Once in a while an extraordinary game comes along. This game catches on and becomes a genre-defining title that ends up in everyone's "ten best" lists. Imperialism - a game of semi-historical industrial and military development - was one of these games. Widely acclaimed, it left some pretty high expectations for previously unknown developer Frog City. Imperialism 2, which followed, was also an outstanding game, but probably suffered from the "not different enough" syndrome, and didn't generate quite as much word of mouth. We haven't heard much of them since. They've been working on some new projects but now they've hit one that looks like it just might be the next big thing.
Trade Empires is a real-time commercial simulation. You play the role of a trading family in one of many regions, spanning nearly 4000 years of human history from early (2000 BC and earlier) China to the development of the colonial Atlantic or Indian Ocean trades up to the 18th and 19th centuries.
It might sound like a task of almost inconceivable scope; but the essential character of pre-modern commercial activity was consistent: individual merchants bought and sold goods basically at their own risk. Rather than the world-spanning financial arrangements that characterize our own era, the flow of cash, credit, and kind was on a much more immediate basis, whatever the technological changes to transport or even products. This was the critical constant that Frog City recognized offered them the opportunity to build a model that (with careful tweaking) could be used to cover almost all pre-modern commerce.
Even early merchant activity quickly spread throughout large areas, facing a potential programmer with the unpleasant choice: either simulate huge amounts of territory (and lose interesting detail) or scale down the simulation and lose some of the fun (such as offering the players the choice of taking the risk of building a long, tenuous trading route hoping for extraordinary profits that will make it worthwhile). Fortunately, the folks at Frog City came up with a pretty clever 'regionalist' method of representing the various settings. Early China is the first scenario and has a single region (it is designed to support an already very good tutorial). Using only one family (the player's, so the learning process isn't encumbered by competition just yet), and having only limited commodities, the player gets a chance to learn how to develop markets, products, and routes.
In later episodes, the wider scope of trade is represented by multiple regions, linked automatically by 'transfer points' at the edges of the maps. For example, the Phoenician map set has 5 regions: Phoenicia, Kingdom of Israel, Carthage, Western Sicily, and the Straits of Gibraltar. If you have a merchant that has to go by land from Phoenicia to Israel, he will march to the "Kingdom of Israel" icon near the bottom of the screen, pause for a moment in transit, then continue on the Israel map from the "Phoenicia" icon - slick, simple, and effective. Ships also have transit points, and units will traverse multiple points to find their destination automatically.
One brief aside: the maps are simply beautiful. Eye candy does not a good game make, but it sure helps to have something nice to look at. My first glance at the regional map screen was breathtaking, and the tactical (smallest scale) maps are fantastic. Showing a clear developmental influence from Poptop's Railroad Tycoon 2 (although TE is 2d), the artwork at all scales is superb, the icons are well done and detailed (resources being exploited are animated; sheep run around their pens, mines operate bringing up ore, etc.) without being obtrusive. Each scenario period has artwork that supports the time - you will find Mesopotamian adobe-brick dwellings, Chinese temples, as well as consistent architectural themes throughout.
This regional system also helps in terms of player control. It seems a sound strategy to develop a stable and profitable trade network among relatively nearby markets and resources, and then trade finished (highly valuable) products between the far-flung trading cores. Developing markets such as this in each region discretely is a slow but consistent way to financial success. Mid- and Later-game trade networks can be massively complex, and the regional presentation helps you mentally keep a hold on the general market characters of each region.
This is important because, like in the Imperialism series, Frog City has added to Trade Empires a strong element of historicity. As the players develop their home regions, in most cases the resources necessary for the most valuable final products are found only in far-flung regions in which no player may start. Tin, ivory, jade, and other critical products are found in their historical locations, and it is a struggle for the player to develop the funds necessary to invest in these colonial outposts. It's obvious that a lot of research was done to ensure that these resources and their locations are historically accurate, and this lends each region an interesting character all their own.
The interface is clearly the result of a lot of work, and after a short learning curve is (already in the beta build) quick to use and unobtrusive. There are mainly four screens (presented as popup menus whenever possible, so that you really never loose sight of the main map screen in the background) that you use to manage your trade empire. This organization also helps you psychologically understand the logic of the game - making the interface itself almost a learning tool.
First, you have the Merchants button, which allows you to manage your crew of hard working traders. Each trader is hired here for incrementally increasing prices, so most trade empires will be no more than 12-15 'units' at any one time. These traders represent less specific individuals than trading families that belong to your clan - otherwise it'd be hard to credit a single merchant surviving the 800+ years of some scenarios!
Each trader likewise starts with a single ability, from Animal Husbandry (able to coax animal-powered transport to faster speeds on roads) to Persuasion (if that merchant is captured, he's able to convince the bandits to let him leave without a ransom) to Famine Relief (merchant makes more money with food commodities). As they are successful at trading, they also have the opportunity to advance in skill by picking up selected opportunities (typically, you're presented with a choice of two). This screen also shows you where each merchant is, what they are waiting for or trying to accomplish, and how much money they've made.
