While many business simulations look ahead and speculate on the future of industry, a small number of sims revisit earlier economic eras. Trade Empires strips away stocks, bonds, and Wall Street to explore a less developed, but more dangerous, time of trading. Gamers looking to give up trading on rice futures for trading rice grains from the past should try this title.
Before the onslaught of train, truck, and airplane trafficking, the world relied on basic transport like camels, mules, and horse-driven drays for goods. Highway bandits looking for a caravan laden with gold often targeted merchants. Only the most careful caravan owner could establish a safe path for supplying items to meet the needs and wants of growing cities eager for exotic commodities. In Trade Empires, you take the reins on the road to riches through wealthy India, ancient China, and an industrialized England by building roads, employing guards, and paying for city upgrades to attract settlers to increase demands for goods.
Trade Empires provides developments in technology to help the novice trader learn the ropes of commerce. Improvements are reflected in the modes of transport, ranging from mules and donkeys to the earliest breed of the iron horse. Missions also offer production buildings that begin with refining one resource into items and ends with complex goods requiring multiple items such as cannons. Placement of such buildings must take place in the realm of influence, similar to the towns in Sid Meier's Civilization III, and boundaries expand as bigger markets provide more room for recent inventions in production. It's a changing landscape with people drawn to the cities that boast the most goods.
Although the game does not fuss with the more modern aspects of money, like a stock market and portfolios, it is still a complicated system to maintain. The "supply and demand" principle grows teeth quickly when several products come into play in a wildly fluctuating market. Players manage multiple cities through simple menus, but the more than 200 units and 30-plus upgrades spread over 18 scenarios makes money management difficult. Money that could be used for a new route often pays for new upgrades to capital cities. The game quickly grows into a delicate balancing act of improving the cities for more customers and investing in the company for new product routes.
Trade Empires uses more than a few design ideas from the Railroad Tycoon II simulation. Individual merchants have special traits like faster movement or better prices on goods, similar to the manager for hire in Railroad Tycoon II, and trails and roads are laid out like train tracks. Even the upgrades that help growth in both games are similar -- fans of the train business simulation will be able to dive into Trade Empires with little preparation.
While Trade Empires takes place on four continents, there are only modest differences in graphics from land to land. Unlike Sid Meier's Civilization III, though, you can't enter cities to review your industries, as towns are viewed from a static isometric perspective with the only animation being merchants scurrying from market to market. The game needs more artwork, such as portraits of merchants and city screens depicting a closer view of towns.
Sounds aren't much better than the graphics. While the soundtrack features different generic songs for each level's region, the sound effects are nearly nonexistent with audio cues indicating when a merchant is ready to embark or that items have been sold. The inclusion of even a few dialog lines to help set the atmosphere could easily have enhanced the effect, but, as with the graphics, the designers opted for the bare minimum.
The most serious complaints center on game design flaws. Even with several good ideas borrowed from other titles, Trade Empires misses the boat completely in some areas, such as offering no multiplayer action despite some levels involving up to four families battling for supremacy. There's no cohesive storyline, no character trying to regain the family fortune, nor anyone seeking to disrupt enemy trade routes. It's left to the gamer to supply the motivation behind his or her passion to build a trade empire. Scenarios can be played in any order with no advancement needed, and, finally, the market values in bigger towns simply bounce from high to low with no warning, making it difficult to keep adjusting the merchant loads on the fly. Smart city managers or intuitive merchants indicating that an item has fallen from public favor might have helped. While these issues don't necessarily ruin gameplay, they do limit replay value.
Trade Empires is a mostly enjoyable step into the past that offers a change in venue if not a change of pace, and incorporates the flurry of fine-tuning available in other business simulations. With a little more work and another round of polish, especially in the design choices, the title could have supplied more demand. As is, Trade Empires will likely fade away as a near miss.
Graphics: Aging isometric graphics represent cities that grow increasingly cramped; picking out the market in a crowd of buildings can be a tad difficult. More diversity would have been welcome, such as portraits of the merchants.
Sound: Beyond simplistic songs, there aren't any sound effects worth mentioning. Voiced dialog would have enhanced the various stages and established atmosphere.
Enjoyment: Starts as an interesting niche in the business simulation market, but quickly suffers the effects of dubious design choices.
Replay Value: There's no story to explore or replay, no multiplayer, and no requirements for playing through to more difficult levels. Most gamers will try a few levels and move on.
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