The game Patrician II was released in 2000. It came at a time of popularity for trading games.
The favorite setting for such games seemed to be the Caribbean and the colonial period. The various towns in the Caribbean, controlled by their colonial masters, provided an economy connecting by shipping. You played as a ship’s captain, capable of “buying low, selling high” to make a steady income transporting goods between nodes. This was integrated with a possible career as a pirate, either stealing goods from merchants or engaging in the various colonial wars as a privateer. Sid Meier created his Pirates! in 1987, but by 2000 there were a number of similar games based the then-modern “strategy” interface.
Patrician II was a variation on the theme that moved the setting to the north of Europe during the 1300s. Obviously, it is a sequel. The original Patrician was a similarly-themed game, but with a very different looking interface, released in 1992. I’ve never actually played it. The focus on Northern Europe means you now are one of a number of competing merchants in the Hanseatic League cities of Germany, the Baltic Sea, and the North Sea. The open warfare of the Caribbean is gone, but pirates remain in play. Just not for the player.
In 2003, Patrician III came out in the U.S. The Patrician series was developed in and original targeted to Germany. What was released as Patrician III in the U.S. was actually an expansion to the Patrician II release in Germany. Patrons (heh) not paying attention could easily be deceived into thinking they had a new game on their hands, whereas at least one review described it as a glorified patch. Looking back some 15-18 years later, however, it is the Patrician III release that we consider relevant.
So how does the game hold up?
Games like Patrician III promised to be a departure from the RTS fare of the day. Still played in “real time,” there is copious room for leisurely decision making (at least for the majority of the game). The “build buildings to construct units to conquer territories” is jettisoned in favor of the economic underpinnings. This means that the martial “theme” from most games is replaced with a more peaceful structure. Being by and for Germans, it has a unique look and feel that I will always associate with the German-produced games circa 2000.
The “game” is in the model that underlies the system as much as it is in the player interaction. There are several layers of interaction. First is that dynamic market model, where prices rise and fall with the law of supply and demand. Cities sell cheaply what they produce and can pay high prices for what they demand. Arbitrage between the comparative advantages among cities is what allows you to make a steady profit. But this is mitigated by the fact that you aren’t the only trader in the northern seas. Between the time when you see a shortage (e.g. that lack of whale oil in Lubeck) and when you actually go and collect those goods to sell them, an AI opponent may have already supplied the needed product and reduced the opportunity for profit.
The second level is the interaction between the town and the player. Townspeople respond to the availability of goods, or lack thereof, by coming to or leaving a town. Thus, keeping the full range of goods in supply has the effect of nurturing the town and growing the population. That population is divided between the poor, wealthy, and middle class, all of which respond to different incentives and goods. As you please the people, your reputation in the town also can grow. This can mean the prestige of “promotions” or inclusion in the town government. In this, the game borrows a bit from the “city builder” genre. Your cities are populated by little sims-like people, that can be clicked on for color commentary. Keeping all of them happy is the key to city growth.
Yet another level is that you can build the supply chain infrastructure. While the town and your competitors are building structures, you can too. So not only can you profit off of trading but you can help drive the market and profit from the production end as well. Similarly, as you grow your town, you are also growing the consumption end of the equation. You can further support the population by creating additional housing for them. Going further, you could expand beyond your original towns into others.
Once you shift your focus from trading to building, you’ve also got to refocus your trading. In order to build a building, you need a sizeable supply of the raw materials (bricks, wood, etc) to construct that building. You can always simply buy those materials on the local market, but the law of supply and demand says if you suddenly make a massive purchase on the open market, you’ll pay through the nose. So your ships need to be changing their focus from turning a profit to one of gathering those needed supplies from the four corners of the Baltic Sea, thus bringing down the average price.
One final piece to the game draws from pedigree of the pirate game genre. As I said, there are pirates in the Baltic and North Seas as well. When they set upon your ship, you are put into a real-time, sailing game where you manage your ships sails and cannon. At the time it came out, there were a number of games trying to perfect the Age of Sail experience, and this has the components common to that effort. You have a range of different armaments, each having their own reload times. You need to be aware of the importance of wind gauge. As you progress in the game you gain access to ship upgrades that increase speed, maneuverability, and firepower. In the end, though, the naval combat piece of this game underwhelms; not only in retrospect, but it was considered the weak point at the time. It is a departure from the rest of the game, transforming a leisurely and thoughtful process into one where you are now forced to click-click-click over and over until you win or lose the battle.
