ED. - Try as we did (relentlessly I might add) to get some screen shots of Merchant Prince, we were a miserable failure. Sorry.
Machine Requirements: 8088 or better CPU, 1 MB Ram, DOS 3.3 or better Hard Drive, VGA or SVGA graphics, Mouse Reviewed on: 80486SX/25, 8 MB Ram, Dos 6.0, SVGA, SoundBlaster Pro II Reviewer recommends: SVGA graphics
It's a time of rampant greed. Price gouging, slander, misappropriation of funds vital to the defense of a nation. Ceaseless rounds of parties as bribes, lies, and vice run rampant.
And you thought something new had been invented in the 1980s.
Merchant Prince, the latest offering from QQP, is set in Renaissance Venice. The player or players are the heads of various merchant families, trying to parlay a small amount of money and resources into a trading and political dynasty to last for centuries.
Merchant Prince is a sharp looking game, the SVGA graphics are nicely done, and the music is appropriate (although it grows annoying over time). In a nice touch, the player is given a map of the world, which grows less and less accurate the farther the player gets from Venice. Unlike the more traditional showing of the uncharted world in black (that is to say, not showing it at all), Merchant Prince shows the map (with all of its items, accurate and inaccurate) in sepia tones, giving at least some clues as to where exploration should begin.
The victory conditions of the game are a combination of wealth, popularity (and while you can buy popularity back with ease, given sufficient wealth, the populace does frown on attacks on fellow Venetians, as well as more treacherous acts, say, assassinating the Pope), and political and religious power.
Initially, players concentrate on getting a few profitable trade routes going. Merchant Prince has some nice features to avoid micro-management. The computer stores the current prices of items in all of the cities the player has access to (removing the need to keep paper records), and can also list what each city produces, as well as the base value of an item. Merchant Prince also allows the setting up of automated trade routes, which the computer will then run automatically (freeing the player to concentrate on exploring, and the Renaissance pastimes of violence, intruige, and simony). Unfortunately, there is no mechanism for listing alternate cargo, so if there isn't enough of an item to meet your needs, your caravan will deadhead to its next destination. This flaw makes a degree of micro- management necessary to keep routes from becoming only marginally profitable.
It is possible to have your family have a member become Pope. The Pope (whether a player or the computer) will periodically open up new Cardinalships, which can then by purchased (the Pope getting a portion of the proceeds). Each Cardinal provides revenue from the sale of indulgences, the amount each provides being set by the Pope. However, no Pope can ever lower the amount, and if it grows too high, the Reformation occurs, creating a hostile Northern European power. Finally, the Papacy gives the power to call Crusades (providing the player with a handy army at no expense).
In addition to the secular power wielded by the Church, there is purely economic force (not all cities are open to Venetian traders, but it is possible to either bribe your way in, or hire mercenary forces and conquer the city), and the political intruige of Renaissance Venice. There are ten Senators (specifically, the Council of Ten, the players are assumed to own minor Senators in plentiful numbers), and they elect (each ten years), the Doge, or head of the city government. The Doge appoints four positions, and sets their budgets. The positions, Council Head, General, Admiral of the Fleet, and Builder of roads, all have their advantages. In the interests of play balance, each family may only control one of the four appointed offices. It is generally wise to own at least one senator whenever the Neutral Party wins the Doge election, as that guarantees being appointed to one of the posts.
Finally, there are the seedier aspects of Venice, it is possible to hire a slanderer (to besmirch an opponents good name, the less popular a family the easier it is to act against them), an assassin (after all, that Pope is too much of a threat), or an arsonist (to torch your opponents expensive Villa).
Where Merchant Prince falls short is not in the mechanics, but in the AI. When dealing with computer players, there is no sense of interaction. They will compete for trade routes, assassinate your people if they see the benefit and so on, but they always send the same stock threats. There is no way to bargin with them for access to a city, or to gain their votes in an election. In contrast to the rich interaction with the NPCs in this year's smash success Master of Orion, it falls far short.
Merchant Prince does however, include modem play and PBEM features. But game against human players are harder to set up, and take significantly longer than games against the computer opponents.
With the weak AI, and a few annoyances (the deadheading of cargo, and the fact that it blanks the screen to erase dialog boxes), Merchant Prince falls into the category of "almost great". As it is, it's a good game, and a fun one, but it came so close, to fall so far short. Modem and PBEM play allows for all of the intruige and bargaining (and to the credit of the designers, those hooks are there), but Modem and PBEM play are still not the bulk of the market, or of the playing time for games.
For those who like computer strategy games, I'd recommend it. But if you are deciding between Merchant Prince and Master of Orion, I'd heartily recommend Master of Orion, bugs and all.This review is Copyright (C) 1994 by Dave Weinstein for Game Bytes Magazine. All rights reserved.