NOTE: These hints were based on game play in the time period known as the Buccanear Heroes. Most tips should apply to other periods.... and there may be better ways of doing things.
A. STARTING AN EXPEDITION:
Save your game first, always. The go to the Tavern- get info from the Bartender and the Traveller (if present). Buy map from Map Seller if present (if the map is useless, ie.-no coastline, you can restart from the saved postion and try again. If you already have a good map piece don't buy another... it's not a new map, just another piece of the one you already have. Hire all the Sailors (if the number offered will fit on your ship). You want to start with as large a crew as you can. It helps to end an expedition in a major port, as big cities have more men in the tavern for the following expedition.
Next go to the Governor- find out who your current allies and enemies are. You may receive payment for a hostage (I usually take any offer over 900 gold pieces). You may also hear news of where to find "The Evil One". (Write down that info.) If you are offered an expedition, decline. (Wait until later in the expedition when you have accomplished some goals and have some free time.)
And finally look at your logbook's party status and at your globe, and plan on which direction to take after leaving the harbor. When ready, leave town.
B. DURING AN EXPEDITION
In the beginning, use your large number of men to go sack the biggest prospering/wealthy enemy town that your men can handle. Unless you are very good, avoid towns with 3 or 4 forts. Try to accumulate more men and some cargo ships while going to the town, so that you will have room for all of the plundered goods. If given the choice, install a governor of your nationality.
When you've sacked 1-3 towns and your number of men is significantly reduced, do your personal journeys, such as accepting a mission or hunting for the Evil One or relatives. Accumulate as many ships as you can and still maintain decent combat ability (as judged by the number of cannon you can fire). If you get more than eight ships, keep the most expensive. If you have only one ship, it should be a frigate. If only two ships, a frigate and a merchantman/galleon. Only three ships: the same as two, plus a small quick ship (sloop or barque).
Save finding the major ancient treasures for later in the voyage, when your crew is growing unhappy. When meeting ships at sea, investigate all sightings, and attack all pirates and non-allied ships. Avoid frigates if you are severely unmanned. Take on a few new crew members occasionally to offset combat losses, except near the end of a voyage when it will make your crew unhappy. Enter ports to save your game occasionally (sneak in if you have to).
C. ENDING AN EXPEDITION
When ready to divy, try to do so in a major port of your own nationality. You can also get into sea battles prior to entering the divy port, and purposely take a few hits so that you can whittle your crew down to the minimum number, so that the shares will be larger.
Save the game when you enter the divy city. Go see the govenor. Sell EVERYTHING at the merchant. At the shipwright sell all ships but your flagship, and most of your cannon. Get news and info at the tavern. Divy at the bank as the last thing you do.
D. SHIP COMBAT
I never had any problem with this. I just kept my ship either directly ahead of or directly behind my opponent, putting shots into him as I tacked back and forth. In this way I could hit him without being shot at. You may take a shot or two when you are initially getting into position, but after that, no problem. It doesn't matter how much more powerful your opponent is, as long as there is no hand-to-hand combat. I preferred a frigate for all battles at the easier skill levels, and a 18-gun barque for fighting small ships at the harder skill levels. I wish the game was more realistic in this section, as it was absurd how quickly the ships pivoted in place at slow speeds, and when they accelerated or decelerated drastically depending on a change in the wind. Oh well.
E. SWORD COMBAT
I never got good at this. I just selected Skill at Fencing when creating the character, and always pressed the attack, not wasting time on defense. In this way I always won my swordfights, except when I was old and in poor health and tried to take on an army much bigger than my own.
F. ATTACKING A TOWN BY SEA
Don't waste time trading shots with the fort, just rush in as quick as you can, landing right at the fort (not nearby). Tack back and forth if the wind is not favorable. If you take too long to land, most of the gold will be hidden when you arrive. Some forts are almost impossible to take due to harbor layout and wind conditions. It might be worth your while to make a list of such harbors so that you don't waste your time attacking them in the future. It seemed to me that you are only attacking with one ship, and so no matter how many men you have, you are only attacking with the men on the ship you use (I once had over 500 men and attacked a port with 400 men, but when I landed I only had the 220 men that could fit on the frigate I attacked with.) Also, keep an eye on your crew strength, as it drastically goes down when you take hits from the forts.
