Grenada does indeed need sugar, and with my bulging sloops — no euphemism — loaded with only the best from the Turk plantations, along with a large shipment of wheat, the convoy sets sail. As does the imagination.
As the warm winds of the Caribbean fill sails of merchantmen and shunt ships from island to island, port to port, I come to the comfortable realization that nothing quite beats a good trading game. Even in deficit — and frankly, there always seems to be some concessions in balance, at least in my experience — I cannot help but be sucked into the rigmarole of playing even the most light of markets. As one might tell, it’s Port Royale III: Pirates & Merchants — along with the DLC — right now and proudly trading out from a British colony in the West Indies. My prior exposure to the franchise was limited and not particularly invested, but this newer effort by Gaming Minds under the publisher flag of Kalypso is deceptively deep.
But let this be a love-in on the trader in general, of which I will highlight a few of my favorites. The buy-low-sell-high simulators; be they of any era, historical or otherwise; combat-heavy or a focused, civil affair; the trader in all its glory and its charming propensity to drive one to riches or shipwrecked rags.
My first exposure to the trader sim came in the form of two educational offerings we were ushered to play in elementary school; Jacaranda Software’s Terra Australis: Voyages of Trade and Discovery and Tycoon Itch. The former, of which all I could find was this tatty photo, was an early and rather engrossing journey to the Southern Hemisphere in colonial times. The latter? Outside of the Internet not offering up a sliver of information on this BBC Micro effort, I can recall it was a modern shipping game and as such, my classmates and I fumbled about the world export market like dimwitted Onassis pretenders. But these two sowed a collective seed that germinated ever so slowly and ever so peculiarly. Speaking as a mathematically-challenged ingrate to this day, how the raw numbers game of the trade simulation ever found root, let alone tickle fancy, is a Mary Celeste-level mystery.
It is perhaps the way numbers are hidden by commodities, or at least morphed into these tangibles of the imagination. Figures become cargo, numerals the holds of ships and the shortages and surpluses that attribute to the contents. We are not dealing in those raw, finicky abstracts, but in palpable suggestion. An easier comprehension. Guadeloupe needs dyes, dyes bought from Havana; Havana is a port in need of metals. Stripping away the necessary thematic artifice — is it artifice when colonists cannot eat gold or the ink from a ledger’s page? — I find it hard not to picture anything but commodities.
This is perhaps more a coping mechanism and reiteration of my inherent mathematical microcephalism, but if ever there was a subset of the strategy sphere that afforded a very visual, very rich scaffold for visualization, it would be the trader sim.
Let us leave the nebulous unquantifiable notions there for a moment and reach for the stars.
There’s this crazy German outfit called Egosoft. You might know them. Heavily inspired by seminal space trader of yore, Elite, they released a game in 1999 called X: Beyond The Frontier. What X and each subsequent iteration has achieved is nothing short of incredible for those who fancy a bit of interstellar corporate ladder climbing. That’s a misnomer, as you don’t so much climb someone else’s, but build the entire company for yourself. Like any trader sim, you start small. Incredibly small. As a owner of a tiny tub with an oxygen scrubber and an empty cargo bay the size of a beer cooler, so begins a long and often initially menial road to running a company. On the well-burdened back of market price perusal and slowly engineering highly-detailed and lucrative supply chains, there comes a time where expansion means you do less of the piloting and more of the remote navigation. The X series has you operating massive industrial networks; where the supply chains can be worked into self-sustaining loops and cornering and manipulating markets can be done via discreet financial machinations or at the business ends of cruiser cannons. Gigantic installations can be built and maintained. Massive fleets of commercial and military vessels can be operated. The X games offer the quietest of ruminate gameplay – -the long stretches of commodities trading in a darkened cockpit — with the most rewarding and grandiose levels of satisfaction for those with a penchant for smart shopping.
The truth is that, much like what you’d find in Minecraft or other sandbox supply chain or crafting-centric experience, there is a make-or-break slog markedly different to something found within, say, an RPG with character progression or a first-person shooter with an unlock and perk system. There’s a laborious mundanity to the early game that either appeals in its grass-roots bootstrapping or invokes a disdainful malaise that coats an otherwise rich and exciting experience in a layer of glacial boredom.
