Developer: Frog City
Publisher: Eidos Interactive (US) - Take2 Interactive (Europe/Asia)
Release Date: Fall 2001
Genre: Economic Strategy
Quick Trade Empires Q&A
Q: Can I hip-shoot zombies with quarter-ton laser cannons?
Q: Can I sneak past ridiculously stupid guards to get to the ridiculously underguarded supercomputer/magic item/doomsday weapon?
Q: Can I get to level 500 and get all the uberloot?
A: Sorta, but no.
Q: Can I play online?
Q: What's the point of this game then?
A: Economic domination!
By now I'm sure you're rolling your eyes and tsking at me for assuming that economic strategy games are something new and unusual. After all, the Railroad Tycoon franchise is always a best-seller. Well, Railroad Tycoon had a tinker-toy economic model. It spread its complexity through many other areas so as to make a game that has a wide appeal. Games that have nothing but economics to support them are generally unpopular, unhyped, and quickly forgotten.
In truth, I'm a huge fan of these sorts of games when they're done right, and the only game I can think of with a more complex economic model than Trade Empires--that was actually playable as a game--was Microprose's 1994 release Colonization (the first Civilization II). This is not to say you need an advanced degree in economics to play. At its core, Trade Empires is a game of supply and demand. The basic ideas are easily understood, but mastery of the game requires mastery both of these concepts and also of micromanagement.
The overall scope of this game is vast. From ancient China to early-industrial Europe you pilot a merchant family to fortune or ruin (or, more likely, somewhere in-between). Sadly, the scope of the individual scenarios is often lacking. If you play in ancient China, for example, your scenario runs for a fixed period of time and you have to amass a certain amount of wealth in that time in order to be "victorious". Then you move on to the next scenario in which you do similar things for another fixed period of time. The variety makes things interesting, but a "whole history" scenario would have been nice.
Another design idea left me wondering what the developers were thinking: The "combat" that occurs sometimes when you travel from one zone to another. Your caravans or fleets need mercenary escorts, but the combat outcome is completely random and overall kind of pointless. It reminds me of the unavoidable (at later levels) and poorly implemented combat scheme in Caesar III. Although, at least in Caesar III you were able to control your troops to some degree.
Another issue is the randomness. Everything outside of your control (and possibly the computer-controlled merchant family opponents) is relatively random. Resource placements being sprinkled randomly makes sense. Production sites do not. For example, I have no problem with a copper mine popping up in the middle of nowhere. Resources are found where they are found. However, when an advance occurs that allows you to make, say, copper urns, why would the only copper smith appear as far as humanly possible away from both the nearest smelter and civilization as a whole. From a gameplay perspective it makes things challenging as you have to place different markets and keep things flowing, but from a realism perspective it makes very little sense.
None of this, however, detracts much from the overall game. If the computer generated copper smith wants to appear on the other side of the planet, you can install your own--for a price--in any locality you want, and the pseudo-combat can be turned off.
Trade Empires begins with selecting a regional scenario. These vary widely, as I mentioned before. You then construct trading posts, hire merchants, set trade routes and go for the gold. Food and basic commodities are the backbone of your economy, and only with ample availability of these (at reasonable prices) will your trading posts flourish into bustling cities.
In addition to basic commodities, there are also luxury goods, as well as demand buildings for said goods. You can raise demand (and thereby your selling price) by placing demand buildings (palaces, barracks, temples, and so forth) in your trading areas, or build trading posts next to the randomly placed demand buildings in order to get a little side income.
Production buildings are another key feature of gameplay. Generally, you will begin with a certain number of technologies, some of which are production related. For example, if you have clay working, you probably have potters. If the computer generated potters are inconvenient, you can build your own (for a steep price), but make sure you plan it in a way that it's profitable overall. Player owned production buildings add to and subtract from your overall wealth, and it's very easy to build a giant money sink if you're not careful. One of the challenges of the game is that whenever there is an advance which creates consumer goods, demand in your cities begins immediately. Modifying your trading infrastructure to meet this demand will take a good chunk of your game time since in some scenarios the advances come at an alarming rate.
In addition to game-wide advances, some advances (generally transportation upgrades and luxury or demand advances) can be purchased once made available.
And what sort of empire-building game would be complete without random events that help or hinder you? There are plenty to be had in Trade Empires. They vary from earthquakes to wars to trade agreements and everything in-between. Often negative effects can have positive side-effects on your economy depending on your situation, but that's not always the case.
One thing that you'll either love or hate, depending on how you play games, is the micromanagement aspect. Everything must be micromanaged. There are no global economy screens, nor are there ways to get your merchants to improvise. Every trade route, every city, every merchant must be handled individually. This can be really immersive, but for those who don't like having to handle every detail, it could also be quite tedious. A few routes can generally be left alone without worry, like food routes to your primary demand center. Pretty much everything else needs a watchful eye.
Finally, most scenarios feature merchant family opponents which are controlled by the computer. Each family addition increases the complexity (and thereby, difficulty) of your scenario exponentially. It's not like many other games, where they are off doing their own thing and you're competing in a parallel fashion. They can and will buy and sell goods at your trade centers and the level at which you must micromanage your economy becomes much higher. Playing without extra families until you understand how to make distributed profits is highly recommended. On the other hand, they also build roads and towns at which you can trade, so if you find a deficiency in their mercantile management, taking advantage of it is almost always a good idea. Unfortunately, there is no multiplayer for this game. However, the computer opponents do a pretty good job, and will keep you on your toes for a good long time.
Graphics and Sound
I've lumped these two major areas into one, since Trade Empires has little to offer in either category.
The game displays its world in a smooth top-down 3/4 isometric view. The graphics are not bad, but aren't great either. Really, this game isn't about graphics. I've played it extensively and there was never a time when I thought, "Gee, why couldn't this be first-person 3D with shadows and awesome light effects." It delivers just what you need to enjoy the game.
The same can be said of the music. It's well-done for what it is, but also very much in the background most of the time. The only time it seems jarring is when you switch regions and the tune suddenly changes (each region has its own music).
In summary, if you play games primarily for awesome graphics and killer soundtracks, this really isn't your kind of game and you'll likely be very disappointed.
Trade Empires is a solid, entertaining, and even addicting economic strategy game. It is also one of the very few pure economic strategy games available. There's no city-building or troop deployment. It's all about the benjamins. It lacks many of the bells and whistles modern gamers have come to expect from most games, but it more than makes up for that with its playability.