G. ACCEPTING SPECIAL MISSIONS
These special missions include: capturing a certain pirate who is hunting in a designated area, capturing a town to free a governor's relative, and delivering a letter/parcel somewhere. Pirate hunting is easy (I always considered it a sure bet), but may take you out of your way. Freeing a relative depends on the amount of soldiers and forts in that town, and is generally not recommended unless the town is defenseless or one that you wanted to plunder anyway. Besides, it only seems to give you favor with that governor, unlike pirate-hunting that pleases the king as well. Delivering a letter should be easy, but due to a bug in my version I was never able to find the person that I supposed to meet, and so I always avoid this mission. You can avoid the loss of prestige from failed missions by saving your game just prior to visiting the governor, and restoring the game if you are given a mission you don't like. Note: in the original version of "Pirates! Gold" that I had, there were some bugs in these special missions. Once I had installed the upgrade patch, however, all but the letter delivery bug went away.
Various accomplishments that make a sponsor country happy can result in promotions, new titles, prestige, and/or land. Accomplishments that win you favor include: completing certain governor's missions successfully, and plundering lots of enemy ships and towns (especially if you can convert the town's nationality to your sponsor's home). In order, the ranks and titles that I have seen are: Ensign, Captain, Major, Colonel, Admiral, Baron, Count, Marquis, and Duke. There may be more, but you would have to do incredibly well to go past Duke.
I. KEEPING CREW HAPPY
Generally, the more men you have, the unhappier they will be. (This is because there individual shares of the booty is smaller with many men.) If your men are unhappy for too long, they will mutiny. The longer you have been at sea, the more gold you must have to keep the same number of men happy. So, as the expedition drags on, you must continue to gain gold or lose men, or both. The key ratio is "voyage time vs. # of men vs. gold amount". Your crew is always happy at the beginning of an expedition, so hire as many men as you can carry at the expedition's start, and use your "army" to sack a number of cities in the expedition's early phases. If you want to lose some men (to keep the others happy), you can take some hits during sacks and sea battles.
J. MAPS, TREASURES, RELATIVES:
Ordinary pirate treasure maps come in four pieces, and refer to a buried treasure of 5-13 thousand gold pieces. Usually one piece is all you need (if it has a coastline), so don't buy any extra maps until you find the treasure (as they will only be pieces of the same map, until that treasure is found). All maps are the exact same scale as the sailing screen, so if you are off the coastline in the general area, you can flip back and forth between the two screens while you compare coastal features. (I always make a hand-drawn copy of the map to the exact scale as the screen so that I can refer to it while I stay on the sailing screen, using the PAUSE key as required.) If you look close at the map you will notice squares of dark and light color for the ground. These squares match similar dark and light land features on the sailing/marching screen. This can come in handy when trying to locate the exact spot for digging.
There are four lost relatives in the game (sister, father, niece, uncle). Each one has a treasure map piece, and if you find that ancient treasure (Incan, Aztec, Olmec, Mayan) before you find the next relative, the next relative will lead you to a different treasure (otherwise you will just wind up with another section of the same map that you already have). If you get a map piece with no coastline, you might consider restoring your game to the last saved position (another reason to save frequently), and trying again, as the choice of which piece you receive seems random.Each of the ancient treasures is worth about 100,000 gold pieces.
If you win the favors of a woman, she will tell you info whenever you visit her subsequently. Early in your career, just "Make Conversation" with the women you meet, until you at least make Captain or Major and have some wealth, which will make you a decent suitor. Propose only to a govenor's relative, preferably in a large centrally located port of your own nationality (for example, Port Royale if you are British during the 1660-1680 time period).
Lower your sails when sailing through waters with a lot of shoals.