Pirates Tips

From James Benkard

Here are some tips for you all from my experience with the grand games "Pirates!" (the older version) and "Pirates Gold!" (the newer, IBM CD-Rom game in the "Conquer the World" package.) Anyone who has any questions or disagreements with what I say here, please feel free to contact me at my email address above.

My top score is 165, and for that score I was French, with Medicine as my special skill, in the year 1560. I think I could gain a few more points on that score if I turned on one of the nationalities that I helped build up. For example, say you spend your time during the game looting the Spanish and building up the French, British and Dutch.

By the end of this particular game, the last three of those nations were at war with one another. I was already a Duke in two of these nationalities - France and Holland. So to gain promotions, I could turn on one of the nations where I was already a Duke to ascend the promotional ladder. I was only an English Captain, and England was at war with France. But I was weary from being chased by the Spanish for ten missions, so I was reluctant to have French frigates hunting me down as well. Some day I'll go back and see what I can do with turning against the French in that game. I'd like to see if I can get it over 170.

In this game, this guy (named the pirate "le Benny", after my parents' cat) ended with 680,000 gold pieces and 16,000 acres of land. He was a King's Advisor, had rescued four members of his family, was married, and was "contented and cheerful." He was a Duke in two nationalities and a Captain in another.

I'm telling you about my best game so that you know what my limits are, and so I can get to know what you all have done. Anyway, here are what I feel are some helpful tips in playing the game.

If you really want to try for a high score, try the time period I have mentioned - 1560. I haven't systematically gone through other time periods one by one, but I think I have played all of them, and 1560 undoubtedly offers the most potential for points.

To gain a lot of points, you need the following:

  1. Spanish strength.
  2. War between the nations, which leads to promotions.
  3. An aggressive attitude which leads you to take chances.

That's it, basically. If those first two elements are in place, and you fulfill the third condition, then you can be successful.

I should point out here that I play the game primarily as a pirate who wars against the Spanish. I'm almost always French in my nationality. There may well be other ways of accumulating lots of points while making war with two nations, or more, but I haven't really investigated them.

I just say that so you know where I'm coming from, and to leave the door open for other ways to play the game. I don't pretend to have the magic formula to play "Pirates!" well. I merely have a way of playing which is simple and efficient for me. This is an approach where I don't attack other nationalities besides the Spanish.

There are exceptions to this rule, though. Say, for example, you're busy beating up on the Spanish, and the Dutch join them as allies. If you're not already titled in Holland (i.e. a Captain, etc.), then it's very possible you'll see Dutch fast galleons chasing you down sooner or later. This happens even if you haven't done anything to the Dutch. (This is one reason why it's worthwhile to seek as many promotions, with as many different nations, as possible in the beginning of the game. I'll explain that more later.)

Anyway, the reasons why I don't attack other nations besides the Spanish are pretty simple:

  1. The Spanish are the most powerful.
  2. I usually play earlier time periods, where the Spanish are dominant. In the beginning of these games, there just aren't any other major ports besides the Spanish ones.
  3. Eventually in these earlier time periods, you have carved out cities which are French, English, and Dutch yourself. Even then, there aren't many places to get men. So the last thing you want is to close off your own options for bolstering your crew. Remember that soon after you start to attack a nation's ships and towns, you will be unable to enter their cities peacefully. This makes it very hard to gain men and trade goods!

So, with all that said, let's say we've started a game. I'll walk through a couple of hypothetical missions to show how I try to build a successful career.

In the earlier time periods (let's say we're in one of them), we usually start in Florida Keys, Eleuthera, or some other small town north of Havana. We have fifty or more men, 5000 gold, and a barque or so.

Mission A (first): Apprentice or Journeyman level.

A1. Save the game. Always save the game before you do anything in town. I'll explain more about this later.

A2. Go to the bar. Always get information from the guy in the bar who can tell you about cities and their wealth. This is the only way you'll sometimes gain information about how much money a city has. Then get some men, if your gold supply will allow. Go to the merchant and buy some food (remember to always do this at the beginning of a mission!) Go to the Governor and find out who your nation is at war with. (Hopefully you're at war with the Spanish.)

