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1995-2001
GamesFirst! Magazine


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by Talonsoft

 

I consider myself to be a relatively intelligent man. I read, I play chess and monopoly from time to time, am capable of doing arithmetic, and occasionally listen classical music. I even pretend to be able to tell the quality of the wine at a restaurant by smelling it and examining the cork. So when it takes me days to figure out exactly how to efficiently play a game, I assume it’s because the game is hard to learn. And Merchant Prince II has a learning curve that reminds me of a very tall mountain at the start of a hike: you can see where you want to go, but you’re not getting there without a whole lot of work. A brilliant game at its heart, compelling and flexible, Merchant Prince II would have been a near masterpiece in the strategy realm if not for its clumsy interface and rocky implementation. In short, it’s a good game, but hard to get into.

MPII is a turn-based strategy game based around the Merchant Princes of the Renaissance. You assume the role of a Merchant Prince, a person in control of vast resources, a devious mind, and a desire to make a tremendous profit in any way necessary. The concept for the game has been around for some time. The original release of the Merchant Prince was a very popular game on older systems, and now, as sometimes happens with good games, its age is beginning to show as computer technology moves onward and high performance game machines like the X-box enter the market.  You control mainly trade and some military units on both land and sea as you establish trade routes, manage your resources, and battle for popularity amongst other merchant princes.

Ultimately, my primary complaint is that the game is confusing. Even in the simplest of modes, with the technology tree turned off and automatically handled for you, it is difficult to figure out exactly what is going on. At the beginning of the game when you only have a few trade units running back and forth, the system is manageable. But as your empire grows, which it must do if you wish to do well in the game, you soon find yourself overwhelmed. As you become more accustomed to the trading system, deciding what to sell when and where, you establish automatic trading routes. However, I found this system, while vital to the game, to be poorly implemented. Units would mysteriously lose their trade route without informing me, and I would find them sitting blissfully out in sea four turns later, empty of cargo, with the storage units at the cities it was servicing backed up and automatically turning away my traders. Other flaws in the system compounded my frustrations. For example, when pirates attack a unit, or one is hit by a storm at sea, you are informed that unit 43 met with an ill fate. However, it does not tell you how many units you lost, or more importantly, what their cargo was or where they were going. If you’re like me and identify your units not by their number but by what they are carrying and their trade routes, you find yourself searching the world for your missing ship. This is made more difficult by the fact that the screen does not scroll smoothly, but instead in a staggered pattern that has you constantly moving your mouse back and forth against the edge of the screen. There were several times that I lost units and never figured out where they had ever been.

Surprisingly, though, despite the difficult, outdated interface, Merchant Prince II is a fun game. Sure, it’s not the sort that people gather around during parties to play--let the consoles have those games--but it does have the intellectual appeal often associated with Talonsoft, the game’s publishers. After you manage to hurtle the cliff that is MPII’s learning curve, you begin to understand exactly what the game is about, and why the original was so popular. As you come to better understand the game, your empire grows, you begin to make money, and you gain an immense amount of satisfaction from finally wrestling the monster to the ground and getting it under control. It’s sort of like those magic eye posters. It takes a lot of work to figure it out for the first time, but when you do, from then on you can’t help but stop to look at one when you see them hanging in a store window in the mall.

It’s only after you become comfortable with the trade systems that you progress on the complicated stuff. One of the game’s strengths is its variety of options. No one could accuse Merchant Prince II of not being well thought out on a conceptual level, and it shows. MPII allows you to adjust how often storms and pirates strike, how long the games last, the difficulty and style of the computer AI, realistic or randomly generated world maps, historical scenarios, as well as other aspects of the game. This adds a tremendous amount of replay value to the game. The most important adjustable feature to the game play itself is the ability to turn the tech-tree on or off. This means that either you start with access to the most advanced ships and units, or that you have to pay for them as the game progresses. After you’ve mastered the trading aspects of the game, turn on the tech-tree and tackle the next wall of the learning curve game. 

Politics exist all throughout the game. Cardinals are bought and paid for, senators are hanged for treason, ect. You can gain power by bribing the right people, saying the right things, and throwing the right parties. If you like, it can largely be ignored. But in the games where you wish to explore the intimate details and depths that MPII has to offer, you have to understand the intimacies of the ruling mind. I still haven’t figured it out, myself. By bribing senators and buying cardinals you can ultimately buy your way into the office of Pope or Dodge, the rulers of the land. With that election comes special abilities, money, power, and so on. But I found that despite throwing the right parties and spending the right money, I still didn’t do so well politically. With a popularity of 95%, I would lose four cardinals a turn to assassination, and at least one senator to treason, which is an offence punished by death. That was a lot of money wasted for little apparent gain, not to mention the amount of money I threw away getting the 95% popularity. All in all, I found the political system more trouble than it was worth, but it does go to show exactly how much depth the game has in its heart. Give me some time, and I’m sure I’ll be able to figure the political system out, and then I’ll be having a great time there, too.

When it boils down to it, it is amazing that Merchant Prince II manages to be such an enjoyable game with the blocky and flawed interface, yet it is. MPII is a very enjoyable experience once you grow accustomed to the system, and the replay value is excellent. The game has the ability to generate a completely random map each time you play, allowing you to explore and discover all over again each time you fire it up. The thrill you get when you discover a new city, and new trade options, is up there with the best of them. The Multiplayer ability allows up to four players on a network to play at once. The play by e-mail feature is an excellent one, though long (an average game lasts over 100 turns), and adds additional appeal to the game, especially to those of us preparing to go on vacation for the summer. If you like resource management games, and don’t mind the little bit of time, or lot of time, it takes to learn the system, Merchant Prince II is a solid game for your money. Just make sure you have a good pair of hiking boots and enough time to play a few practice games.

Aaron Stanton

Snapshot

Ups: Deep and engaging strategy.

Downs: Very steep learning curve, more an update than a new game.

System Reqs: P-166, 32 MB RAM

 

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