by Take 2 Interactive
For many gamers the quality of the trading aspects of a strategy game are what makes the difference between the game being good and the game being great. It may sound silly but it really is a significant part of the experience. Frog City have picked up on this fact (they did after all have a great strategy game themselves in Imperialism II) and have firmly placed trade at the heart of Trade Empires. In fact they have done more than that; the game is essentially all about trading.
In case you are thinking that this sounds a little strange and that maybe it couldn't possibly work, well let me put your mind at rest and tell you that Trade Empires is one of the most addictive games strategy games that has been released in the last few years.
On loading the game for the first time there are five tutorials to help ease you into the game and introduce you to the interface. These tutorials are fantastic and will learn you all you need to know to tackle the first few scenarios. All information is given in text (no verbal information exists) and the information is given in click-off dialogue boxes so there is no need to be a speed reader here. What's more you can even easily go back to earlier messages so if there is something you've forgotten then, you simply click the 'back' button to read the previous messages.
There are nineteen scenarios. These cover, between them, around 4½ thousand years of history and they range from the early civilisation in 2500 BC to the close of German Industrialisation in 1905. The scenarios are split into four levels of difficulty (Easy - Very Difficult). The easy scenarios are merely an extension of the tutorials in that they introduce you to new game concepts such as multi-regions (more than one map on which to trade). The more difficult levels give you rivals to compete with (although a fantastic inclusion in the options menu lets you disable computer opponents in all scenarios). You will need to guard your merchants as well on these levels as they will be susceptible to attacks in some cases (again this too can be disabled in the options menu for those who don't like combat).
Basically the gameplay goes something like this. You are in charge of a family and at the beginning of the game all you have are a headquarters and a reasonable amount of money. Your first priority is to place a market next to some commodity (it is preferable to locate you first market next to a food source such as rice as you don't have to immediately worry about importing food to attract residents). Next you'll place a second market next to some useful commodity such as flax which can be worked into cotton cloth which is usually one of the first items that a growing population will require. You then create a path/road between the two and create a trade route between the two markets. Finally you hire a merchant and place him on that trade route. These are the bare basics of the gameplay. Matters get more intriguing when you take into account that the price for items changes depending on how much it is wanted on not wanted in a particular market. A base exists for an item but this is only for guidance and an item that is in desperately in demand can far exceed this base price. Historical events and wars also have an effect on the value of goods (although this is only for a certain amount of time and the price of the goods returns to normal when this special condition has passed). Certain buildings like temples and palaces also have special demands and they usually pay very handsome prices to a merchant that can deliver their goods.
There are also technological advances in the game. Unlike other strategy games, where you have to research technologies, in Trade Empires you have to purchase an advance. The way this works is like this. If you get offered the chance to buy the Copper Mining advance and you accept the suddenly copper mines will become visible to you on your terrain map. You can then create an outpost by the copper mine and create a trade route to move the copper to a market but to smelt the copper you must also have the Copper Smelting advance in order to make copper ingots which can later be turned into copper urns. Occasionally you'll purchase an advance that your computer rivals will not have. In this case you can licence the advance and then you will have a limited time to sell that advance to them.
The advances are not limited to raw materials and finished articles. Advances can also lead to improved methods of transportation for your merchants. In the early period scenarios the default method of transport for your merchant is the donkey which is OK to begin with but will soon become too slow. Should you acquire the Animal Breeding advance you can elect to switch you merchant to mule which is slightly quicker and can carry fractionally more. With further advances you can use camels, horses, drays etc. and the modern scenarios you can go from horse-drawn rail to an American 4-4-0 train with the appropriate advances. The depth involved here is truly wonderful and the gameplay is enriched for it.
For extra spice Frog City decided to throw in individual personalities for the merchants. All of the merchants have special attributes. These range from Pathfinding which increases the speed of off-road travel to Famine Relief which enables your merchant to receive a little bit extra when selling foodstuffs. With superior performance a merchant can receive extra attributes (you get to decide which one). This can create very valuable merchants and you will have to protect them with guards should the scenario contain possible threats. While we are on the subject of merchants you have to be careful about the trade routes that you create. Should you send a merchant to a city market loaded with goods that the market doesn't want then he will struggle to sell the goods and you will lose income as a result. You have to keep an eye on what is needed at all times and update you routes accordingly.
The real beauty of the game is the amount of different historical time periods that it covers. The earliest time period in the game is 2,500 BC - 2310 BC in the First Civilizations scenario and the latest time period is 1835-1905 in the German Industrialization scenario. In between these we have Roman, Egyptian, and Medieval scenarios (and more) and each of these time periods comes with the appropriate modes of transport, appropriate commodities and buildings. The attention to detail by Frog City is truly staggering and the whole visual style adopted by the game is fantastic. Victory conditions for the scenarios vary and range from dominating a trade region to creating more wealth than your enemy.
Graphically the game is perhaps on a par with games such as Railroad Tycoon II. While not staggering the general look of the game is pleasing and easy on the eye. The different historical styles of the buildings have been well done but the terrain does seem a bit lacking in atmosphere although I can appreciate that this helps keep the system requirements low for those of us who can't afford to upgrade every couple of months. One thing I would have liked is a zoom feature but this is just a personal preference and is not needed within the game. The resolution is fixed at 1024x768 so bear this in mind if your running with an old graphics card or monitor.
The game's interface on the whole is very good. I would liked to have seen a centralised menu for seeing all the markets in one go as it is a little bit of a nuisance having to go around all of them.
Trade Empires has really surprised me. I was expecting something like Caesar 3 but what I found was completely different. To give you some point of reference and if I had to describe what the game was like I would say that it plays like a Transport Tycoon through the ages game. This description only fits part of the bill though as in many ways Trade Empires is a very unique and very addictive experience. Although the game has no random/skirmish play feature don't let that fool you into thinking that the game is short. Many of the scenarios can be played from many different angles which offer a completely different experience. In short Trade Empires comes highly recommend from Deaf Gamers for its originality, it's complete text feedback and above all it's brilliant gameplay.
Overall Game Rating: 9/10 Another Frog City masterpiece.
Quality of text / Visual Clues : 10/10 Perfect.
Graphics: 7/10 An appropriate style has been used.
Visual Presentation: 9/10 Very clean and easy on the eye.
Interface: 9/10 Would have like to have seen a centralised menu for the markets.
Gameplay: 10/10 Truly addictive stuff and refreshingly addictive to boot.