Age of Booty is a lighthearted strategy game pits pirates against other pirates in a race to seize control of towns on hex-based maps that belie its fast-paced nature. There's fun to be had playing through 20-plus single-player challenges, but like more traditional strategy games, Age of Booty is definitely at its best when played with friends. You can sail the multiplayer seas either online or locally, and even if strategy games are something that you're normally intimidated by, this one is well worth a look.
Regardless of which map and which mode you're playing, your goal in Age of Booty is always the same: To control more towns than the opposing pirate factions. Games are either played to a time limit or until one team controls a specified number of towns, which--in a closely contested game--can take a lot longer than the 10 to 20 minutes for which timed games are generally set. Capturing a town is as easy as parking your ship next to it, provided your ship's cannons can destroy the defenses before the town's cannons manage to sink you. Combat is automatically initiated any time you're adjacent to a potential target, so other than pushing a couple of buttons to upgrade your ships and towns when you have enough resources to do so, the only controls you need are for movement. You move the cursor to the hexagonal tile that you'd like to sail to, and then you push a button to start moving; it really is that simple. The unseen crew aboard your ship also does a great job of navigating around islands and such for the quickest possible route.
When you're not docked at your faction's base for repairs and upgrades or attempting to capture or defend a town, there are resources to consider. Although there are three distinct resources (wood, gold, and rum) used to purchase ship and town upgrades in Age of Booty, the time that you need to spend concerning yourself with them is minimal. Captured towns will automatically generate resources for you, and additional stocks can be found inside crates floating in the water, among the debris of enemy vessels, or in the ruins of native villages that you've destroyed. Merchant ships also drop crates when you sink them, though these contain power-ups, such as whirlpools that will transport ships to other parts of the map, monkeys that will pilfer resources from enemies, and bombs that damage anything on an adjacent tile a short time after you place them. On paper, the power-ups seem overpowered, but in practice, they don't come into play all that often because, perhaps, time spent sinking merchant ships is time that you can't spend capturing or defending towns.
With that said, AI pirates will occasionally use power-ups very effectively; using a bomb to damage a town's defenses before they attack or using a whirlpool to get you away from one of their towns, for example. Sadly, intelligent actions such as these are the exception rather than the rule, and the AI pirates that you share the water with in single-player challenges are prone to moments of stupidity that--while occasionally fun to exploit when they're opponents--are really frustrating when they're allies. For example, when capturing a town that you can clearly handle on your own, one of your AI allies will often decide to come and assist you anyway. That's not so bad, but if you decide to leave him there to finish the job because your time would be better spent elsewhere, there's a good chance that he'll follow you like a puppy, leaving the town behind before your faction's flag has been raised there.
The questionable intelligence of the AI pirates is perhaps the reason why, in most of the more difficult challenges, they significantly outnumber you. Being pitted against two enemies when you're sailing solo inevitably makes things tough; this is especially true when the winning condition is that you seize and maintain control of the map's three towns simultaneously. At this point, figuring out how to win becomes a puzzle, and exploiting the enemies' rudimentary AI is the key to success. If you try that same map with other players on evenly matched teams, though, it's a completely different story.
There's a lot to like in Age of Booty's multiplayer mode. The gameplay is accessible enough for players to join in the fun and feel like they're contributing, but there's also plenty of strategizing to be done before your team can come out on top. Up to four players can sail the split-screen seas on a single console, and online games support up to eight players total. More than 30 official maps of various sizes are available, and the included map editor is so easy to use that adding your own creations to that number doesn't have to take more than a few minutes. Regardless of map choice, one problem has already cropped up in online multiplayer games. Because ship power-ups (cannons, armor, and speed) can only be obtained at faction bases, some players are reluctant to stray too far away from them for fear that one of their teammates might use shared resources before they can.
With its colorful visuals, cheery soundtrack, and accessible controls, Age of Booty is an Xbox Live Arcade game that's difficult to dislike. Even when you're frustrated because AI pirates are sinking your hopes of winning, you get your fair share of gameplay treasure.