The “Golden Age of Piracy” will never cease to fascinate historians and amateur enthusiasts alike. While the caricatures of peg legs, eye patches, and parrots on the shoulder might not fascinate the imagination long past childhood, the political environment that allowed piracy to flourish, the role it played in the colonial histories of several nations (especially England, France, the Netherlands and Spain), and the personalities of the pirates themselves all make it an era of endless stories of adventure and intrigue.
As one of the most famous pirates, Welshman Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts is quoted as saying; “in an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one, shall be my motto.” And this cuts to the crux of why so many film studios and game developers continue to tap piracy as a setting. Make no bones about it – the pirates were not, typically, benevolent people. They were, as a group and rule of thumb, torturing rapists, and yet they were also inherently anti-imperialists and examples of common people rising up against some nasty empires doing some of their nastiest work in the region. There’s a strong “freedom fighter” and “liberation” theme that cuts through the stories of pirates, making them a bit like what you might imagine an odious Robin Hood of the seas to be (though, as a side note, once you get past the folkloric heroism of Robin Hood it’s a safe bet that he was a less-than-noble rogue himself).
And so we continue to openly embrace the opportunity to be a pirate. Developers kindly paper over the less pleasant things that pirates did, allowing us to enjoy games like Tortuga. This is an essentially bloodless and sanitised excursion of tactical ocean combat and the almost-friendly acquisition of loot… loot that you’ll use to build yourself a pirate empire out of.
This game does try and position itself as an RPG-like experience for some reason, talking up the ability to develop unique skills for your pirate captains and follow a narrative-driven campaign. Those things are technically there, but Tortuga is really a simulation and strategy experience first and foremost. You start out with a single ship and small crew, which is not good for more than raiding the smallest and lightest merchant boats you come across. By doing that and then selling the loot in the cities that dot the colonies across America and the Caribbean, you will eventually be able to start growing the size of the fleet, with more boats, captains to manage them, and heavier weaponry on the ships.
From there you can start attacking very large convoys (including military ships), run into famous pirates from real history (and attack them, if you’re brave enough), and even start sacking entire cities – the pinnacle of the “work” of a pirate. You can form alliances with any of the four empires that have a stake in the region, and potentially even become recognised as a privateer for that nation. Privateers, if you’re not aware of the politics of the era, were just pirates, but “legitimate”, according to whichever nation they allied with. Such privateers would leave the ships of “their” nation alone, while attacking the ships of rival nations. This was useful for the empires, as it allowed them to wage war on one another without actually committing their militaries and navies. As people, though, privateers were just pirates.
Each town that you visit in Tortuga allows you to take on quests and other story-driven elements. These generally result in some kind of combat and some kind of reward for your services. In towns, you can also trade (and the game maintains a local pricing system per town, resulting in a basic “buy low, sell high” economy if you want to be a pirate that focuses on trade). There’s also the ability to upgrade and repair ships and interact with your crew and captains to build morale, but this is all menu-driven. The only time you have direct control over the action is when you’re on the open seas. Thankfully the systems here are fairly detailed. You need to make sure you have enough of a variety of food, grog and tobacco on board to keep crew members happy, and as they sail, you’ll need to account for the direction that the wind is blowing, and your turning angles, to maintain speed. When you run into another ship (or fleet) that you want to attack, it’s time to raise the black flag and close the distance. Enemy ships that are weaker than you will try and flee (and they can escape if you’re not proficient at working with the wind and keeping turning to a minimum). Stronger enemies will attack you (and if you have the black flag raised, and accidentally bump into a much more powerful enemy, you’ll be the one desperately fleeing).
Once combat is joined, there are two ways it can play out. Ship-to-ship combat is turn-based and takes place on a tactical grid. On the surface, it looks like a fairly straightforward tactics game, but there are some interesting caveats. For example, ships that are moving quickly (i.e. covering a lot of spaces in a single turn) will struggle to turn sharply on the next turn, as they’ve built up too much momentum. This might mean that they won’t be able to move into position to attack a rival ship. Wind can also play a role in your ability to manoeuvre and fight. Therefore, you’ll want to plan ahead and carefully consider the conditions so that you’re not wasting time underutilising units on the map.
It’s also possible to get close to an enemy ship and try and board them. When you do this, combat shifts to a simple menu system. You choose between a number of different tactical options, and then try to shift the tide of melee combat your way. Initially, the sides will be evenly matched 50-50, but if you execute successful tactics, the numbers will shift in your favour. Once you’ve reached 100, you’ve captured the ship.
Capturing ships results in better loot and a ship to add to your fleet. You can also potentially add some of the losing crew to your own forces, but it does come with a risk; no tactic has a 100 per cent chance of success, and it only takes one or two “missed rolls” for your entire force to be wiped out. It is definitely safer and more conservative to engage in ship-to-ship combat.
At its peak, Tortuga is a delightful blend of streamlined fleet management and tactical combat. Nothing in the game is too complex, but in each area you do need to pay attention. The economic system can punish you if you don’t take the time to research which towns need what goods the most. The tactical combat system is enhanced by the skills system. As your pirate captains level up they eventually acquire a wide range of skills and expertise. You’ll need to take advantage of every one of their talents when the full might of, say, the Spanish navy is bearing down on you. Keeping the crew happy is straightforward – there are no obscure systems causing morale to drop in a way that you won’t understand without spending hours in tutorials. However, it’s also not necessarily easy to meet the requirements to keep that crew happy. I know this will sound shocking, but pirates – even the lowliest of crew members – can get very greedy for gold.
The downside to such a “clean” game is that it can become monotonous over a longer period of time. Furthermore, as gorgeous as the presentation is, there’s also scant personality. This is because you’re only ever really looking at ships, and never get a chance to put your feet on the ground and actually get a sense of the colonial lifestyle you’re tearing your way through. Stories are delivered through static text and profile pictures. Ultimately Tortuga’s biggest issue is that it’s a little too dry for its own good, and struggles to really drive home the sense of grand adventure and anti-colonialism that is so core to the best pirate stories out there.
Nonetheless, I had a very enjoyable time with the game. It’s like the “dark side” alternative to Port Royale 4 from a couple of years ago. In that title, you were incentivised to play the “nice guy” and exploit the Caribbean’s resources in establishing trade routes that lined your pockets with gold. In Tortuga, you’re taking all that back (for yourself, not because you’re a Robin Hood), and it acts like the other side of a coin that, combined, does a great job of encapsulating one of the most dynamic, dangerous, and fascinating periods of world history.