Covert Action and Pirates

After Shigeru Miyamoto – the creator of Mario, Donkey Kong, and Zelda – Sid Meier was only the second person to be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. A quick look at Sid’s credits reveals why, with its dozens of award-winning games, ranging from flight simulators, spy games, golfing games, and of course, strategy games, spanning a 25 year long career.

Looking back on the list, I’m surprised that Civilization actually came after several high-profile successes; I didn’t play any of the combat sims like F-15 Strike Eagle or Silent Service, but I did play Covert Action (1990) and Railroad Tycoon (also 1990 – how does he find the time?!). I found Railroad Tycoon a little difficult to play and preferred Transport Tycoon, but Covert Action was a genuine classic.


In Covert Action, you become Max Remington, a CIA agent out to defeat criminals and terrorists – to do so, you crack codes, hack circuitboards, tail cars, and break into enemy offices. Each activity is represented by a distinct minigame, most of which are actually quite entertaining. Like most Sid Meier games, Covert Action didn’t have a written story, as such – missions were procedurally generated and kept you guessing about what was happening next. Together with its pseudo-real time nature (if you didn’t solve a crime quickly enough, they got away), it offered a completely original type of gameplay.

Covert Action_1

I played Covert Action again recently, and found it rather harder than I’d remembered – breaking into offices was really challenging – although the circuitboard hacking and code-cracking minigames stood the test of time. It’s a shame that Sid felt disappointed with the final product:

The mistake I think I made in Covert Action is actually having two games in there kind of competing with each other. There was kind of an action game where you break into a building and do all sorts of picking up clues and things like that, and then there was the story which involved a plot where you had to figure out who the mastermind was and the different roles and what cities they were in, and it was a kind of an involved mystery-type plot.

I think, individually, those each could have been good games. Together, they fought with each other. You would have this mystery that you were trying to solve, then you would be facing this action sequence, and you’d do this cool action thing, and you’d get on the building, and you’d say, “What was the mystery I was trying to solve?” Covert Action integrated a story and action poorly, because the action was actually too intense. In Pirates!, you would do a sword fight or a ship battle, and a minute or two later, you were kind of back on your way. In Covert Action, you’d spend ten minutes or so of real time in a mission, and by the time you got out of [the mission], you had no idea of what was going on in the world.

So I call it the “Covert Action Rule”. Don’t try to do too many games in one package. And that’s actually done me a lot of good. You can look at the games I’ve done since Civilization, and there’s always opportunities to throw in more stuff. When two units get together in Civilization and have a battle, why don’t we drop out to a war game and spend ten minutes or so in duking out this battle? Well, the Covert Action Rule. Focus on what the game is.

What was interesting about Covert Action was its sense of style – you really felt like you were tracking down criminals. Perhaps the action sections were too much, but the overall idea was very solid. Still, from my own experience, I try to avoid designing games with too many (or any) minigames, for this very reason; Smokescreen had quite a number of minigames in it, but the most popular missions ended up being those without any at all.


I didn’t play the original Pirates! game (yes, the exclamation point is part of the title) but I did play the sequel/update, Sid Meier’s Pirates. Like Covert Action, Pirates contained a number of minigames but was generally more coherent – you spent much of your time simply sailing around the Caribbean, on a top-down map, going from port to port or chasing enemy ships. Occasionally you’d enter short sword-fights or battle games, and you’d regularly enter port to trade goods or check up on the latest news; there was a loose story about finding your kidnapped family, but other than that, you were free to pursue your own goals, whether that was taking over every single port in the game-world, finding all of the hidden treasure, or rising to the highest ranks.

I have two real treasured memories of Pirates, and the first is the ballroom dancing game.

Sid Meier's Pirates! wallpaper 1024x768

Once in a while, to gain the favour of various ladies whom you might want to marry, you’d need to do some ballroom dancing, which took the form of a more complicated Dance Dance Revolution game. Basically, you’d have to read the movements of your partner and move appropriately; in the earlier levels, these would be clearly telegraphed, but as you progressed, dances became faster and more intricate. Given my lifelong love of Dance Dance Revolution, I became really quite skilled at this part of the game and never failed to have a choice consort (even if we were mostly broke from my poor military excursions).

My second memory of Pirates isn’t any part of the gameplay in particular, but just the feel of the game as you were out sailing the seas. If your crew were in a good mood, they’d be cheerfully singing songs as you flew along on a fair wind; if they were hungry and unpaid, and it was raining, you’d be sure to know it. Travelling from port to port, you’d encounter all sorts of ships that you could chase, run away from, or engage at will – sometimes you’d be homing in on fat gold ships you’d been led to by rumours from pubs, sometimes you’d be desperately running away from a bunch of British frigates; whatever happened, you were totally immersed in this beautifully drawn and wonderfully fun world.

Sid doesn’t seem to make many of these medley games any more, which is a shame but understandable, given the increasing specialisation of PC games. Still, I wonder whether he’ll return to them for online or mobile games, which seem to do well when operating outside of traditional game genres.

I’ll leave you with a short oral history, by Sid Meier himself, about his game design process and his 25 years in the gaming world – all set within a 48 hour game design competition. It’s well worth a watch (you can skip the ad at the start):

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