A3. Take to the seas. Attack anything Spanish, even if you're hopelessly outnumbered. You can always re-start the game if you lose or are sunk. Let all other nations' ships go by. Don't even hail for news from a nation which isn't your own; your nation may be at war with them. In this case, you might go to battle with a ship and nation which you don't want to.

A4. When entering a sea battle, raise your sails immediately and keep them raised for the duration of the battle. This is a personal preference. I believe it gives you a 20% increase in speed, which is very helpful for the next tip.

A5. When attacking ships, spend as little time as possible on sea battles. Board the enemy as quickly as possible. Again, this is the way I play the game, and I don't pretend to have the best way.

But, IMHO, the greatest of weakness of the "Pirates Gold!" version of "Pirates" (I started playing the game on MacIntosh computers in the late 1980s) is that it is very easy to get swept off the screen in a sea battle. In other words, sometimes you are just jockeying for position with an enemy ship, and the computer thinks you're running away! When this happens, if you have a fleet of ships, it will take away a ship, men, and money.
If you have a lot of men and ships, sometimes it is better to just go straight into an enemy ship, taking a couple of hits in the process, than take the chance that you might get swept off the screen. Watch the winds! If they are high, there is a better likelihood that you'll get swept off the screen.
For example, say you are near the end of a great mission, and have a ton of war galleons and men. Chances are that the Spanish will be after you, and you will have a lot of unhappy men. Under these conditions, it's likely you won't have saved the game for four months or more. These are dangerous conditions! Try to do everything in your power not to get sunk, captured, or blown off the screen in these times. Get to a safe port and end the mission! But we'll get to that scenario later. Right now we're just starting...

A6. When engaged in a sword battle, I like to use a longsword. Get as close to your enemy as possible as quickly as you can. You can move your guy forward by just pushing the mouse button at the same time as you hit any of the three "attack" buttons (1, 4, and 7 on the keypad).

Once you are within close range, hit the right mouse button ("thrust") at the same time as you press one of the "attack" buttons. Take your finger off the buttons, then do it again, with a different attack button (but still with the "thrust" option, right mouse).

Doing this, you can get your guy into a rhythm where he's just thrusting high, low, high, middle, etc. constantly. You will see him pushing off of his left foot. The enemy will be busy trying to defend himself. Eventually you will win the battle. I choose thrust over "slash" because the thrust is a quicker blow.

A7. After winning a sea battle, I usually take the ship, whatever it is. There are exceptions to this, but not at this point in the game. Take all the goods and food, and very importantly, cannon.

A8. Make sure you have the correct listings of the pirates' names! When you see a flag on the horizon, and it's a pirate, sometimes the game will ask you who it is. In these cases, you need to have the correct flag names! This is the game's way of ensuring that you purchased the game legally, and are not operating a "pirated," so to speak, version of the game. These codes come in the "Conquer the World" CD-Rom package, or they are available on-line through some of the websites for the game.

A9. Once you start winning sea battles, head back to the port where you started. Obtain a promotion, if possible, and trade in some of the goods you have accumulated.
However, the merchant will be poor, and you are still unlikely to gain many men here, so you will need to head for the Spanish Main. This is the northern coast of South America, where Panama, Cartagena, and Maracaibo are.

A10. If you are lucky enough to have 90 or 100 men, attack Puerto Principe as you head south. It's a fairly lucrative town, and it is not difficult to get into the fort.

A11. Land battles: I try to bunch all my forces together before I march on the fort when the "land battle" screen appears. That usually takes a minute. By this time the opposition's forces are halfway toward reaching me. Then I just circle around them, avoiding them entirely if possible, and head straight for the fort.
I see little point in slugging it out in land battles. Men are precious to me, especially in these early moments of the game/a career. The prizes are the money and goods in the town, and the promotions that will result from sacking it. There are no positives, IMHO, to trying to reduce a fort's garrison. (Unless you're trying to take it over by sacking it over a number of years, but that's another story. Again, I'll get to that later.)

A12. Once you reach the Spanish Main, save the game in Gibraltar. This town doesn't have a fort, so you can just sail right in. The merchant will probably still trade with you. Indeed, until you have attacked the Spanish for a year or two, you will still be able to trade with Spanish merchants.

Of course, you'll have to choose either towns which don't have forts, or you'll need to sneak into those which do. Once your reputation is "famous" or "infamous," Spanish merchants will refuse you service. But in these early moments of your career, take advantage of what the game, and the Spanish, will give you.

