Quantum Quality Productions (QQP) is one of the great also-rans in game publishing history. They did a lot of light wargame stuff like The Perfect General, The Lost Admiral, The Pure Wargame. All were decent games, if not brilliant. QQP had one shining title, Merchant Prince, and even it got stolen by the strategy big boys, Microprose, which then gave it a catchier name – Machiavelli – and laughed all the way to the bank. Developed by Holistic Design, the two games were almost identical. Machiavelli looked much better and had some small UI improvements, but, for all intents and purposes, Holistic’s Ed Pike (also co-designer of Emperor of the Fading Suns) just moved his game idea from one publisher to another.
The choice of names by each company is instructive, since they both apply to different aspects of the design. You were cast as a Venetian merchant prince, whose success was largely determined by how much money he could make trading in the wide world. Success could be egged along by those tactics embraced by Florentine author Niccolo Machiavelli – bribery, slander, assassination – in the pursuit of political and religious power in the city. There was a minor military component, using troops to force open cities that would not trade with you or destroying pirates. For the most part, Machiavelli was a political power simulation with gold being the sinews of domination.
One of my enduring memories of the game is how it portrayed the known and unknown world. Like many games, you had to explore to find your next trading opportunity. But beyond your immediate surroundings, you only had a general idea of where the next city was. Constantinople is somewhere to the east, London in the northwest, Baghdad a good long trek east again. Until you found them, their locations would be marked on the map in parchment brown, since your cartographers guessed that they were in that vicinity.
This was all well and good until you had to go to cities further from your direct knowledge. Once you got to Asia or the African coast, it became apparent that your cartographers were working from some fairly inaccurate information. Your map says that a Chinese city is just a couple of turns from your caravan. But when you walk to where the city is supposed to be, Surprise, there’s nothing there. Does the city even exist or do you just need to keep walking? Can your fleet find where Jakarta really is before the pirates find the fleet?
This mechanic worked very well on the historical map for a few games, but shined in the random world generator. Once you moved beyond a certain radius, entire continents could be no more than legends and tiny islands could be rich new worlds filled with holy relics for the Pope.
Though its gameplay was nowhere near as sophisticated as that of its near contemporary, Civilization, Merchant Prince/Machiavelli did a better job of capturing what exploring is really like. Very rarely in the human experience are people pushing into an entirely black unknown space. There are always rumors, always guesses, always some advice either from locals or past chronicles. (Seven Cities of Gold had a similar idea, with indigenous guides giving you directions, some good and some bad.)
The trading empire part of the game was largely divorced from the political side, except for the very important role that money played. If your trade fleet wastes time searching for Xanadu, it is not making money for you and the Vatican is not cheap. Assassins don’t work for free, and if some knave burns down your villa you will need to build a new one to maintain your prestige. It was too bad that the AI was never very good at the political side of things, since that would have made the economic pressures more salient to the gameplay. But you can’t have everything.
Merchant Prince/Machiavelli is one of the very few strategy games that gave you partial information and very few games since have picked up that torch. Fog of war generally applies to enemy troop positions, of course, but map information in strategy games is generally either perfect or perfectly unknown. Exploring is less about moving hesitantly to what you think is there and more about walking boldly into the darkness because you know that the next civilization can’t be too close or that no one ever starts more than a few seconds from a gold mine.
And it would not have worked at all if there was no random world generator. Though I will write more about this in the upcoming Europa Universalis entry, exploration really only feels like exploration if you have only the vaguest clue about what is over the horizon. Exploration of an historical map is something you can really only enjoy a handful of times, especially if, as is the case in Merchant Prince/Machiavelli, you even know which cities sell what. Cinnamon prices are high – off to Calicut!
I would also argue that it not have worked without the aesthetic conceit of a brownish parchment map. The distinction between maybe and certainly is immediately apparent to the player and is historically appropriate. Seeing a rival fleet sail off into a spot you had not explored piques your curiosity. Does he know something I don’t? Is it just a random AI spasm? Are there dragons there?
Next week’s games also used an aesthetic conceit that proved integral to the games’ appeal. Next week, we even have developer commentary on Imperialism.
(All images from Mobygames.)