Not sure if this has been said before, but I hope this is a starting point for some, anyway. Comments, corrections, additions welcome…
Privateers may well be the most versatile and useful units in BtS. They have the ability to wage war without war weariness or diplomatic penalties, while still collecting GG points and xp far beyond what can be gained from barbarians. At the same time, they can pay for themselves by pillaging and blockading AI cities – and the money doesn’t come out of thin air, it comes out of the pocket of your AI victim.
The “classic” use of Privateers is to cripple one’s opponents by starving them, pillaging their cash and improvements and sinking their less-advanced navies, while simultaneously gaining cash, GG points, and a highly promoted navy of your own. My focus is on that approach, but they have other uses:
– they can be used to block both hostile and non-hostile AIs from settling lands that were inaccessible before Astronomy. Used in this way, you only need a handful of Privateers, in groups of 1 or 2, and a few Caravels or Galleons to use as a picket line to spot the approaching AI Galleons. This is an easier trick to pull off if only 1 or 2 AIs have Astronomy, and when Frigates appear, you can forget about attacking escorted convoys with your Privateers – it’s just not worth it.
– they can patrol your own coastline, sinking those pesky AI Caravels that may be carrying Spies or Great Merchants. This only requires a few Privateers that can be based in your cities, venturing out only to sink AI ships. Consequently, they’re at little risk and don’t need to be stacked for defense. Note that you can continue to use Privateers this way until well beyond Chemistry, if you’re careful.
Not surprisingly, Privateers are most useful on archipelago or other water-heavy maps. They require Chemistry and Astronomy (and Copper or Iron). Your window of opportunity to use Privateers will be longer with Tech Brokering turned off (if you don’t consider that to be too easy). The +1 move from proving the world spherical is extremely helpful to have, both for tracking down stray AI ships while blockading, and for fleeing when Frigates make their appearance. Being able to start at Combat 1 (through an event/quest, settled GG, or otherwise) is also helpful, as will be noted.
[U]Tactics:[/U] When using Privateers to blockade AI cities, always do so in groups of 3-4 Privateers. Groups of fewer than 3 Privateers run the risk of being counterattacked, and more than 4 is usually overkill. The reasoning here is that the AIs will very seldom attack a stack of Privateers which contains 1 vessel with 5+ health if all they have to attack with is Galleons and Caravels. So, ideally, you have 3-4 ships in each stack, and they will rotate among the following roles – one to attack with, one to scare away counterattacks/pillage/blockade, and one healing up after attacking last turn. Beware the temptation to pick off that last Caravel with your one healthy Privateer… if your attacker sustains a lot of damage, the AI may go all out and try to take out your stack, if none of your ships are at 5+ health.
The best cities to target tend to be large AI capitals (obviously, coastal). By the time Privateers are available, most AIs are running Bureaucracy, and their capitals are large, economic engines. Blockading such cities can easily yield 5-9 coins per turn. Not only that, but by blockading, you are depriving the AI of the use of all water tiles in a 3 tile radius of your blockading Privateer. This can be a significant hit to the AI, both foodwise and commercewise. Plus, as you’ve probably noticed, capital cities seem more prone to have multiple food sources – and if these are fishing/whaling boats, they can be pillaged for additional cash. Finally, the AIs will often concentrate a large number of ships (Galleys, Triremes, Caravels, and later Galleons) in their capitals – and if these ships come out, they can be picked off by your increasingly more dangerous Privateer stack.
(A quick note on AI ship tactics: Don’t be too nervous if you see a large group of Galleons and Caravels in the city you are blockading. As I have noted, as long as you have a Privateer in the 5.5 health range or better, they won’t attack you, even if the other Privateers in your stack are in the 4 or 3 range healthwise. The AI simply doesn’t sacrifice ships in battles that would be futile for the individual ship, even if such sacrifices would almost certainly allow their other ships to wipe out your Privateer stack and free themselves from your economic chokehold. It also seems to regard Galleons as exclusively transport units rather than as naval superiority units, so it usually attacks with Caravels when it attacks at all. I have seen as many as 8 Galleons and 22 Caravels in one AI city, hiding out from my stack of 3 Privateers. I did take care to ensure that at least one Privateer in the stack was always at full health, though!)
Once you have your stack ensconced outside the AI city, you need to do 4 things:
[B]1. [/B] Blockade (the cannon icon). This is fairly easy. A Privateer can always blockade, even if it has already attacked or pillaged a sea tile and has no movement left. You need to be within 2 tiles of the city to completely cover all possible sea routes out of the city for maximum effect (periodically, the blockade radius will appear around your ships, like the flight radius does for aircraft). So, you should always have one Privateer blockade the city at the end of every turn. No more than one, mind you – multiple ships blockading from the same tile have no additional effect, AND if a ship is blockading, it doesn’t automatically wake up the next turn. If you have 1 ship blockading and the others healing, make sure you check the stack next turn to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to nab a Trireme or Caravel while your stack is “sleeping”. Blockading will net you some cash per turn – the most I have seen is 9 gold, but it’s usually about 2-6 gold. So, if you have 6 stacks of 18 Privateers, you could easily be raking in 30 gold/turn, – certainly enough to pay for their own unit maintenance, and maybe to finance some additional expansion…?
[B]2.[/B] Pillage (crossed swords icon). Also fairly easy. If the AI has fishing boats within range, pillage ‘em. That seems to yield about 2-6 gold, and the AI will eventually build workboats to replace the missing improvements, diverting production from other areas. Note that this counts as an attack and will use up a movement point.
