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It's a vicious battle to rule the seven seas, in what is one of the best multiplayer games yet seen on the Amiga!

This game takes its title from the year that the Suez canal was opened. The authors decided that this year, more than any other, marked a decline from the old age of sailing ships, to the succeeding steam-powered ships. And people say propeller heads are dull... You, and up to three other players are traders, starting off in the year 1854. The idea is to build up a successful fleet of ships, open warehouses round the globe, and prey off both the new empires of the developing world and the raw material providers of the third. Guess who gets the rawer deals. Hmm, it's not as if they could've set the game in this century now is it? (Little bit of politics - Ed.)

In a single-player mode, after setting how long you play for (from five to 26 years) you choose your headquarter's location and are plunged straight into the game. Your base of operations can be in London, Liverpool, Le Harvre, New York or Savannah. Each place has its own advantages and disadvantages. In multi player mode, you get an extra treat - the ship auctions. All players go along and bid against each other for a starting ship. A certain amount of physical prowess is useful to beat the others to the mouse, but of course this is optional.

Infamy! Infamy!
1869 is a graphical point-and-click management simulation. You don't have to play via a mouse - keyboard control is much faster, and less dependent on the dubious quality of Commodore mouse buttons. But it does take more practice to master this control method.

Buying and selling ships is a skill in its own right. Most new players opt for steamships straight away, but this is a very dumb move, because in 1854 coal was expensive, so sail boats are a much better option. Used ships are preferable to brand new ones, since they can be commissioned straight from the shipyard, if the port you are in has one. Buying cargo is much more straightforward.

Point and click at the port you are in, and the merchant's screen comes up. A merchant may have nothing to sell, because some products are seasonal. In a well-developed area, up to two commodities may be up for grabs. If your HQ is in the port, you can store excess quantities. You can also open warehouses wherever you go, if you have the cash.

Cash is the big problem. Most places sell things, but merchants are choosy about what they buy. They will always offer you a price on merchandise, but if they don't want it then you'll make a loss. Small quantities fetch better prices than huge shipments, but getting small quantities of anything is not easy.

At the top right of the screen is the date. You click on this for time to move on, and time can literally change the whole game. There is little point trying to sneak into Savannah for cotton during the American Civil War (1862-1865) because you'll get caught by blockaders most of the time. Running arms to Odessa during the Crimean War is similarly fraught with peril. Sure, if you make it then the pay-off is huge - but you don't make it often enough to make it a good business exercise.

Ich bin ein manual
Most of the noteworthy events in the time line are mentioned in the manual. This quite lengthy tome is unlikely any other I've seen. It's got the historical detail of the Wings (AF16 - 79 per cent), the get-started quick section of a MicroProse manual, and quite a few Germglish howlers that had me in stitches. It makes damned-good reading, though the translators' English is a lot better than my Deutsch.

It's truly unique, a bit over the top in places and totally sanitised in others. The lengthy description of New World passenger conditions is quite stomach turning, but there's no mention of flogging - a common form of punishment for the era.

Is it any fun? Well, in solo-player mode, it lacks depth. It has some humorous animations, but you don't get enough in the way of difficulty levels or different scenarios. Initially it does seem like a one-track game - well, that's how I felt after 10 hours of play. After those 10 hours, though, I tried playing against some friends. Then the game changed. You see, if you buy up the goods from a port, or heavily supply goods to a port, then the other players suffer if they try the same run but come second. You have cornered the market and there's not a lot they can do. OK, to be honest after a couple of hours they sussed me out, and 1869 became a mother of all battles.

We staged 'real' tea races to see who could run the fastest shipments of illegals, who could grab the richest markets right from under your nose. This naturally led to alliances, power groups, treaties and all sorts of other mayhem. The time line may stay the same, but the way you play alters the game every time. A bit like chess, but much more subtle and less headache inducing.

Social animal
If you never play computer games socially, this is with other people, then you probably won't like 1869. Well, unless you're heavily into management simulations and like making naval logs to map out the world markets. I found it just too pointless in solo-player mode, it's also very, very difficult. The straw that breaks your bank is the tax man, who calls at the end of every year. How true to life.

Usually, I prefer to play games that are more escapist than this. But I did get this one insight from it - merchant navy captains of the last century were often inhumane. The reason why is quite simply that the job demanded it - you had to be in order to stay in business, let alone make a profit. It's naïve to judge people from yesterday by today's standards.

If you're heavily into 19th century nautical history, or play on an Amiga with other enlightened beings, and the idea of pretending to be a hard-nosed, back-stabbing, scrupulous capitalist appeals to you, then go buy this game. Just be prepared to play like a real Thatcherite.