Pirate-fight-clicking aside, it’s a model that is complex enough that it would seem a player can only grasp small snapshots of it at any given time. So, perhaps, given a handful of favorite goods, you could learn to recognize the right price points to buy and sell, getting pretty efficient at moving that product around. Or you focus on production and consumption of a particular set of goods in your home town, enhancing that ability. It seems unlikely that anyone could keep it all in their head at any one time. So the model is complex enough to be just out of the player’s grasp, at least in its entirety.
The result is a game that is strangely addictive. You might wonder how much fun it can be, buying pig iron at 956 and selling at 1415, and then repeating that process over and over. But once you get going, it is difficult to stop. Maybe just one more port of call before calling quits for the night turns into just five more, or ten more, or twenty. I played quite a lot of this game when it was new, and it remains addictive even today.
Ten years on, the original developer was out of business. Enter the developer Kalypso (of the Tropico series, among others) who purchased the intellectual property and developed a new version of the game, I would assume using their Tropico 3 engine.
Right from the starting gate, things go bad. The first red flag was when Steam started to install the game, a pop-up warned that there was a product key that needed to be entered later. This turned out to be fairly seamless, although I recall having a problem with another installation. But it is a warning that there is a sort of double DRM involved with the purchase, both the Steam system itself and the the self-rolled DRM from the developer.
Having passed that hurdle, some button (hard to read, as it was fighting with the Steam popups) said something about installing an update from within the Patrician configuration system. I’m assuming this was just whatever patch was pushed through by Steam, so I said OK. But then it required that I enter an email account and password.
So now I’m looking at DRM level 3. Not only do I have it on Steam, and had to enter my product code, but the game is unplayable unless I register for Kalypso account “to receive product information!” What am I going to do? I signed up for the account, got my confirmation, and it finally allowed me to see the “play” button.
So-far-so-bad, but the worst is yet to come.
I get to the main menu and nothing is working, and I realize why. The right-handed mouse configuration (I use a left-handed mouse) is hard-coded into the game. There are some minimal reconfiguration options available, but nothing to remap keys or correctly configure the mouse. I can tell now this game won’t be long for my system.
So we finally can get to the game. From appearances, this is the same game as Patrician III, with the primary update being to the interface. One assumes there are some difference in the events and economics engine as well, but I would also assume that this is nothing game-changing. The interface is “modernized.” The “table of numbers” style interface in the original game is replaced with more icons and graphics. International marketing of games does favor graphics over text, so the impetus for this is clear. The result is less so.
The graphics and updated interface seems to keep more information hidden. In the old game, the market conditions were readily available just looking at the screen (see the topmost screenshot to compare and contrast). Goods with short supply or high demand show a large gap between buy and sell prices. Clicking on the price to buy (or sell) seems intuitive and natural. Contrast to that above. There is now only a single price (which may be a difference in modeling – I haven’t got out the manual), so until I learn “the market” I have no way of knowing that price is high or low. Dragging the slider is awkward and easy to make a mistake. The icons will also take some learning, now that beer isn’t “beer” but a picture that may or may not be so obvious at first. Finally, notice that unlike the original, there is a slider to show the rest of the market goods. Whereas the original allowed to player to see the entire market at one glance, the Patrician IV player is forced to scroll up and down just to get the full picture.
Patrician IV lacks the tutorial that began Patrician III. That may be a factor in the longer learning curve, but with the original once I got into it, I felt I had a handle, right away, on how to do everything that I needed to do. With Patrician IV, the interface seems harder to grasp. Especially since almost half of my clicks are with the wrong mouse button, I end up confusing myself more as I go along. Where is that button to go out to the “world” view? I know I found it once, but I forget where it was. Some of this would be overcome with some playing time, but as I said, this one is not going to be staying on my hard drive.
One feature I stumbled across that does look like an improvement is better auto-management of trade routes. At some point, chasing every ship around the North will get tedious and moving to the game’s next level (politics and such) would benefit from pushing the lower-level stuff onto the computer. I’m not going to be playing long enough to get there, but it looks like a good addition. I also wonder how much improved the pirate-fighting interface is after ten years, but again I dread trying to manage a mouse-heavy fight with the buttons reversed.
Overall, the promise that this game held out wound up being majorly disappointing. My only consolation is that I got it with a really, really deep discount.