A13. Once you have saved the game in Gibraltar, conduct some raids on the smaller towns in the region - Coro, Margarita, Trinidad. You might have enough men to take over one of them. In that case, make it your home nation's nationality.

Continue to attack shipping and save any ships and goods you capture. This might lead to a crew which is too small for your fleet. Say, for example, you have five ships, including three merchantmen, but only 100 men. You won't have more than 60 on your flagship in the event of a sea battle.

Remedy this by returning periodically to Gibraltar, or some other friendly town where you can sail in, to sell some of these ships.

A14. Establishing a town or two of your nationality on the Spanish Main will probably require the majority of your first mission. I start my first mission on the "Journeyman" level.

Keep in mind that the higher the difficulty level (Apprentice, Journeyman, Adventurer, Swashbuckler), the less time you will have for your mission.
At about eight months, you will need to start winding down your mission. On "Apprentice" or "Journeyman" levels, you'll have up to a year to finish your mission, provided you have enough money for your crew. But at the "Adventurer" level, you won't have much more than eight months to complete your mission. Your men start getting "Unhappy" at ten months on "Adventurer," unless you don't have many men at all. And "Unhappy" men don't fight well, desert when you try to leave town, etc.

So my advice is to play the first mission or two of your career at one of the first two levels. You'll get less money in the end, but you'll have more time to do things you need to do. I usually play the first three or four levels at the "Journeyman" level, then the remainder of the game at the "Adventurer" level. I haven't even tried the "Swashbuckler" level.

A15. Once you want to end the mission, if you have established a town in your own nationality, then end it in that town. Sail into the town rather than marching in. I find my version of "Pirates! Gold" tends to crash when you try to exit a town into which you have marched.

Sell everything you own, except for your largest ship. Go to the bank and divide up the plunder.

This is more applicable later in the game, but I'll point it out now. Sometimes you can't sell all your ships. This happens when the merchant runs out of money. In the event that this happens, the computer will choose as your flagship the most expensive ship. This is logical, as the more sea battles you fight, the more you realize that you need a War Galleon in order to survive on the high seas.
The problem is this. If you have Galleons and War Galleons at the end of a mission, the computer will pick the Galleon instead of the War Galleon for your flagship for the next mission. This is silly, as the Galleon is a good cargo ship, and a sturdy ship to fight in. But it doesn't compare as a combat vessel with the War Galleon.

All this is a way of saying that you should pursue a War Galleon as your flagship from the start of the game, and then keep a war galleon from mission to mission. And the only way this is jeopardized, besides being sunk, is if you have an unsold galleon as well as a war galleon at the end of a mission. I hope this makes sense.

Also, if you have captured any members of the nobility on the high seas, I highly recommend you hold them for ransom. Then turn them in to the governor at the beginning of a mission. A Marquis or Duke can fetch you up to 10,000 gold pieces, which is a heck of a lot when you start your mission.
IMHO, that money - even if it's only 2 or 3 grand for a Colonel or Admiral - means a lot more to you at the beginning of a mission than it does during a mission. So if you capture a Baron or Marquis, unless you're actively looking for the Treasure fleet or Silver train and need to know exactly where it is, then keep the guy and hold onto him until the start of your next mission.

Mission B (second): Apprentice or Journeyman level.

B1. This is a critical mission. If you have the chance, try to capture one of the following towns for your nationality during this mission: Campeche, Vera Cruz, or Tampico. You'll recognize these as three coastal towns on the Yucatan peninsula and New Spain.

The reason why it is wonderful to have one or more of these towns in the hands of your home nation is that they become a "safety valve" or "insurance policy" later in the game. As you get further into the game, you'll start to spend a lot of time around Panama, Cartagena, Santiago, and Havana. Those are always very wealthy towns. (Also, many of the family members and treasures are in the roughly Havana-to-Campeche area.)

Now, at the end of a mission, you will need somewhere to sail to, and it's always a pain in the butt to sail east/southeast with an unhappy crew. You'll notice that Cartagena, Santiago etc. are toward the central/western end of the map. Campeche, Vera Cruz or Tampico each provides an excellent port. It takes forever to sail back from there, but you have the beginning of the next mission to do that.

