Cartographic Exploration – Ancient Trader

I was fumbling around on Gamersgate for a patch to update Achtung Panzer, when I spotted a newly released budget priced strategy game, claiming to be simple to learn yet rewarding to play. The visuals looked very appealing with a true “olde worlde” Cartographic feel to them. The game was centered around exploration, trading and a combat mechanism abstracted by coloured cards.

So I decided to check Ancient Trader out. From the teams website it seems the game is due out on Xbox Live Arcade also, and supports 4 player multiplayer. I haven’t played it yet, still downloading but its genuinely uplifting to see more and more light strategy games hit the PC and console market for a very reasonable price. Heres hoping the actual gameplay lives up to the authentic visual pleasantries.

Ok, its installed and I’ve had a quick game. I must say its fairly entertaining and simple enough to play. The main focus is on the initial exploration to uncover the fog of war, so you can map out the ports and any floating treasures or lurking monsters. Then once you have the ports mapped, you can instantly see the costs of the goods available (tea, spices or oranges). So you need to plan your sailing routes around the map, to pick up goods at low cost, and drop them off at high cost. Simple enough. However, your ship starts out a bit of a weak dingy, with limited movement (indicated by gusts of wind), limited cargo space and limited weaponry onboard. So avoid conflict with monsters and the AI competing enemy ships.

Once you’ve sorted out a good circular and short trade route to earn maximum cash, you can start to upgrade your ship, getting your speed and cargo hold up for shipping duties, whilst maintaining a defensive presence in case you stumble onto something nasty out there, like the Kraken!, or an enemy ship attacks you. After that you keep running the routes, upgrading everything you possibly afford, and trying to hit the sweet spots that give you extra speed or money when you can. There are three artifacts that affect your status and combat, and these can be found or purchased at certain ports.

Your offensive power seems to be graded into three colours Green (Cannon), Blue (Swords) and Red (Cannon), and different ports upgrade different colours. The combat when it happens is possibly the weakest part of this light strategy game, in that its based around a rock/paper/scissors mechanic using the colours. Green gets a bonus attack +2 against Blue, Blues is +2 against Red, and finally to complete the circle Red is +2 against Green. So you’re upgrading your offensive colour scores by +1 at a port for an escalating cost in gold. Once in combat you have three cards, one of each colour, with their respective offensive numbers adorning them. Both opponents then choose a card, and the scores are compared including any bonuses. The higher card wins, and goes back into the hand. The lower card loses and is discarded for this battle.

This mechanic seemed to favour boosting one colour as high as you could afford early on, and then just using that against all colours, as long as you were 3 higher than the attacking colour it wouldn’t matter even if bonuses were applied. If its a draw then the winner is chosenly randomly. So there is that element of luck even if you can’t surpass the attacking card plus bonus. As you win with a card, the opponents options of attack with bonuses become limited, and then you can throw the appropriate card in with bonuses applied in your favour. So its not the most strategic of combat mechanisms I’ve seen. But at the higher end game, it can be a bit tricky if your cards are boosted enough to manage the opponents bonuses.

Another option in the port is to take on a Quest for extra gold, these are simple quests that involve slaying a number of sea monsters, or escorting someone from one port to another. If you can incorporate them into your trade routes, then you could see a welcome boost to your finances and subsequently your speed, cargo hold and ability to raise your offensive powers.

Overall its an entertaining well presented board game as such. With some nice animations, and random surprises. Its got a lot of management and tinkering compressed into a very streamlined abstract turn based game, and I can only imagine its more exciting playing it with friends on Xbox Live. With my gluttonous mind in overdrive I was still mid trade route when the game ended abruptly and the enemy AI had won – so theres obviously a victory condition of securing all artifacts and killing a particular sea-monster. I was intrigued to see that when your enemy had a battle with a sea monster you could see his cards, so effectively he gave away his strength. However, this was just the first scenario that could be played and was no doubt on the basic side. Interesting stuff though. Gorgeous to look at.