Review: Merchant to the Stars10 Jun 2013 0
Fred Savage taught me that you can skip all but the good parts of a fantasy story and be left with something utterly delightful. Merchant to the Stars (henceforth MttS) applies this insight to the usual RPG formula. Why bother with a hackneyed plot, tedious combat against repetitive enemies, or party management when you get straight to the loot? To that end, you play an armorer serving up to five adventurers. Let them grind low-level orcs for what seems like days--when they come back to town, they'll sell you their haul of weapons and armor.
Donald Vaccarino has proven that it's possible to refine a single segment of a massively complicated genre into a successful game--his Dominion took deckbulding out of Magic: the Gathering and spawned seven expansions (so far) and an entire genre of games which expand on this idea, (including Pocket Tactics favorite Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer). So MttS has a good pitch, applying promising precedents to an interesting genre often dragged down by its own complexity and use of tedium as a cost. The interesting question is how you get players to care about loot if they don't get to use it to slay dragons, breathe underwater, and so forth.
The solution MttS offers is highly unsatisfactory. Each adventurer faces a different quest and has different preferences. If the good loot happens to be what they need, you buy it, hone it, and sell it back to them at a small profit. Usually the isn't optimally suited to the task at hand (an adventurer might need stone weapons to fight gargoyles, for example), so you sell it to a middleman for both money and experience. Not-so-good loot you can buy for raw materials used in honing. Repeat the cycle many times, and you'll have enough money and have increased in levels enough to upgrade your workshop, which will allow you to make money faster. As you progress, your adventurers will periodically succeed in their quests and be replaced by better adventurers who bring you better loot which requires less raw material to hone, other things being equal.
That's pretty much it. You use money to buy stuff to make more money with. It's a little more fun than it sounds because because MttS has a penchant for smirk-inducing item names. Behold, the "Dull Sickening Crystal Machete". That would be enough to carry a game suited to mindless play, but MttS offers just enough opportunity to optimize your money-making with mental effort that it threatens to become a proper business game -- but it never quite gets there.
The problem started when I noticed that the value of an item was the square of its strength. That meant that, since honing increased an item's strength by four (before upgrading the workshop), if it had a starting strength of x, its value would increase by (x+4)2-x2. Magic items are a puzzling exception--the game treats a magic property as an entirely secondary source of power, so their value is x2+y2, with y being the magic power. If your eyes are already starting to glaze over, skip the next paragraph.
Early on, you can hone twice and you always want to, so we're really talking about and increase of (x+8)2-x2. But, as x (or x+y, for magic items) increases among the items an adventurer brings back, the weapon's tier also increases, and with it the amount of raw material required to hone it. You can usually buy the raw materials in the form of items of roughly 1/5 the strength of the really good stuff, so making some assumptions, the profit you expect from honing a piece of loot will be ((x+8)2-x2)-t(x/5)2, where t increases with the tier of the item. That means you only get ((x+4)2+y2)-(x2+y2)-t(x/5)2 when you hone magic items, but t increases roughly in proportion to x+y, so what ought to be the most appealing items end up being terrible money-making opportunities most of the time. Even aside from magic items, the function is an upside-down parabola, which means there's a point at which honing better loot actually loses you money, because your costs tend to rise. Generally, that means you make the most money from the most expensive items within a tier, but since the tiers are defined by the level of the adventurer, at any particular time, the "legendary" tier of one adventurer may have a completely different range from the same tier (and thus, same material cost to hone) of another adventurer. If you wish to play well, you need to keep track of all of this stuff--fail to, and you'll slow your progress quite a bit.
The upshot is that money-making opportunities are kind of a pain to keep track of, and it's easy to accidentally lose money on a transaction (especially involving a magic item) because you haven't paid enough attention to the differences between adventurers and the cost of materials. The game could have made this easier, but much of the information you really want is either entirely inferred or available only after far more taps than would be necessary if the interface didn't waste space so irritatingly. That's made worse by the real-time nature of the adventures--usually, low-level characters come back with new loot pretty fast, but the best stuff takes a while, and there's nothing you can do about it but wait. That's frustrating, but it does lend the game its principle virtue beyond the premise: it's surprisingly habit-forming. It feels very much like a hamster wheel--you know you're going nowhere, but you keeping getting back on because, if you do it at the right time, you get there faster.
The game was played on the iPhone 4 for this review.