Also, Campeche, Vera Cruz and Tampico become very wealthy during the course of the game. So if you wait until your fourth mission or later, you are less likely to take them over. (This is the case with all the towns, by the way.) In addition, you can see a town such as Vera Cruz's wealth grow in your nation's name.

B2. Try to find a family member and procure the treasure that comes with that family member.

Find each family member's treasure (100K) before you find another family member. If you find another family member before you have found the treasure (Inca, Aztec, Olmec, Mayan) that they have given you with the map, the second family member will give you another part of the map to the first family member's treasure. This reduces the amount of gold you can get from the four family members from 400K to 300K.

There isn't much advice I can give about finding family members and treasures. Facility with this part of the game comes with experience. You will start to recognize parts of the map, and treasures. However, there will be maps that will say "somewhere near Gran Granada," with only a section of land - no coast to be seen.
Such maps are workable if they are maps to a family member. Simply obtain another promotion, and go and get the information you need from the guy who is mentioned. He will give you another piece of the map.

Where this can be disastrous is if the map (which shows only land) is from a family member and is to a treasure. In this case, re-start the game from the last time you saved it. For this reason, IMHO it is advisable to try to get the family members and the treasures in your first missions. I usually have saved two or three of the four family members by the time I have completed my sixth mission. (You can always save one treasure map for later.)
First, saving family members and getting the treasures helps immeasurably to build up your money, so you can obtain crew members more easily. Secondly, earlier on in your career, you are generally less likely to be on huge missions (say you have 700 men, have taken over Panama, and your crew is unhappy), where it is sometimes impossible to re-start the game easily.

B3. Once you have found a family member and a treasure, you will hopefully have a few more months left in mission two. Continue to attack Spanish shipping during this time. Keep your crew at about 200-250 men until you get the first 100K treasure. Then you should have 150K or so gold.

B4. Don't attack cities where you are greatly outnumbered. Attack cities - by land only - when the odds are more or less even, and when you see that the city is either "Prosperous" or "Wealthy." Make sure you have enough room in your ships to carry away what you might capture in the town.

If your ships are full, head for a town which you have turned to your nationality that has some money. Sell as many goods as you can. Don't sell cannon unless you have over 80 tons of it. You can always use cannon. Keep your food at about 50-80 tons minimum for 200-300 men, and 90-100 tons for 300 or more men. Those are safe totals in case you don't capture an enemy ship or town for a while. Remember that your crew will desert you if you run out of food while at sea!

B5. Try to strike the right balance between having a lot of ships, which happens if you are aggressive and want to have room for goods from plundered towns, and having a capable fighting force. For example, a good fighting force is four or five ships, merchantmen, galleons or whatever, with 230 men. You'll need 100K to keep them happy, but that's what the family treasures are for. :- ) With this fleet, you can go up against a war galleon with 150 men of your own.

Six ships with 150 men is dangerous. Then you can only go into battle with 100 men, which can turn to 65 very quickly if the war galleon hits you first. So try to plan ahead in your missions. Visualize where you will be able to sell ships and goods, and to obtain men.

B6. Take over some smaller towns for your nationality (or another, if they are also at war with the Spanish), and help develop them into trading towns. Here's how you do that.

When you take over one of these smaller towns, like Santiago Vega, La Vega, Gibraltar, Margarita, or even Santa Marta, leave as much of your cargo with the town as you can. The game will tell you if you have taken over the town before you reach the screen which tells you how much gold you get, and what goods are to be taken or left. So if you have taken the town over, leave some food, goods, tobacco, perhaps a little cannon with them.

This is a very important bit of strategy. The practice of developing powerful trading towns depends upon these towns gaining "Surviving" status as quickly as possible. It takes a long time for a town to recover from having all its goods stolen, but if you leave it with more stuff than it had in the first place, it will become a useful trading town much sooner. Besides, after you've taken a town over, the town has lost all its gold, so everything you can do for it is essential.

The idea is to make sure a town you've taken over is well-protected - meaning don't deplete its regiment of troops, but end all sword battles as quickly as possible - and wealthy. If you return to a town and trade with its merchant and shipbuilder regularly, the town's wealth will grow. You will benefit as a result - trust me.

