Yaaarrrr mateys! Pirates vs. Corsairs: Davey Jones' Gold [$0.99 / $2.99] is a simple, entertaining, colorful, turn-based tactical combat strategy game that is held back slightly by a few programming glitches. It’s a game definitely worth picking up because it nails the fun factor with flying pirate and corsair colors.
At its core, Pirates vs. Corsairs is a digital board game. The game is played mostly on a colorful main ocean map divided into a series of uneven zones. The only unit in the game is a naval squad made up of three different ships in predetermined ratios. You can’t change the makeup of units but you can combine them without limit. The only resource is money, which you obtain by capturing and connecting ports or picking up floating treasure chests. Connecting ports opens merchant shipping lanes for increased earnings. The more shipping lanes you control, the more money you get at the start of your turn as your merchant galleon collects gold from each port.
Each unit gets a single move per turn and you traverse zones one at a time. Accumulating money is critical to winning the game. As you gather money, you can buy more units as well as a few upgrades. The two factions are essentially identical. Each side has the same weapons, equipment and ships at its disposal. The only difference between the two sides is the pirates are red and begin on the left side of the main map and the corsairs are green and start on the right.
The game is light on tactical strategy and long on streamlined combat. Initiating naval combat is as simple as moving onto a zone occupied by an enemy vessel. Winning naval battles is mostly a numbers game, although there is a little room for strategy. Some ships are excellent at destroying different kinds of vessels. After combat is initiated, the game transitions to a randomly generated combat map. There are three or four different combat maps. Some are wide open with minor obstacles like shallow shoals and marooned shipwreck survivors. Others have mountain ranges or islands that force combatants through narrow straits choked with perils like underwater volcanoes and krakens. Again, pirates start on the left side of the combat map and corsairs on the right.
Naval battles occur in real time. Each ship employs a specific type of weaponry but has a restriction on movement. Galleons can only move vertically but shoot powerful cannon balls. Cutters hold sword wielding maniacs that can race across the map in any direction. Long boats are filled with rifleman that row manically across the map in any direction except backwards. Units can be positioned in single file or side by side with a tap of a finger. Attacking an enemy is as simple as tapping on one of your ships and then touching an opponent.
Aside from naval battles, combat comes in two other varieties: port assaults and merchant galleon attacks. Port assaults involve a mini game in which you have to shoot 10 enemies who hide behind obstacles and pop-up to shoot at you. It’s kind of like shoot-a-mole. Merchant galleon attacks switch to a side-scrolling game in which a single longboat oarsman chases an enemy merchant ship while avoiding obstacles thrown from the ship or in the environment. If you’re attacking, you have to jump and duck to avoid barrels, rocks, cannon balls, seagulls and parrots while shooting enemies who leap at you kamikaze style. If you’re defending, you hurl items and men at the attacker to slow him down. If the longboat oarsman manages to catch the merchant galleon, its gold is forfeit. Controls are spot-on throughout the game.
Pirates vs. Corsairs does a fantastic job of maximizing its minimal strategic options. This is not a complex strategy game but it manages to feel more complicated than it is by eking out every strategic option within its limited repertoire of choices. Aside from combining navies, you can buy upgrades that improve your weaponry or offer protection from paralyzing storms, psychotic packs of man-eating sharks and a deadly ghost ship. Shark attacks and ghost ship attacks threaten only ships in clearly marked merchant lanes so there are opportunities to avoid random attacks.
There is also a deserted skull island that generates navies randomly for your side if you control its zone. All of the random events, as well as skull island, can be turned off in the options menu. Plus there are plenty of opportunities to capture ports for increased earnings per turn or to attack enemy galleons to steal gold. Combat can be switched to the AI if you prefer to avoid manual battles. Three options for the strength of your units as well as the enemy’s allow players to choose a number of difficulty levels. Enemy AI is pretty good, although it definitely isn’t programmed to take advantage of some important strategic considerations like combining units. A single player game can last anywhere from 20 minutes to much longer than an hour.
The game comes with four scenarios, although there’s little difference among them. The only difference in the scenarios is the placement of units and treasures and the strength of each navy, which is a little disappointing. The ports are in the same place and the maps are all the same. Although the lack of diversity in the maps is consistent with Pirates vs. Corsairs board game design, it would have been much more fun to have some variety in the geography.
Animations in the game are well drawn and really fun to watch. At the beginning of naval combat, you’re treated to a brief cartoon that shows a screaming attacker blasting a cannonball across the bow of a reeling defender. After the short animated attack, the view shifts to the naval combat screens. The animation here is equally good as tiny longboat oarsman row furiously toward their attackers and defeated sailors cling for their lives to sinking masts. The animations for the random events are exceptional, especially the ghost ship’s cannon ball which soars through the air in glorious faux 3D and then plunges down onto one of the unsuspecting ships on the map. Everything is colorful, and wonderfully exaggerated.
The game suffers from a couple of broken features. Pirates vs. Corsairs offers Game Center achievements, although there are some problems with repeated announcements of accomplishments already completed and credit for tasks not actually done. Also, in this age of cut and paste content creation, some of the achievements are clearly carried over from Microids' nearly identical previous effort, the Civil War-themed North vs. South. Pirates vs. Corsairs is in many ways a re-skinned version of North vs. South. For example, Pirates vs. Corsairs has merchant shipping lanes and ocean for zones while North vs. South has steam train merchant lanes and states for zones. Oddly, Pirates vs. Corsairs has a number of achievements for capturing states. There are no states to capture in Pirates vs. Corsairs, but there are in North vs. South, which is almost certainly where this achievement quirk originated.
The game has two multiplayer options: pass and play or two devices over a local area network. Pass and play is a blast. The only downside is that combat is decided by the computer AI. While a necessity for iPhone and iPod touch players, it would have been better to have some kind of simultaneous combat option for iPad users. Multiplayer over a local area network is just broken. I tried to connect over WiFi and Bluetooth but couldn’t get either to work.
I played the game on an iPad 3 and an iPod touch 5. The game looks and plays great on an iPad. On the iPod, however, everything looked squashed and flattened. It is also really difficult to see the fantastic animations on the smaller iPod/iPhone screen. Clearly the game is optimized for iPad at this point, though there is a separate, cheaper iPhone-only version if you don't own an iPad. The music in the game is limited but epic in scope and tone. It makes you feel like you’re embroiled in a grand adventure.
Pirates vs. Corsairs is a hidden gem on the App Store. From the graphics to the music to the deceptively simple yet complex strategy, to the perfect controls, this game just offers so much to do and enjoy. Even after 10 days of nearly daily play, I still come back to it time and time again to play just one more game. Multiplayer only adds to the fun, although it would be nice to see the local area network option fixed in a future update. Thankfully, there are no IAPs to ruin your fun, and Pirates vs. Corsairs is worth every bit of its asking price.