Forget Skull and Bones, there’s another pirate game out on Steam this week that’s plundered my heart with turn-based naval combat and pirate presidential campaigns

After years of delays, disappointing previews, and a beta our own Tyler Wilde described as “cheesy and unnatural”, I think it’s fair to say a bit of scepticism about the launch of Skull and Bones this Friday is sensible. Hopefully it is good, but if it does turn out to be a load of old hornswoggle, I think I’ve at least found an alternative.

Just released on Steam, Tortuga – A Pirate’s Tale is a pirate sim that really revels in the details. As a captain out to pull off a historic score by plundering the Spanish treasure fleet, you’re free to build up your power by sailing the Caribbean taking down merchant convoys, scrapping with other pirate factions, trading between ports, completing mercenary contracts, and generally making a nautical nuisance of yourself.

The game originally launched on the Epic Game Store last year, but as is often the way with Epic exclusives, it did so to little fanfare and even less attention. I’ve been checking it out this week, and I think it deserves a bit of a second chance now that it’s out on Steam—especially if Skull and Bones isn’t looking like it’s going to satisfy your needs when it comes to buccaneering and booty.

Leaning more into the sim side of things, Tortuga gets into the grit of pirate life—and particularly the social element. Pirate ships were sort of rough democracies, you see—captains weren’t appointed, they were elected by agreement of the crew, and could just as easily be turfed out if they weren’t bringing home the bacon. In Tortuga, that makes managing your crew’s morale a top priority—and though partly that just means keeping your hold loaded with grog and salted meats, there are some more interesting systems at play too.

After every few weeks at sea, you have to “divide the loot” to keep your crew happy. That means choosing how much treasure to give out, but also choosing the grand boasts you’re going to make about what feats you’ll achieve on the next trip out. It’s a bit like custom-building your own multi-layered quests, with objectives like sinking a certain number of enemy ships, raiding a port town, stealing a load of gold, and recruiting more crew. Next time you come to divide the loot, morale will go up or down for every one you’ve ticked off or failed to accomplish, adding a fun risk-reward element to your outings.

(Image credit: Gaming Minds Studios)

In play it feels a bit like being president of the pirates, making a load of violent campaign promises every election season to keep the voters on side. Throw in the need to keep the captains under you happy too—yes, you can build whole fleets to go raiding with you—and it’s a healthy dose of pirate politics that helps add unique depth to the seafaring fantasy.

Out on the ocean, exploring and travelling is real-time, but battles are turn-based. It’s agreeably tactical—as you’d expect, it’s all about getting alongside enemy ships to unleash your broadside cannons, ideally hitting the same side repeatedly to break through their defences. A fun twist is that the ships have realistic momentum—you have to move at least a certain number of spaces each turn, and the further you move in one turn, the higher that minimum is, reflecting the difficulty of maneuvering at increased speeds. 

(Image credit: Gaming Minds Studios)

Boarding actions add a further wrinkle—you can try rushing the enemy and sending your crew to try and take over their boat at any time, but it’s a risky move with a high chance of failure. The key is to soften up your target with barrages of different kinds of cannon fire. Chainshot does little hull damage, but wrecks enemy sails, making them slower and easier to outsail; that opens up more opportunities to focus fire with iron balls and break a section of the ship’s armour; and once that protection is gone, grapeshot blasts can penetrate, which directly tear up the enemy crew.

Once there are a few less men on deck, boarding attempts are safer and more decisive. Charge in and it triggers a minigame that pits your crew and morale against theirs. Success steals their ship outright, and you can even recruit any surviving sailors to your fleet. 

(Image credit: Gaming Minds Studios)

I can’t say Tortuga will be for everyone—if you’re the kind of person with no interest whatsoever in the fluctuating price of rum between ports or the difference between a brig and a sloop, this may just be too detail-oriented for your personal pirate fantasy. But from what I’ve played it offers a lot more player agency to really carve out your own Caribbean adventure than Skull and Bones is likely to, with a pleasingly nuanced take on a pirate’s life. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that you can pick it up for a fraction of the price of Ubisoft’s offering, reduced further by a 10% off launch offer until Feb 20. 

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