Age of Booty was developed by Certain Affinity.  It was released October 15, 2008, and retails for 400 MSP.

Every once in a long while, a game comes from out of nowhere and surprises with such a vengeance that folks who play it can’t help but recommend the game to everyone they know. They play the game incessantly, altering strategic calculations, building a list of friends to play with, trading grudge matches against rivals and friendly competitions with friends. They marvel at how damn good that game is.

Age of Booty is one of these games. Sitting on the dusting e-shelves of the XBLA library, Age of Booty is not a title that most players would stumble upon and think “I bet this is a great game.” The graphics are rudimentary by today’s standards, the theme seems a bit cartoonish, and for those who have the patience or curiosity to test the demo and who try anything beyond the single player campaign, they may quickly find themselves sailing into battle without any bearings, and end up switching to a different game.

This is a mistake, but an understandable one.

Age of Booty is a pirate-themed real time strategy game where players control pirate ships. Each ship has three elements: cannon, armor, and speed. More cannons will do more damage to other ships or towns, but they are heavy, and they slow down the ship. Armor will allow a ship to survive more enemy fire. And speed will help ships sail quickly around the game’s many maps. The maps are comprised of a series of hexagons, with each hexagon being either a water space, a land space, a village or a town. Towns serve as fortresses that begin as neutral entities and must be captured by the various pirate teams.

Here’s what we liked:

Multiplayer gameplay – Despite its casual visuals and seemingly simple mechanics, Age of Booty has some of the best, tightest, most strategic RTS multiplayer gameplay on all of Xbox Live Arcade. There are AAA titles that wish they had this much strategic depth and potential for rewarding good teamwork. The combination of upgrades, radically varied maps, wildcards, and communication between players makes for an incredibly robust multiplayer experience. This game offers that very rare phenomenon in a title: even after 50+ hours of playing the game, a player will find him- or herself beat by a strategy they had never considered nor previously seen. For a game to provide that experience, many times over, is a real mark of the quality of its design. Multiplayer comes in a cool variety of options: 2 vs. 2, 3 vs. 3, 4 vs. 4, and even 2 vs. 2 vs. 2 vs. 2. So, long after figuring out strategies in one format, players will find themselves reinventing their approaches as they test out tactics more appropriate to a different set of circumstances.

Map editor – On top of all of that multiplayer goodness, the game comes with a very easy to use map editor with which players can produce their own bits of pirate-friendly (or unfriendly) geography. Invite friends to a private game and play away. The game already boasts a large number of maps – the map editor makes this even better.

The theme – Come on, man, it’s pirates. Arggh and planks and all that great stuff. It’s a bit cartoonish but it’s jolly good if you’re into that sort of thing.

Here’s what we didn’t like:

Multiplayer difficulty scaling – We said this game had wicked cool, tight RTS controls, and we meant it. What that means is that the margin of error available when the opposing team knows what they’re doing is pretty small. Many a pirate match-up will be decided by down-to-the-second timing, with a well coordinated strategy between teammates resulting in brilliant victory, or a poorly planned or executed effort ending in plank-walking defeat. Some starting strategies are so much better than others than a less optimal opening gambit will severely disadvantage a team for the duration of the match, though the good news is that the match won’t last that long.

The AI – Look, the campaign is fine, nothing to really love or really dislike. The campaign teaches how to play the game, and gifts most of the game’s easy 200 gamer score. But man-oh-man the AI is terrible. We’re talking just a couple of shades above random tacking. During the campaign, having an AI teammate isn’t any big deal, because you’re up against AI enemies. But if a teammate quits mid-game, they get replaced by the AI. It would be easier in most cases to win by sailing a real life pirate vessel to your opponent’s house, sacking it, stealing their Xbox and selling it for rum, than it would be to rely on useful assistance from the AI teammate.

Age of Booty never really enjoyed the big success that some XBLA titles enjoyed, and that it deserved, despite the quality of its design, and despite the well-earned reputation of Certain Affinity. This might be explained, in part, by the design itself. Whereas a game like Puzzle Quest takes as its core a casual game and supplements it with a hardcore gaming veneer, Age of Booty looks and sounds like a casual game despite being a hardcore RTS underneath that casual shell. Maybe the Puzzle Quest model is better suited to the XBLA environment, or maybe Age of Booty was just a bit ahead of its time, and players weren’t ready then to think of XBLA as a hardcore gamer’s playground. Whatever the reason, it means a missed opportunity for gamers. It would be well worth the time and effort for folks to give this little gem of a game some serious consideration.

Score: Buy it!