actual piracy if you really want to, by making ends meet as an honest merchant and picking fights only with pirate ships.
  • Privateer: To get the most fame and best retirement, you must at some point be on good terms with a nation. Otherwise, the older versions won't even let you land in a port. The 2004-based versions give you Pirate ports, but you're still denied access to governors or their daughters. This means, unless you cooperate with a European power, there's no way to score Rank or Romance points. With that said, you can earn credit with a power just by fighting their enemies (and taking out pirates and natives scores points with everyone), and you can sneak into towns or attack them to get to the governor's mansion even if you're wanted by the law.
  • Romance Sidequest: Governors' daughters. You can even romance more than one, though of course you can marry only one.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Unhappy crew will get fed up with you and eventually some crew will simply refuse to show up the next time you leave port. Eventually your second in command will outright steal one of your ships, plus any cargo it was carrying.
    • In the older versions, it was even worse; when crewmen began to desert you, they would take a portion of the plunder with them. This would serve only to infuriate your remaining crew even more, causing even more desertions and sparking a neverending downward spiral.
  • Shown Their Work: It's Sid Meier, did you expect less? The original Pirates! even forced the player to figure out where they were by using a sextant to identify only their latitude and land masses to get their bearing.
  • Something About a Rose: The Wit and Charm skill. The image on Swashbuckler difficulty is TV Tropes Made of Win Archive.
  • Speaking Simlish: In the newer versions.
    • And in four distinct accents, one for each nationality!
  • Stealth Based Mission: Sneaking into enemy ports, as well as out of them when you're escaping from your Cardboard Prison.
  • Surprise Difficulty: Playing at any of the four (originally three) lowest difficulty levels isn't terribly difficult. Sure, Rogue (the second highest) is hard, but it's not impossible. But when you're no longer satisfied with a scant 30% of the plunder, you decide to bump it up to Swashbuckler for that 50% share and discover you have entered Hell itself. Storms will rip your ships apart when before they did little damage. The captains of Mail Runner ships (the smallest, least defended ship) will fight as if they were captaining a fleet of Brigs. Land combat, previously difficult, will become nigh impossible. The wind will change constantly, and always against you in naval battles. Swordfights will become a test of luck rather than skill, as apparently everyone you cross swords with trained specifically to defeat you. Suffice to say, Swashbuckler difficulty is excruciatingly hard, never lets up, and makes sure you earn whatever ending you get.
  • Thicker Than Water: Your poor, enslaved family.
  • Thirty Years War: The political backdrop if you start in 1620 or 1640.
  • Treasure Map: In addition to the fairly straight examples, there're also maps that help you locate long-lost kidnapped family members.
  • Unwinnable by Design: If you take too long to track down the Marquis of Montalban, you'll probably be too old to outmaneuver him in swordfights; specially in the harder difficulty settings.
  • Vestigial Empire: Spain is slowly sliding into the morass of becoming this throughout the game's years, and players are openly encouraged to help them along as they have the most valuables and targets without having some of the advanced units their Northern rivals have. With a good deal of effort, you can literally do this by stripping a colonial power of all but one colony. Guess who is one of the most frequent targets of that?
  • Video Game Cruelty Potential: As the game is about piracy, this comes with the territory. However, a common tactic among players is to slaughter the majority of their own crews (by leading them into hopeless battles) before dividing up the plunder. This won't increase the portion the Player Character gets to keep, but it will for the rest of the crew. As a result, they'll be happier with their share, you'll be seen as a more capable leader, and more people will want to join you on your next expedition.
    • Of course, if you're wildly successful in your current voyage, slaughtering extra crewmen could put you over the top of the bar, enabling you to sail until retirement without dividing the plunder. Usually takes most players at least three divvies to get that far, however, as a frigate of some sort is a must, and sometimes the bastards just won't spawn. (Using a Royal Sloop runs the risk of easy disarmament against Spanish nobles and Montalban by having too few crew members if they decide to ram you early, of course.)
      • Land invasions have the same effect; you will make enough profit and lose enough men never to need to divvy. You can completely conquer the Caribbean for your chosen country this way. Might want to take along some cargo ships for the extra crew capacity.
    • Get a Ship of the Line. Disable the enemy ship's sails with chain shot, wipe out their crew with grape shot, then circle around the helpless, drifting hulk and pound it to splinters with cannon fire. For extra cruelty, do it to an Indian War Canoe.
    • Go to a pirate port or native settlement, and tell them to attack the biggest, most heavily-defended port in the area, and watch them gleefully sail off and get trounced. Then follow up behind them and wipe out the weakened garrison and sack the town. Suckers.
    • Escort a fleet of immigrants to a port, boosting the town's size and wealth. Then sack it.
  • Welcome to The Caribbean Luv
  • Wide Open Sandbox
  1. He writes about using Providence as a base.