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Review by: Josh Horowitz
Published: August 11, 2001
Many people are familiar with the phrase “Business is War” when referring to the cutthroat competition typically associated with modern corporations. But looking back to Renaissance Italy over 500 years ago, such a phrase could be just as relevant. It was a time when capitalism began to establish its dominance over feudalism, and names like Machiavelli and Medici represented the growing merchant classes that were rapidly gaining in wealth, popularity, and political power. Trade routes brought enormous profits to the merchant princes of the time, who ruthlessly dabbled in both politics and the church to further their interests. With all of these elements befitting a quality strategy title, Holistic Design and Talonsoft present players with the trading challenges of 15th century Europe with their latest turn-based release, Merchant Prince II.
Merchant Prince II is a game with many intricacies and challenges. Players compete against any combination of three computer or human opponents in a quest to either earn one million florins or have the most wealth by the end of the campaign. Games cover the 14th and 15th centuries, and can vary in length from 15 to 192 years, up to the discovery of the new world by Columbus. Like in Civilization, players start with a small number of resources and steadily expand to take over the world. The action begins in Venice, where merchant princes-to-be enter the scene with some cash and a few transport vessels. Early on, the object is to earn some extra florins through simple trade with other cities and nations. Later, you can hire mercenaries to further your interests, build Villas to increase your popularity, try your hand in politics, or even work your way up the church hierarchy. All the while, players must contend with random events such as storms, marauding pirates, and even the Black Death that breaks out from city to city. Being a turn-based title, Merchant Prince II uses tiles and sprites to represent the units in the game. Players reveal an unexplored Europe, Africa, and Asia during their land and sea movements; or there is an option to play on randomly generated maps. There are also five scenarios included with the CD: a German campaign, the Mediterranean, the Orient, Marco Polo, and even the lost city of Atlantis.
The name of the game is Merchant Prince, so naturally trading is an important aspect of play. Just like in real life, the object of trading is to gain the most profit possible, and here it is accomplished with a mix of the “buy low, sell high” mentality and a bit of research to discover the demands of each city. The trading interface is fairly simple: to buy items on the market screen, it’s just a matter of dragging the commodity you want from the city’s market to your cargo hold, and having the florins to pay for it. To sell your goods, you merely drag your cargo’s icon onto the store’s similar icon. If a city doesn’t have a demand for a particular good at the time, you can build warehouses to store the items until the next plague hits and demand for your products soar. Once you establish contacts with other cities around the world, you can begin to establish profitable trade routes between them. Using the trade-route creation screen, you can automatically order your cogs or caravans to purchase items at certain cities and sell them elsewhere, with up to four stops along the way. Once trade routes are in place, the computer automatically takes over the repetitive tasks, leaving you to focus on other aspects of play. Not every city is friendly to trading with your family, but some can change their mind with a bribe, a change of government, or an attack by your hired mercenaries.
While trading is essential to success in Merchant Prince II, there are several extra-curricular activities you can pursue to expand your family’s power. From Venice, your home base, selecting various sections on a painting of the city reveals several important locations. Clicking on the Clock Tower brings up options for you to increase your popularity and gain influence in the senate and the church, such as by building an elaborate Villa, being an art patron, or donating florins to the church. Without popularity, both you and your representatives become greater targets for slander or even assassination. Selecting St. Marc’s Basilica reveals the church interface, allowing your family to buy cardinals in anticipation of one day having enough votes to rise to the papacy when the old Pope dies (or is killed). If you get elected Pope, you can call a crusade, excommunicate cities, sell cardinals, and even increase your family’s wealth by raising the price of indulgences the cardinals sell. Another building in Venice is the Campanile, a bell tower which is the meeting ground for mercenaries for hire. Hired mercenaries can easily upset the balance of power in your favor by attacking rival families’ assets and holdings while defending your own. Finally, there is the Den of Iniquities, a rank place with low men such as arsonists, slanderers, and assassins who will perform their vile but useful deeds against any rival families, political leaders, or the church for a price.
On the political side of Merchant Prince II, there is the power of the Duke, known in Venice as the Doge, to appoint four cabinet positions to various families. Being appointed Council Head puts you in charge of the “Council of Ten,” the high court and inner circle of the Venetian government, where you can accuse a senator of treason, essentially signing their death warrant. This is a handy way of getting opposing families off the council and ensuring that your family’s interests are more accurately represented. The Doge also appoints a General of the Army and an Admiral of the Navy. Players selected for one of these roles are given a yearly stipend to pay for the military’s upkeep, and are expected to use these granted military units to protect Venice and threaten her enemies. The last position is the Minister of Construction, who is given compensation to build roads around the world. Any cabinet member who does not put their yearly payment to good use typically loses popularity and may eventually lose their position. Of course, by bribing enough unscrupulous senators and gaining a majority representation on the Council, you may become Doge as well, gaining in wealth and power in the process.
Players looking for more of a challenge can also enable Merchant Prince II‘s technology option. With this feature, the Workshop becomes available, and there you can spend florins each turn on the research or discovery of new innovations in science, weaponry and other fields. Such investments can unlock more advanced cargo vessels, buy more powerful mercenary units, and allow you to gain bonuses on certain elements of gameplay. For instance, you could research the telescope, which allows your units to see farther out on the map screen than everyone else. If you find the need to bribe a lot of senators, you can hire Machiavelli the Prince to help you learn more cunning political manipulation, making smaller bribes more effective. The research feature is entirely optional, and turning it off allows players to keep their focus on the trading aspect of the game.
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