Think of Elite, or indeed Frontier, but change the spacecraft to an old wooden boat and all that space to oceans' worth of salty sea water and you've got High Seas Trader. It's a trading sim, set in the 17th century (1651 to be precise), but unusually features a plot in addition to the trading gameplay.
The plot centres around the player's father who was ruthlessly treated by a vicious earl and ended up dying penniless and miserable Therefore part of the aim in High Seas Trader is to regain your father's lost honour and through the accumulation of wealth and stature return yourself to your rightful position in society as a viscount.
Accumulating wealth is a difficult process when the game begins. Starting off at your home port, you begin with a small amount of gold coins but these quickly disappear as soldiers, sailors and apprentices need to be hired to man the different sections of your ship. Apprentices are cheap but their skill level isn't high, while soldiers are skilled professionals who demand high wages. Not paying wages will severely dampen the crew's morale. The crew also require provisions to keep them alive while travelling from port to port and this depletes your cash reserves further. As does the need to purchase weapons, both handheld and cannon shot, in order to warn off the pirate menace, sailors
Complex sea battles, either against a foreign enemy or pirates are possible, but not that common. It's best to avoid battle until you have a crew large enough to man the cannons properly and form a boarding crew if necessary It also helps if you pack more of a threat by having a larger boat complete with more cannons. Sadly upgrading your boat remains a dream for the first few years' of game time.
The ports around the world vary in size from outpost to city, with smaller ports generally not having as much to offer in the way of charts, supplies and labour compared to the larger settlements. However all ports feature a tavern, charthouse, bank and dock and it's in these buildings where you'll spend most of your time when not at sea. Unsurprisingly the tavern is a good place to build up the morale of your crew by filling them with alcohol, but you'll also find plenty of new recruits, often with better skills than those currently employed. The bartender is a good source of gossip and it's wise to take note of his information regarding which goods are in demand, as well as current political allegiances. Enemy ports won't allow you to dock so you don't want to waste months travelling somewhere only to find they won't let you in. Beware though, because the bartender's information may not always be up to date.
Some taverns also harbour people seeking passage. Charity cases are common and helping these people will boost your honour rating Many of those seeking passage are spies, escaped prisoners or smugglers and while they might pay well up front, there's a considerable risk in having them aboard after leaving the security of a port. Once you've begun to accumulate some wealth, various dealers will appear in the tavern peddling paintings and jewels amongst other treasures. These items are expensive but are essential to progress through the higher ranks of the merchant's guild, as well as increasing your nobility rating.
Building your own estate
When the serious money starts rolling in it's time to buy an estate. Three sizes are available and each has space for increasing amounts of treasure. Estates are another good way of advancing your status in society. Buying a larger vessel or indeed changing it to a warship also becomes possible at this stage of the game. Once you have this much money it's a good idea to pay a visit to a bank and invest some of your wealth in a bank account. As journeys can take take months a tidy sum will have accrued by the time you return. And should your boat be sunk while out at sea you won't have lost everything and will hopefully have enough cash invested to start over again.
Before commencing a journey visit the charthouse to purchase trade maps, as well as to hire a helmsman to take charge of the more difficult aspects of sailing. The market also needs to be visited in order to stock up on goods to trade. This is where the main skill in playing High Seas Trader comes in. The trick is to buy the goods cheap and sell them for a vast profit.
Sadly it's not that easy and the ports where you can sell goods for just such a profit tend to be a long way from where you are situated. In turn this requires more food and drink as well as replacement parts as your ship invariably suffers wear and tear on long journeys All this will severely eat profit so it's a question of balancing profit with distance.
Keeping an eye out for surges in demand is a sure fire way of making a quick buck but the problem here is getting anywhere fast enough to capitalise on it. This is the 17th century remember and unfortunately ships aren't exactly the quickest method of transport ever devised. Quite often you reach a destination with a full cargo only to find that the demand has just been satisfied by another trader and consequently the profit margin will be down. As a rule arms and opium are the most profitable goods but if a port comes under siege or a country is at war, then basic essentials like grain can increase in value tremendously. High Seas Trader makes you realise the scale of man's achievements. Having to brave the fierce journey round Cape Horn, where the crew continually come perilously close to mutiny makes you realise how fortunate ships are today to be able to use the Suez Canal for instance.
High Seas Trader is a fine strategy game that relies on its engrossing content and theme rather than audiovisual thrills. And a good job too because the graphics and the sound in particular are very average and purely functional. The game takes a long while to get into though and I imagine this will put a lot of people off, as will the occasionally unresponsive controls. Watching the boat travel from port to port on the course setting screen also gets boring, particularly on journeys with a lot of waypoints but maybe this is supposed to give an idea of how large the world is. It would have been better if travel between ports was instantaneous.
I don't want to dwell on the negative points though, because High Seas Trader has plenty to offer. Studying the markets for trends and then making a killing is vastly satisfying as is watching an enemy boat sink beneath the waves.
Although slow moving at times High Seas Trader is surprisingly action packed for a simulation and will probably appeal most to those who like busy simulations such as Dune 2 And that's no bad thing.
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