Sid Meier's Pirates!

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Sid Meier's Pirates![1] is a game in which the player takes on the role of a young ship's captain in the 16th or 17th century Caribbean. Players may choose to act as traders, privateers, pirates, or a combination of the three, and may participate in any of several minigame activities. These include naval battles, land battles, swordfighting, ballroom dancing, trading goods and hunting for buried treasure.

At the start of the game, the player character is tasked with succeeding financially, winning fame as a pirate or privateer, and locating his lost family, who have been kidnapped by the game's villain. The map of the Caribbean appears to be generally accurate for the era. Cities may belong to any of several factions or European colonial powers; colonial powers are at war with each other from time to time. Factions include the English, the Dutch, the French, the Spanish, Jesuit missionaries, Native Americans and pirates.


As a collection of minigames woven together by a central narrative, theme and world map, Pirates! is not particularly complex in any one aspect of gameplay. As a result, educators should have a good sense of the game's content and mechanics after a relatively short session of play.

Although the player may have a number of specific goals to complete at any given time during the game, gameplay is generally open-ended. The whole world is open to the player from the start, and the critical path through the game's narrative changes dynamically with each playthrough in certain minor respects.


The bulk of the game is spent sailing from city to city, searching for enemies to fight in ship-to-ship battles and then retreating to friendly ports for repairs. Different ships have different sailing qualities as modeled through the game's physics engine, and can be upgraded with new equipment and officers over the course of the game. Players must find the best point of sailing for their ship given their destination and the prevailing winds at the time.

Naval Battles

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Naval combat in Sid Meier's Pirates!
Ship-to-ship combat is a major element of the game. Combat is conducted in real-time and consists of outmaneuvering the enemy ship or ships in order to hit them with broadsides of cannon, while avoiding the same. Damage can be done to ships' hulls or sails by several types of cannonball, and sailors on either ship may be killed (represented as flying overboard). Either ship may board the other by sailing directly at it. In cases of overwhelming force, enemy ships may surrender to the player when boarded. Other times, a duel with the enemy captain is triggered. The player may capture enemy ships, increasing his fleet or replacing his flagship, or may choose to sink them.

Land Battles

If the player has captured a number of ships from, or otherwise angered, a specific faction, the player may have the option to attack a port rather than landing there. Choosing this option triggers a turn-based land battle minigame, in which the player's units move on a grid against the city's defenders. There is a limited strategic aspect to these battles; for example, attacking from behind an enemy unit confers an advantage. The violence in these sections includes gunfire and swordfights, but defeated units retreat rather than die. If the player successfully defeats the defenders, he may have the option to install a new governor from a faction of his choice in the city.


Rather than attacking a hostile port, the player may choose to sneak into the city at night. This option begins a Pac-Man-like minigame in which the player character must navigate through city streets to his chosen destination while avoiding lantern-holding guards.


Swordfights can occur during naval combat or in taverns, and consist of simple pattern recognition. Players must identify the type of attack or parry being used by their opponent as high, medium or low, and respond with the appropriate counter. Enemies may be struck by weapons, thrown overboard or even lit on fire (their clothes, at least) during these sequences, but the rendering of the violence remains cartoonish.


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Swordfighting in Sid Meier's Pirates!
In friendly cities, the player may choose to visit the governor's mansion. This sometimes triggers a sequence where the governor's daughter asks the player to accompany her to a ball. If the player accepts, a ballroom dancing minigame begins, wherein the player must watch his dance partner's hand signals and respond by pressing the appropriate key (to trigger a specific dance step). This, like the swordfighting minigame, is a very basic pattern recognition game.

Treasure Hunts

At various points in the game, the player will acquire maps to buried treasure (or to the location of his missing family members). These maps include a reference to a city, and specific geographical features which can be seen while sailing on the game's main screen. Sharp eyes and an understanding of the cardinal directions and the in-game geography are necessary to follow the maps and find these treasures.

Educational Potential

Pirates! is not an educational game by design, but designer Sid Meier is known for making games which teach about their historical settings by osmosis. Aspects of the game could be used in classrooms to teach about subjects including:

  • the geography of the Caribbean and Americas
  • history and international relations in the age of sail
  • mercantile economics
  • the colonization of the Caribbean and Americas
  • Earth science (trade winds)

Potentially Problematic Elements

Portions of the game may be considered inappropriate by school administrators, teachers, parents or even students. The game's violent content, references to alcohol, portrayal of women and portrayal of Native Americans are most likely to inspire controversy.


Pirates! showcases swordfighting, gunfire and cannonfire, immolation and even (implied) drowning. This violence is rendered in highly stylized fashion, with no real harm apparently done in most cases. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rated the PC and Macintosh version of the game as appropriate for all players despite "Alcohol Reference, Suggestive Themes and Violence"; other versions of the game received ratings of "Teen" and "Everyone 10+" with the descriptor "Mild Violence." Teachers must decide for themselves whether the violence in the game is too much for their students, parents and school.

References to Alcohol

Non-player characters can be seen sitting near and drinking from unidentified mugs and glass bottles in taverns.

Portrayal of Women

The player character in Pirates! is male. No female player character can be selected. Female characters in the game are limited to governors' daughters and serving girls in taverns. The latter are buxom and beautiful, while the former are explicitly rated according to a scale of attractiveness (plan, attractive or beautiful). Governors' daughters can be wooed through gift-giving and good dancing. Wooing a beautiful daughter confers greater benefits on the player. Once the courtship proceeds to a certain point, the player may be asked to duel a rival suitor in a swordfight, or even to rescue his beloved from a pirate kidnapper. The sexism inherent in the game's portrayal of women may be explained to some extend by its campy, traditional approach to storytelling, and further by its historical setting, but this remains a significant point when considering the game's value for classroom use.

Portrayal of Native Americans

Pirates! portrays Native Americans as generic "Natives," who may be warlike raiders or mercenaries, or may be peaceful traders. No effort is made during gameplay to differentiate between native cultures. The in-game encyclopedia mentions several native cultures, but also includes potentially offensive material.


  1. Sid Meier is the original designer of the game, and his name forms part of the proper title of recent versions.
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