Take Vera Cruz as an example. It is possible for the merchant of that town to have 50K, which is the maximum a merchant can have, in gold for trading by 1566 or 1567. That means that if you have been sacking cities and have a lot of goods, you can sail into Vera Cruz (assuming you have already taken it over), and sell all you have to the merchant.

50K is a lot of money in this game, and that's just one town. As you get further into your career, and the Spanish have less gold in their towns, you're going to rely (at least I do) more upon the selling of Spanish goods, which you've plundered from Havana/Santiago, at friendly ports such as Campeche/Vera Cruz.

B7. So now you're taking over some small towns, your crew is 250-plus, and you have 150K. You're going to start seeing War Galleons.

I think War galleons are a hell of a lot of fun. Galleons and war galleons are the most fun part of the game, IMHO, besides capturing the treasure fleet or silver train. But they can be very painful, too, because they can sink you very easily. I try to attack every galleon or war galleon I see. Of course, war galleons don't give you the option - they're pirates or pirate-hunters, and they're out for you!

As I said before, don't spend any time in a sea battle with galleons if you can help it. But sometimes you have to exchange extended cannon fire. Use your judgment in these times. There are specific tactical moves which you can make, but since I'm trying to get this down quickly, I can't explain them in depth here.

The best advice I can give is just to keep your calm. Be arrogant. Talk to the guy who has come after you. "Oh! Marquis Delgado, where have you been all my life? You must want to join your brother, Colonel Delgado, in my hold! Well, I'm only too happy to accommodate you in your quest for a family reunion."

Being cool and calm helps most during the sea battles. This is where you must make your most split-second decisions. Take it easy on yourself if you get sunk, captured, or blown off the screen. It's going to happen. I've been sunk dozens of times. Sometimes the winds just suck, and the opposing war galleon drills you three times before you have a chance to fire back once. Just breathe easy and re-start the game.

Remember to monitor your crew carefully. Don't allow your crew to get too large if you don't have enough money. I mention this now because when you take over a galleon or war galleon, sometimes 100 men or more will want to join you. Don't accept them unless you are sure they won't grow unhappy soon.

Keep in mind that trading, and building up these little towns, requires a crew that's pleased or happy. More on this later.

B8. Keep returning often to the towns you have taken over for promotions as well as selling goods. Again, you must use your own judgment as to when is the best time to return to a mini-base like Santiago Vega, La Vega, Maracaibo, or Gibraltar. (By the way, I highly recommend Maracaibo as a base.)

Accumulate promotions quickly because the first two or three (Ensign, Captain, Major) are fairly easy to obtain. You will gain information about your relatives, and therefore about the treasures.

If you have to find a guy who has information about your sister or another family member, use your judgment about whether or not you can attack the town he's in. In the beginning of the game, you'll be able to sneak into just about any city. The informant will be the "Mystery Man" behind the door to the right in the bar.

You will also gain some informants from among the ranks of the Governor's daughters and nieces. My advice is not to propose marriage until you're 30 or older. Again, more on this later.

B9. If you make a bid for Campeche, Vera Cruz, and Tampico, try to start out for those towns with 400 men who are pleased or happy. That's not easy to do. In fact, it's very hard, but it is possible. You might have to wait until your third or fourth mission to try it. But remember that the longer you wait, the stronger these towns get, so the harder they are to take over.

If your reputation isn't "famous" or "infamous," you can sneak into Havana and recruit men there for your attack on the Yucatan towns. If you have the money from your first family member's treasure (Inca, I think), then you should have enough to recruit men.

Remember that recruiting men depends on a variety of factors. They will join you based on the amount of money your party has, how far into the mission you are, and your reputation and promotion status (Colonel, Admiral, etc).

It goes without saying that if you have 200 men and they're unhappy, you need to end the mission. Don't land in a town with an unhappy crew and expect to get out of that town without men deserting, unless you have a lot of goods and ships to sell, royalty to turn into the governor, and your crew has only recently turned unhappy.

If you try for one of the Yucatan towns, remember there's always tiny Jalapa to take over (and save the game in) if you fail to take over any of the others. This is important to remember if your crew is unhappy and you are three months away from Florida Keys, which might be your nearest friendly port.

But that's part of the risk you take in this game, and part of what makes it fun...

To be continued.