Vote for Me and I’ll Set You Free
One review that I looked at (of Patrician IV, although it probably applies across the board) said that the best part of the game is at the highest levels – when you’ve built up enough power and influence to enter the political game. There are new features to play games of intrigue against your rivals. In addition, the market itself can become a weapon. Want to destabilize a mayor of some other city? How about sailing in and buying up all the meat, driving his market into chaos and causing riots in the streets? That review, however, pointed out the downside that you’ve got to play through hours of “leveling up” to get to that part of the game.
In 2013, Crusader Kings II entered this historical space with a new DLC called The Republic. It allows players to game as part of a merchant republic rather than a feudal hierarchy. While Venice is probably your key player in this regard, Lübeck and the Hanseatic League are also one of the playable factions. However, true to the Crusader Kings scope, you do not play as a merchant with a handful of ships. Instead, you lead one of five merchant families who are all attempting to expand their influence in the burgeoning markets of Northern Europe. Essentially, you start out as the end-game “Patrician,” already active in politics.
Rather than controlling a county, the player’s base is a really nice house somewhere in Lübeck. The plus is that you are protected from envious Counts in neighboring territories from coming to conquer your palace – it commands no territory. The down-side is that, well, it commands no territory. While you can upgrade your palace, it is just a matter of pay-the-money and wait. There is no opportunity to rise through the ruling class by obtaining titles.
In addition, each merchant family can building trading posts in eligible cities with which they will trade. For the Hansa, these are coastal cities in Northern Europe. Other merchant republics have different rules, including land-based trade routes. These too are pay-the-money-and-wait affairs. Of course it all interacts; more trade posts means more income which means more prestige which means the ability to control more trade posts.
The five patrician families also elect one as a Lord Mayor of Lübeck, allowing that player to also control the county, in a slightly more traditional style of play. Election has to do with building up prestige, which comes mostly with age, and being the most popular at election time (when the previous Lord Mayor dies). Again it becomes mostly a waiting game. As a side complaint, I did get myself stuck in a glitch of sorts the first time I took held the higher office. Having won the election, I still remain mortal. Upon death, one would presume, I again take over the merchant family as my own heir while another more prestigious patrician wins the next election as Lord Mayor. The game seemed to have a lot of trouble with the succession, losing track of the heir and deciding that, in fact, I had no successor and the game must be over. With lots of saving and reloading, I did manage to get past it. It seems an obvious bug, so perhaps it will be repaired soon enough (if it hasn’t already).
I’ve mentioned it before that when it comes to the standard Crusader Kings, and Europa Universalis as well, it often seems to pay to do as little as possible. Avoiding wars, grooming your family, and trying to increase income is a lower risk way of slowing gaining power. Pouring money into frequent wars was generally a bad strategy historically and that can often show up in the game. But avoiding all the fighting and backstabbing also means a less exciting game. The Republic seems to take that to another level.
As a merchant prince, there is little productive to do except invest in your operations and slowly watch them grow. While there is the occasional fighting, removing the incentive to capture titles through warfare means that battles are high risk, low reward. There is some chance of gaining skill and prestige, of course, but there is also the chance of being killed or maimed in battle. That means thinning out the number of heirs, which also hurts on the operations side. The ability to control more trade routes is, among many things, a function of how many males their are in the family.
In the screenshot above I am about to be thrust into a much more tenuous position. The early 1300s (in game, at least) saw the Black Plague sweeping through Northern Europe. As a result, I lost a good chunk of the male members of the my merchant family. Following this, I find myself playing on the thin edge of extinction. I seem only to manage to keep the last male member of my line alive long enough to have a single male child, setting up a decade or two of new succession crisis while we wait to see if he can produce an heir before dying. While there is a game here, it is a long game played over generations rather than in weeks or months. Building up a trading empire ship-voyage-by-ship-voyage in Patrician III just seems to connect with the period a lot better than sitting around waiting for one’s wife to get pregnant.
So surprisingly, it is the oldest of the games that still has the most addictive qualities. Just last night I was up an extra hour making just “one more” trade before I went to bed. It’s a different gaming style than most of what is successful in the gaming market, but at least for me, it works. Crusader Kings inclusion of merchant republics is a nice change of pace from the original, but also doesn’t really compete with Patrician III in its appeal.
And as to Patrician IV? Frankly the mere fact that it exists makes me a little angry.