[B]3. [/B] Sink ships. This is where you rack up GG points and XP for your Privateers which will eventually make them very dangerous. Even on a coastal tile, a Privateer will have 90% odds or better against most AI Galleons, Caravels, or Galleys/Triremes. I try to only attack with 95% odds or better (ideally 98%+) but if my Privateers are unpromoted and at full health (6), I’ll risk them at slightly worse odds. I won’t lose much sleep over a 0 xp ship losing an 88% battle… it’s got to earn XP somehow. Conversely, I’m really hesitant to throw a wounded veteran Privateer in at odds worse than 95%… there’s a risk/return calculation to be made, and I don’t want to risk a level 7 ship just to take out one extra crummy Caravel.
You will note that I didn’t mention Work Boats. I think these are best ignored, frankly. If you sink a workboat, there’s no xp or GG points in it for you, and if you leave it, it will eventually turn into an improvement that can be pillaged for cash, as noted above. The 30 hammers the AI invested in the workboat is gone, either way.
[B]4. [/B] [B]END YOUR TURN IN A STACK[/B]. I can’t emphasize that enough. If you have one wounded ship at 3.3 health and it’s away from your other 2 healthier ships, it’s probably a goner if the AI has any ships in the vicinity. If you are going to move 3 tiles to sink a Caravel, remember that you won’t be able to rejoin the stack (until Refrigeration) and the other ships will have to move to meet your attacking Caravel on the way back. This will slow down your healing. Whenever you can, it’s good to end your turn on a coast tile for the defensive bonus, and on a tile where you can blockade more than 1 city at a time. But neither of these considerations will usually outweigh the need to keep your wounded ships together with your healthy ones before the AI can respond.
[U]Promotions: [/U] If you’ve planned things well, you may have a coastal military city with a settled GG or 2, and perhaps later on with a Military Academy, Heroic Epic and/or Drydocks. The point is, if you can build Privateers with 2-5 XP to start, you should. Each stack of Privateers should have one ship with Medic I as soon as possible. Medic I is the difference between a stack of 3 or 4 ships that can take turns attacking each turn and then healing quickly to attack again 1-3 turns later, and having a stack of 4 ships that can only attack every 3 turns because the healing process is so slow. So your first goal should be to get one ship per stack to Medic I. After that, it’s a matter of preference. Received wisdom suggests that the Drill line of promotions is best when fighting weaker units (as your Privateers should be) to avoid taking much damage in a win, but I tend to prefer the Combat line for 2 reasons. The first is that Combat leads to Blitz, which will be very helpful in the future, and the second is that your ships should already be healing quickly due to the Medic, so avoiding damage via Drill isn’t as crucial. If for some reason my ships are operating alone (such as when trying to keep the AIs out of an unsettled continent), I prefer Drill. I haven’t considered Flanking, as you should be attacking with the odds prohibitively in your favour, anyway.
Make sure that you keep tabs on AI research. Espionage does this the best, of course, but it’s fairly expensive – opening the diplo screen and checking what techs they are seeking from you is ok, but it doesn’t tell you how close they are to getting the crucial techs. If someone is getting close to Chemistry and already has Astronomy (or vice versa), start anticipating where the Frigates will be appearing from and how you will make your escape. Naturally, directing your espionage towards your most advanced opponents will help with planning in this way.
[U]The end of the road:[/U] Eventually, someone is going to research Chemistry and Astronomy, and that will spell the end of (most of) your fun. Yes, C4-C5 Privateers can beat Frigates. GREEN Frigates. Again, think risk-reward… if you’ve gotten many Privateers up to 17 xp or more, get them to a home port ASAP and save them until they can be upgraded into extremely dangerous Destroyers (Blitz Destroyers are the bane of any wooden navy)! AI Frigates will tirelessly hunt down your veteran Privateers, and this is where having the +1 spherical world bonus comes in really handy. Note that the AI ships won’t pursue your Privateers into your cities in 3.17 – although they could in some earlier editions of BtS.
Having said that… not all AIs will start producing Frigates at the same time, and you may still be able to prey on the backward ones for a while longer. This is less rewarding and I don’t expend much effort here, as you don’t gain as much by hindering the weak AIs as opposed to hindering the strong ones. My approach here is twofold: Use less-promoted Privateers (so I won’t be heartbroken if they get ambushed by Frigates) and bring them home at the 17 xp mark, and try to have an early warning system of 3-4 Frigates or Galleons posted outside the visibility range of the Privateers, to apprise me of approaching Frigates. Note, as well, that your Privateers can’t “hide” under one of your Frigates in the open sea… the AI Frigates will happily ignore your Frigate and sink your Privateers out from under it. Unless, of course, you’re at war!
For due diligence purposes, I’m going to also warn you to watch out for when AIs discover Physics. I have never had an AI use Airships on my Privateers – and even if they did, they could only knock my ships down to 4.8 health, which is still better than a Galleon/Caravel. But still… consider it a potential threat.
I haven’t really considered the merits of attaching a GG to a Privateer, just because I seem to be able to get several of my regular Privateers up to the 26-37 xp range in most of my games fairly easily. I wouldn’t try making a super healer, just because your stacks are going to be fairly small and won’t get so unhealthy as to need Medic III healing (they’d probably get killed before they could heal, if they were that weak). I also find that my Privateering usually leads to late game naval dominance anyway, so a GG-led ship with 80-something xp would be overkill.
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