Teamwork Is the Real Sailor's Delight in 'Sea of Thieves'


The last time I was on any kind of boat, it was a ferry across Lake Michigan that picked up enough speed that the entire deck was bouncing up and down like the end of a diving board, the spray of water coming off the prow fountained high enough to soak me three decks up, standing in front of the bridge. It was spring and the water had to have been like 35 degrees and suddenly I was shaking like a leaf as I tried to lurch down that twisting deck back toward my seat near the stern, acutely aware of how the ship’s roll threatened to send me over the low rail to the deck below or, if I was unlucky, straight into the lake. I was almost on my hands and knees as I clambered back inside the hatch...and into a room where everyone was standing around and chatting comfortably, giving strange looks to the soaked, trembling mainlander who had burst into their midst.

That was the moment that I realized that no matter how much I adored reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, or how many times I watched Master and Commander or Horatio Hornblower, I was not actually sailor material. And yet I still love everything about the idea of sailing one of the old tall ships, which is probably why despite all my reservations about the things you can do—or the lack thereof—in Sea of Thieves, the damned thing still speaks to me.

During those early games especially, when Team Waypoint was trying to figure out how the hell the sails worked, I felt like I was having my Last Starfighter moment. Watching the wind play across the sails, hearing the telltale snap as they went taut, and then the rush of the water against the rail as the ship picked up speed and settled lower in the water… it was all wonderfully familiar. Like I’d done it before, and I was just waiting for someone to ask (as they stared up at a forest of spars and rigging) “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”

But the real joy of it wasn’t—and isn’t—that I had a teaspoon’s worth of book-knowledge about sailing, or that I was briefly captain of the good ship Waypoint. It was that during those early play sessions, we all started to learn to work together sail more effectively. Our earliest trips were Keystone Cops affairs, with everyone running around the ship adjusting things at random. Why shorten sail when there’s this perfectly good anchor? Why steer when you could be in the hold staring at the map, or vomiting on Patrick?

After just a couple voyages, however, we were falling into the kind of easy, competent rhythms that make the idea of crewing a ship so seductive. Suddenly we stopped being a shambles of a pirate crew and started being sailors, and it started to feel like exactly the kind of “tall ship LARP” that I’ve always dreamed of. After each course change, we’d run around trimming sails with hardly a question. When we were being chased by another group of pirates, we got serious, and suddenly we were calling out sightings, navigation instructions, and helm direction like we were in a racing yacht, trying to leech every ounce of speed from the wind.

That teamwork, and the way it let everyone find a role within just a few minutes, is why I think Sea of Thieves ends up being so effective almost in spite of itself. There are a lot of wargames and sims around sailing that try to be a hell of a lot more realistic than Sea of Thieves’ cartoon-depiction of the pirate’s life. But they all imagine the player as a solitary captain or admiral, in perfect command of vessels that just respond precisely to command. What they don’t have, and what forms the backbone of Sea of Thieves, is this idea of teamwork and team chemistry. They are games about controlling a ship, but not commanding it.

Because if you think about all those stories that ever made you want to run away to sea, they’re about finding ways to exceed our limits via expertise and teamwork. The foundation of the Aubrey-Maturin novels is a friendship that helps both Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin learn and achieve things that otherwise would have been denied them. Nor is it always smooth sailing: nautical literature is often a litany of things going wrong, of solutions improvised, of struggling sailors being developed into great ones… or never developing at all. As Aubrey remarks at one point, “I can harness the wind, but I ain’t it’s God damn creator.”

Sailing ships are inherently cool, but maybe the coolest thing about them is that they don’t work if people don’t work together, and don’t learn to trust each other’s competence and understanding. You can imagine it if you’re playing a naval battle in, say, Empire: Total War and adjusting sails and timing your shots, but in Sea of Thieves you can feel it, just from the way your collection of incompetent nerds suddenly morphs into a salty pirate crew that can make those sails sing.

Of course, even in Sea of Thieves, I maybe wasn’t the person you wanted in your crew. I did fall out of the ship, after all, and cause everyone to die when they tried to rescue me.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at