Merchant Prince is QQP's latest offering, and like most QQP games, careful attention has been paid to every detail. The level of graphical sophistication is perfect for the genre. The game is rendered in crisp, attractive 256-color graphics with a minimum of animation. This makes it look good, without slowing it to a crawl, even on a 386. Unexplored areas are overlaid with a sepia-toned representation of the map – which gets less accurate the further one gets from Venice. Using this instead of a black void is an especially nice feature, and one which I believe is unique.
Players control one of four merchant families in 14th Century Venice. Using four different types of ships, each with a different speed and cargo capacity, as well as mule and camel trains for overland travel, merchants explore the world, searching for cities to trade with. They then transport goods from city to city, buying low, selling high and hoping to avoid pirates, bandits and storms, all of which can result in the loss of an expensive load of cargo.
Trading is effortless. Anyone who has played Railroad Tycoon should be able to handle it without even reading the manual. The buy and sell screen shows what a transport has in its cargo holds and the price at which it was bought. It also shows what the city is selling and what it will pay for cargo. Sell what you have for more than you paid for it, and you make a profit. Then, by consulting the commodities screen, only a mouse click away, an enterprising entrepreneur can find a place which will buy what this city is selling, stock up, and head out. Simple, right?
Actually, trading, although implemented very nicely, just scratches the surface of Merchant Prince. Once a couple of complementary cities have been located, one can establish a trade route. This is essentially a "program" followed by a group of ships or land transports. The group will travel to City A, load up on cargo, travel to City B, sell the cargo and fill up with something else. Programming trade routes is a snap, and they may include up to four different cities.
There is also intense political intrigue. Players have the option of dabbling in church affairs by "buying" cardinals, who generate revenue through the sale of indulgences, and count as votes when a new Pope is elected. Or, by bribing senators to earn their loyalty, one can be elected Doge – the political leader of Venice – which allows one to set the level of taxation and appoint the positions of Council Head, Admiral, General and Minister of Construction. Each of these positions allows certain other options. The Minister of Construction, for example, receives a budget which can be spent to build roads.
There are numerous other elements to round out the game. Family unpopular? Rectify this by throwing a party or sponsoring a work of art. Control twelve cardinals and impatient for the current Pope to die? Have him assassinated. Likewise, a popular opponent can be slandered, his villa torched and mercenaries hired to capture his cities out from under him. Make no mistake: this game can be played as just another trading game, but it has the potential to be much, much more.
Still, there are a few features which would have enhanced gameplay. The map doesn't allow crossing from one edge to another (i.e. the world is flat). This is historically accurate, but annoying. An option to toggle this on and off would be great. Also, a provision to trade intelligence with other players, or buy it from cities, would make exploration much more worthwhile – uncover large parts of the map, then sell the information to other players! Finally, when using random map generation, there were some landbound cities on small continents which could not be reached, as there were no coastal cities from which to start a mule train! The option to put camels and mules on ships would make the game much more playable. It should be pointed out, however, that I was playing a late beta version, and the folks at QQP seemed very interested when I mentioned these options. The game should be in stores by the time you read this, and maybe we'll see some of these features implemented.
Overall, Merchant Prince is a game to avoid – if you want to continue to get a reasonable amount of sleep! If you enjoy trading or simulation games, you are likely to find this game very addictive. Don't say we didn't warn you . . .