Review: Medieval Merchants11 Apr 2013 0
Medieval Merchants made me feel like the admiral of a merchant fleet, peering through my spyglass at a distant Excel spreadsheet. I respect Rapidrabbit for developing a game which almost aggressively eschews showmanship, relying completely on its economic model to generate the tension necessary to keep the game interesting. For a small minority of iOS gamers, this will be a potent remedy to the instant gratification engines more common on the platform, with unforgiving games which take hours rather than seconds to complete.
The Hanseatic League is a useful model for a trade-based game, not only because of its historical importance, but also because of the limited number of ports (including Greifswald, home of the developers) able to take part. As a result, the economic model feels comprehensive, despite being fully discrete and computationally tractable. Money allows you to buy goods, ships, and warehouses, upgrade your existing ships and warehouses, or donate to the major buildings of Lübeck. When these buildings cross a certain threshold of total donations from all players, they gain a level and give each player prestige proportional to their donations. While prestige does the work of victory points, accumulating certain amounts of it also increases the player's level, unlocking rarer goods for trade and larger ships. In addition, quests periodically become available, often requiring focused trading on a particular good in a certain city. Successful completion yields a prestige boost. As in the real world, nobles are troublesome, for their quests involve a substantial prestige penalty if failed.
All of this complexity provides a degree of relief from the simple buy low-sell high tedium of a trading simulation. Unfortunately, the interface, while functional enough, tends to keep the focus on the minutia, with no way to offload the details and focus on the big picture. While it's possible to get most of the information necessary to make good decisions, it's relatively slow.
For example, suppose the grape harvest has dropped wine prices far enough that you want to buy up as much as your ship in Köln will hold and ship it wherever is close and has the most demand for wine. This would be easy if the interface offered you a table with the cities on one axis and goods on the other, with their supply of each in the table. There's space enough for this to be readable even on a non-retina iPad. Failing that, it might suggest possible destinations for your cargo, or list cities by their demand for selected goods. Instead, your only option is to page through the cities one at a time.
Medieval Merchants simply doesn't make many concessions to usability or attractiveness--you can do what you need to do, but it rarely feels as easy or exciting as it could have. Never is this more obvious than when a report comes in of a pirate attack. What could be a vivid episode is simply another line on your day's ledger, little different from arrivals or departures and substantially less distinctive than the announcement of a a big order to fill.
There are also a few minor bugs, including disappearing buttons. None of these are serious problems, because it's always possible to get them back, but it gave me a bit of a start when a game I'd been playing for over an hour seemed to have disappeared because the "Load Game" option was greyed out. Its reappearance after restarting the app was most welcome, though by that time I'd already gotten farther in the replacement game than I had in the original.
Because the Mac client hasn't been released as of this writing, it's hard to say how well cross-platform play and cloud saving will work, but that's a potentially significant selling point. Similarly, for those with friends likely to enjoy a dry economic simulation, multiplayer has substantial appeal (though it's generally quite difficult to get much information about what your opponents are doing, which makes direct interaction essentially impossible).
In the physical boardgaming world, a subset of those who enjoy "Euro"-style games seem very interested in longer economic simulations with low player interaction and minimal superficial fireworks. Medieval Merchants seems directly aimed at these gamers, and is likely to satisfy them. Most of us, even those with an interest in more deliberately-paced, tactically satisfying options, will do better to pass it by.