Historically, Europeans have often longed for a place in the sun. The Portuguese, Spanish, French and British were first off the mark as soon as it became apparent that (a) the world was in fact round, (b) there was a large unknown blue bit missing on all contemporary maps known as the Pacific, (c) the lands contained masses of ‘free’ commodities – gold, silver, etc. - and thousands of volunteer workers, ie slaves.
This is history, but Impressions are giving us a chance to relive those days and to right the wrongs of those free-market imperialists. In Merchant Colony you get the chance to build your own economic country, ruled in name by the king but in reality by the profit motive.
Firstly you must send ships across the sea packed full of colonists who will build a base and then develop it into a growing, thriving, self-sufficient town. Once these foundations have been laid, they will start to produce surplus goods which can be shipped off and sold at an enormous profit. Or that’s the plan: but as ever with the free market, things are rarely so easy. Everything from storms to privateers stands in your path...
Ships for sail?
The drive for empire is led from two main perspectives: a map and an office. The maps range from global, for general route-planning, down to detailed colony-level from which towns are managed.
The office is where your East India Company equivalent can be monitored for profitability, ships bought, colonists hired and so forth.
Vital to the running of your Merchant Colony are people. Finding folks who want to get away from it all is easy, but getting the right mix is vital if the colony is to thrive. The eight vital skill types – soldiers, settlers, workers, explorers, teachers, engineers and storemen – all have obvious roles, but are required at different stages.
The management side forces continual monitoring of, and addition to, these teams. New needs must be anticipated, because ships of this day take an absolute age to reach anywhere.
The introduction of land and sea battles with pirates allows an aggressive style of play to evolve. Caution has to be built into any gameplan to avoid the ship being scuppered by a stroke of fate: icebergs or locust plagues.
Cursor or curser?
Merchant Colony looks good, for what essentially is a strategic management simulation. Figures only intrude where they have to, namely the accounts. The movement of goods, people and ships is icon driven.
Here Merchant Colony starts to show its flaws. When the mouse cursor is moved at speed, it jerks on update and begins to make accuracy difficult. The detailed, colony-level map window can be moved by pushing the cursor at the edge of the screen, but a jerky mouse makes accurate movement difficult, even over small distances.
Yes, Merchant Colony is a challenge. It would be unrealistic to expect it to be exciting, but strategy games should have tension – will the grand plan work? Will the enemies attack before you have a chance to finish building up the towns garrison? - and Merchant Colony lacks this element. It is hard to build and maintain colonies that are scattered over the globe, but the level of commitment needed to sustain long-term gaming is hindered by this lack of tension.
This puts the emphasis on the subject matter to sustain interest, which means if you’re a history buff you’ll probably love it, but otherwise everything starts to flag once you’ve mastered the principles involved.