In 1994, QQP released Merchant Prince, an economic strategy game developed by Holistic Design and set in Renaissance Venice. A year later, MicroProse picked up the game, got Holistic Design to improve the graphics and tweak the game a bit, and rereleased it as Machiavelli the Prince. A full six years later, TalonSoft has decided to take a turn at rereleasing the game, and once again, Holistic Design was called upon to resurrect it. Unfortunately, the latest incarnation seems simply to be a reissue of 1995's Machiavelli the Prince, which has been optimized to run under Windows. And that's it.
Merchant Prince II is a turn-based strategy game dealing with the development of Venice as center of commerce. As the leader of one of the leading merchant families of Venice, you must use your ships and caravans to establish trade routes with the major cities of the Old World (ranging from the Mediterranean basin to the Far East and Africa) to bring valuable commodities to the markets that demand them. At the same time, you have to be active in Venetian politics as well as those in the Vatican, since becoming the Pope or the Doge of Venice can significantly enhance your power and, of course, your wealth. Amassing wealth is the point of the game, and the first player to collect 1 million florins over the course of a variable number of turns (up to 200 for long games) wins. There are also scenarios set in the Far East and Northern Europe. It's a captivating premise and one that made the original Merchant Prince very noteworthy.
The core gameplay in Merchant Prince II holds up surprisingly well, despite the passage of almost six years, which in computer game terms is the equivalent of several geologic eras. The economic system--in which the price of commodities in different cities fluctuates depending on the supply and demand effects of your buying and selling in that location--makes it necessary to carefully plan your trade routes so that you don't exhaust the source of limited commodities or dump too much of one thing into a given city. The exploration aspect gives the game a similar quality to that of MicroProse's classic Civilization. There is even a military element to the game, since it is sometimes necessary to force cities to let you trade with them. You can raid enemy merchants, and buying the support of the College of Cardinals can get you elected Pope. With this office comes the ability to call crusades, excommunicate recalcitrant cities, and the like. The multiplayer game can even be played in simultaneous-turn mode. It's a simple system that fits together beautifully, and the excellent music sets just the right tone. It's traditional strategic gameplay that will delight the hard-core turn-based gamer.
Unfortunately, this gameplay is buried under all the faults of the original Merchant Prince, which have become magnified with time. The graphics, although they have been updated slightly, have that same old blocky look that's not only ugly, but also impedes gameplay. While the resolution has been bumped up to 800x600 from the original 640x480, things like the minimap remain illegible and almost useless. The interface hasn't been updated at all, and the DOS-legacy screens make simple tasks a real chore, especially when canceling an action kicks you back several screens. The endgame requires careful evaluation of potential trade routes between numerous cities, yet the summary screens available for this are both inflexible and inadequate. In addition, if your computer has a fast processor, you'll find scrolling to be too fast and awkward. While the stated purpose of the rerelease (according to the designers' notes in the manual) was to provide a Windows-compatible version of the game, Merchant Prince II is still not entirely stable; for instance, the Hanseatic League scenario repeatedly crashed the game. Lastly, the worst fault of the original--a completely inadequate computer opponent--returns.
Playing Merchant Prince II is like seeing a childhood friend after being apart for many years and realizing that while you once had many things in common, all that's left of those times is an echo. The flawed interface, pathetic artificial intelligence, and extremely dated graphics are bound to frustrate strategy gamers accustomed to games that are both challenging and polished. It's a real shame that TalonSoft couldn't invest in having Holistic truly overhaul the game, because an economic strategy game set in Renaissance Venice and patterned after a game like Railroad Tycoon II would have been a fantastic idea. Instead, TalonSoft is charging a full $30--similar games are packaged in compilations with five or six others for that same price. While it's true that this version runs under Windows, it's still too much to pay for a game that won't challenge the very fans who would most appreciate it--those who remember the DOS version. Unless you're suffering from a severe case of nostalgia, Merchant Prince II is best left as a cherished memory from a different gaming era.