The second button is the route button, and in a sense this is the key to the whole thing. Routes are the heart of the game, and again point to the evident lessons Frog City drew from the Railroad Tycoon games. Routes are built, and the transport method used is dependent on the nature of the route (is it a sea route or land route), the technological development of the trade family (have they developed wagons, for example), and the facilities available (building a caravansary at the endpoints of a route allows the use of more fragile horses instead of camels). Transport units vary in speed and cargo capacity, as well as cost - and the management/development of these units is critical in maintaining the mid-game efficiencies and flexibility of your transport network. These routes can be incredibly complex; I built one route that was more than 10 stops with varying cargo at each point. (Tip to players: this is however a very inefficient way to do things - using your merchants in smaller, linked chains of merchandise is a much more robust method. If you run long complex routes, a disaster in one city will eventually end up with everyone stuck in one place.)
The next button is (aside from merchant maneuvering) a player's main ability to influence the game with the construction menu. You can construct paths (trails, roads, canals, and - as I understand it - eventually railroads!) upon which your traders travel. These paths connect markets, whose "zone" encompasses various resources and demand structures. For example, a carnelian mine is a resource, producing carnelian at a fixed rate over time; an apartment building is a demand structure, as the people living there need food, clothes, and other items. You can build differently sized zones depending on your technology, to allow you to more efficiently cover the ground. The important thing about zones is that they aren't static things. Once you cover a bunch of buildings (for example) with your market area, those people are looking for you or your competing merchants to supply them with their needs - ignore them long enough, and they'll move away! Other demand structures such as potters (making clay into ceramics) or smelters (making ore into ingots), demand raw materials to produce their finished goods (which are also demanded by the people).
It is in the interplay of the economic forces within these "market areas" that Trade Empires begins to shine. If a particular good is in demand in an area, the price for the good slowly rises as well as the quantity demanded. If it is a supplied resource, the price falls due to ubiquity. Therefore timing your shipments is critical - it's better to supply less of a good (keeping the prices high) than to dump huge amounts in a market that cannot absorb the product. Your merchants buy where you tell them, and sell where you tell them. Getting the goods bought at a cheap place and sold at a high demand location is where your human brain is responsible.
One frustrating point is if the independent processors deem your selling price too high to economically produce their goods. If clothing sells for 45, and you want to sell your cotton for 16 each (it takes 3 to make cloth), they simply won't buy from you until your price comes down. You have the option of buying them out, or building your own demand structures (again, dependent on your tech level). Demand buildings owned by a player can be given orders to "always produce", "normal" (produce when you can make money) or "stop production" - introducing artificial scarcity or surplus, as well as possibly providing a commodity that may sell for much more elsewhere.
Markets are not exclusive. You will choke when you find the prices in a carefully-cultivated demand area plummet because some other schmuck (either another player, or the already-capable AI) just dumped a bargeload of something in your turf. Trade wars are not formalized (but nonetheless occur), and the 'moving target' nature of the prices, demand and supply all mean that careful planning is needed to try to dominate a market for any length of time.
The final button is "advancements" and this is where the long-game strategy is played. Many tech advancements are natural, such as copper mining. Once this occurs, copper mines also appear on the map.
As time passes, your people will learn various things. This can be both good and bad; if they learn jade carving, the demand for raw jade stones falls through the floor, but a new demand for expensive carvings develops in its place. Other advances can be purchased, such as bigger ships or new processing techniques. In a multiplayer game, the first family purchasing these advances can either keep them to themselves, granting them in effect a technological monopoly for some time. Of course, these advances are expensive, and holding that much cash can cripple a player's position developmentally. The holder of a tech may license the tech to certain other players as a way to recoup some of the cost of purchase, or deny the tech to certain other players. Eventually, all techs lose their value and become generally available.
These tech advances add a great deal to the texture of the late game; a big advance can make a huge difference in which markets are valuable, and which are suddenly obsolete.
Trade Empires is a multifaceted game. On the first level, it is a challenging game of managing resources and developing markets. The dynamic nature of these markets, as well as a slew of random events from wars, famines, bandits, and plagues, which can pitch a well-balanced set of routes into chaos, made just this first stage a major task in the early betas before the AI was even enabled. On the second level, there is the competition with the other families, run by AI or human, which can be savage when (due to the real-time nature of the beast) you can't have your eyes everywhere at once. Finally, you have to constantly decide whether certain advancement is worth pursuing, despite clear advantages, when you realize it requires almost a total overhaul of your route structure and market plan.
What may at first appear to be a fairly straightforward trading game indeed is not; or rather, don't confuse straightforward with simple. Trade Empires is still in beta, and is already a complex, challenging, and entertaining game that's monopolized far too much of my time already. It requires a nimble mind, without the frenetic
"mousing" of the real-time combat games. It's a blast. Now I've got to get back to seeing if I can find someplace to sell all these bronze hand mirrors.