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Merchant Prince and Machiavelli (1993/1995)

April 3rd, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 9 Comments · Feature:Map

What this is about.

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.

Merchant Prince

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.)


9 Comments so far ↓

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  • Jimmy Brown

    Very interesting post. My curiosity is piqued. This approach to the fog of war, presenting the player with imperfect information, sounds brilliant, and it makes me wonder why it has not been used further.

    I look forward to your post on Imperialism. I played that game many times, and I hope that GOG has it some day so I can play it again.

  • Scott

    I *adore* this game and want to play it again. Awesome article, Troy!

  • DJBC

    Great article, I remember fondly it. But what i don’t remember if is there a multiplayer element or not…

  • Primemover

    I missed out on this game, but the whole fog of war concept in regards to geography and resources adds such a great element to strategy games. AOE II’s random map generator was the first game I recall really stressing that point…you may find one particualr resource area and have to defend the crap out of it because strategically it was so important to your position, and you may not have the luxury of ecploring a fogged out map to find more. Great retrospective, would love to try it out.

  • Olsson

    I can still remember that haunting melody in Merchant Prince. I was sharing an apartment with several students when I bought it, and it was played by all of us over and over again. I think that especially the inaccurate map part made the game experience new every time. And it was fun to buy cardinals. Hmm, I might still have the game…but on floppy discs.

  • LintMan

    You didn’t mention my favorite QQP game: Conquered Kingdoms. The graphics were low end, even by then-current 1993 standards, and the music was limited to songs like “Yellow Rose of Texas” playing between turns, and both sides used the same 16 units, but they were exquisitely balanced.

    I still remember one reviewer at the time saying that “CK’s single naval unit (called “boat”) has more tactical uses than the ship units (5+) in Empire Deluxe combined.”

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