Who doesn’t love rock/paper/scissors? The gradual build up of tension, the misdirection and sleight of hand, the elaborate strategies and sudden reversals. What better choice of traditional game could there be to base a combat system around?
Placed loosely in the strategy category of the marketplace, Ancient Trader feels like Sid Meier’s Pirates! If it was a board game. Equipped with only a sailing ship and bizarre clothing, you head out to sea in search of the Ancient Guardian. It’s not entirely clear what the Ancient Guardian is, except that it eats sailors and is full of treasure. Presumably it’s also insanely dangerous. There must be easier ways to make a living than trying to kill it with playing cards. I’m pretty sure there’s a reason the old Gambit card-flinging trick didn’t appear in Moby Dick.
Yes, playing cards, more or less. As you take turns moving around the world map, trading goods between various ports, you will frequently run into miscellaneous sea monsters or fellow piratical ne’er-do-wells. Combat with these foes boils down to rock/paper/scissors with cards. You have three cards representing your attacks, and the enemies have two or three or their own. Each card has a numerical value, which you can upgrade at ports in exchange for hard currency, and the highest number wins.
The rock/paper/scissors element comes in with each type of card getting a +2 bonus over another: green beats blue, blue beats red, red beats green. The categorisation of the game as ‘strategy’ might lead you to believe there’s some depth to this combat system but it’s all illusory; it mostly comes down to just choosing the appropriate colour. There’s also a frustrating degree of luck involved; if the enemy leads with a card that you can’t counter effectively, then you’re immediately put at a disadvantage for the rest of the battle. It’s an adequate combat system, but it’s a little too simple and it means that the key to success is just buying upgrades as quickly as possible to ensure you have stronger cards than everyone else.
To that end you’ll want to trade, and fast. When you start a game the map is mostly concealed by cloud. It doesn’t take long to discover some ports though, and that’s when you can stock up on whatever is cheapest and run it to somewhere that pays better money for it. Not a deep system either, and it’s streamline for maximum ease, with each port’s asking price for cargo displayed right there beside it in huge digits that must terrify the citizens.
On top of the standard cargo, ports have a couple of other functions. Each port sells upgrades to one of your cards, and these are essential to success. The faster you can buy upgrades the more chance you have of surviving your travels around the map. Fall behind in upgrading and enemies will continuously rob you, keeping you still further behind.
From time to time someone at port will offer you a mission, perhaps to run cargo to another town within a time limit or to exterminate a particular sea monster. These can be a handy source of cash, but delivery missions can be infuriating if enemies attack you constantly en route to steal your money and miscellaneous goods. Maybe that’s why my pizza is never on time.
Some ports also sell special items that don’t do anything in themselves but when combined reveal the location of the Ancient Guardian. Track down the beast, beat it to death with your cards, and the game is over. In principle this is the aim of the whole game, but in practice it feels like almost an afterthought. Having spent so long running errands, buying upgrades and fighting off predatory sirens, smacking down the Ancient Guardian with your maxed out cards can feel like a formality. I feel a bit sorry for the poor beast, going to all that trouble to build a terrifying reputation only be slain by the speediest salesman with the best Magic: The Gathering collection.
For a game based around showing your enemies some cards, Ancient Trader has a remarkable sense of style. The setting is half 17th century European colonisation of the New World, and half fantasy. All of this comes across in the old treasure map style of the visuals. Stark brown and red hand-drawn beasts from the margins of medieval maps writhe across a background of age-yellowed parchment. Well, I say ‘writhe’ but I mean ‘glide statically’. For all the attention lavished upon the visual presentation, the game contains basically no animation. In a way this fits the theme and doesn’t seem too out of place when you’re moving from space to space as though on a board, but it didn’t take long before my eyes glazed over and I stopped paying attention to anything except the colours of the cards at the bottom of the screen. Still, presentation is one of Ancient Trader’s strongest points and probably the feature that pulls in the punters. I know it’s what snagged my attention. Well, that and I’m a sucker for games about pirates.
On its lower difficulty settings, the game is painfully easy. Your rivals rarely even attempt to obtain the special items to find the Guardian, so there’s really very little danger of losing. I find that the hardest setting is the place to be. Enemies will be a bit too strong and your rivals will be unrelentingly ferocious, constantly attacking you to steal your precious funds, but it’s the only way of preventing the game being an effortless frolic to victory.
The problem is that once you know how to play and how to go about winning, one game plays out much like the next. There are a handful of maps but aside from the locations of the towns it makes very little difference which one you use. Having an option for randomly generated maps could have made a world of difference in giving Ancient Trader some longevity but, as it is, one game on each map is quite enough for the game to wear out its welcome.
It’s a shame; the charming presentation and the novel offer of lightly strategic exploration have promise. Sadly the repetitiveness, the simplicity of the combat and the lack of challenge once you understand how to work the system make this Ancient Trader run aground a few hours too soon.