How much of a trader is reliant on thematic interest? What’s the ratio of expected mechanical progress to player creativity and is this even quantifiable if the sole point of a trader is offering relative player freedom? This is why I find these games hard to sell to even the most fervent of strategy fans. X3: Terran Conflict is a prime example. The early game is such a lonely and uncompromising slog between solar stations and orbital cattle ranches that you’d excuse anyone for falling off the bandwagon. Is this a flaw on an individual level, or are we simply looking at a fundamental tenet of the sub-genre?
It all comes down to two primary and distinct concepts: satisfaction (immeasurable, subjective) and feedback loops (progression and design-coded). X3: Terran Conflict is nigh-impenetrable and requires a lot on the player’s part to both initially parse, then experiment with. If a player is unable to glean some element of initial satisfaction — be it from the aesthetics or the chance to investigate and understand the swathe of technical systems both available and subsequent — then the slow crawl to jump-starting a positive feedback loop is a tough, if not Sisyphean, task indeed. X3: Terran Conflict is so surgical, so insistent, so profoundly focused on throwing bright-eyed wanderers into the deep end that it has burned as many bridges as it has built.
Which is why I’ve found games like Patrician and Port Royale to be pinnacles of the trader sim. These shining examples offer possibly the best curve when it comes to unleashing deeper systems. The sense of development is far more immediate. While the X series offers similar developments, the vastness of deep space factories and fleets of starships can only be cumulatively appreciated on a spreadsheet readout, whereas the much smaller scope — though, historically-speaking, wonderfully accomplished — of these medieval and colonial trading games allow for a readier visual appreciation. The way town development is tied to trade and financial expansion can at a moment’s glance afford a cumulative low-down of progression.
It was Patrician III: Rise of the Hanse, Ascaron’s masterpiece from 2003, that really set the bar. And, for the most part, still does. Outside of having one of the most robust trading and delegation systems, it was once again the argument that strategy games are a cut above when dealing with variety in worlds — historic or otherwise. No greater genre exists for people to enjoy the past at its most vibrant, which is the perennial celebrations of Tactical Tuesday. Here, we inhabited the world of the Hanseatic League, a confraternity of merchant guilds that built one of history’s greatest maritime trading network, with one of the most progression governing bodies the world had ever seen. From London to Scandinavian kingdoms, the Dutch lowlands to Rostok, Patrician III: Rise of the Hanse was a detailed, heavy-duty piece of gaming. Moreover, from a pedagogical perspective, it was incredibly illuminating to investigate, through simply playing, the profundities of this erstwhile structure. The intricacies of commerce in medieval Europe and the locales which were key in establishing and maintaining the League.
Port Royale, Ascaron’s follow-up to Patrician, let players explore the balmy outposts of the Caribbean and, thematically, is my personal pick. Foibles such as combat notwithstanding, my imagination runs wild when watching my fleets ride the waves in and out of the New World ports. This is V.S. Naipaul stuff; the jungled islands of the Grenadines, the basking equatorial ports on the Yucatán and up around the Gulf coast. A rich and romantic realm, plied to and fro by galleons and merchantmen, privateers and pirates. One of the finer aspects of the third iteration in the Port Royale series is winning the hand of a Cayman noblewoman, either as a dashing mercenary or a prosperous trader. While not particularly necessary, there’s a wonderful evocation of purpose beyond the day-to-day when fair Elena is the object of affection. Throw in a social relations system and there’s a curious sense of humanity injected into the rawer elements of the game.
These are but a few of the titles found within the trader sub-genre. Or business management games, or whatever hairs you wish to split. Their slow-burn nature, the incremental crawl from the bottom to the top, is far more profound than a man with a sword and an empty skill tree. More intriguing than a Beretta and locked tiers. While games like Victoria 2 might very well be the trader sim interlocked into a grander strategy experience, the ones that simply let you leave politics to the politicians and you to your ships and cargo are my pick. They have their issues, but if you want to experience strategy with emphasis away from the guns and bloodshed that, indeed, dominate the genre, I wholeheartedly encourage you to dip in.
Just make sure Grenada gets their sugar. Their cacao surplus will make the journey worth it.
Tactical Tuesday is Games Are Evil’s bi-monthly deep dive into the compelling and complex world of strategy games, hosted by our own Alex Connolly. Follow Alex on Twitter here.