Ever wonder what it would be like to play as a Hanseatic League trade tycoon? Probably not, since the predominantly German Hanseatic trading league that ruled the Baltic in the 14th to 16th centuries doesn't get much play in English-language schoolbooks. However, the setting's unfamiliarity isn't that important when it comes down to the business at hand: making money the old-fashioned way. This medieval business sim puts you at the helm of a budding trading company that can sail the Baltic with goods like beer, cloth, and spices and can set up workshops to increase the volume of profitable products. Eventually, the game world grows and responds to your economic actions, your reputation grows, and there's the chance to become the hometown mayor or even take on league missions to build new towns. For anyone keeping track, Patrician III isn't much of a sequel. The additions consist of some graphical effects and interface features, in addition to some new, beneficial late-game missions, but the core gameplay still makes for a deeply intricate and challenging business game.
If Patrician III isn't as different from 2001's Patrician II as we might expect from a full-price sequel, it's interesting to note that it was released as Patrician II Gold in Germany, which, in turn, bundled in an expansion pack never localized in English. Of course, that won't matter for most gamers in the US, who never saw Ascaron's games in stores back when they were self-published. But for the record, let's look at what exactly is new in this version. The best new content comes in the major missions you need to accomplish before you can step up as the League's leader, which includes the chance to build two new towns from the ground up, the chance to set up land routes between specific towns, or the chance to attack pirate bases. As for the core gameplay, expeditions to the distant Mediterranean are easier and more profitable, the automated trading works better, and the city-building side of the game now includes more civic buildings. Less noticeably, the 2D town and sea combat graphics have gotten a face-lift with the addition of seasonal weather effects and new animations.
The essence of running a trading company is, no doubt, the same as it's ever been: Buy low, sell high. Even though there are a number of ways to make money in Patrician III--from building and renting houses to sponsoring freelance pirates for a cut of the loot--the game is fundamentally all about trading, and this is generally your most profitable pursuit. Between starting out with a single small ship and getting enough resources to organize your own convoys, it's essential to micromanage your ships and transport goods between the game's two dozen towns. Although the game's interface can take some getting used to and Encore's 15-page printed manual is entirely inadequate, Patrician III's basic gameplay is simple enough. (Just be sure to check the disc for Ascaron's PDF manual with details on more advanced topics.) While you might not already be an expert on the geography of the Baltic Sea, the number of towns is manageable, and many have familiar names like London, Oslo, and Hamburg. It's also not hard to figure out where goods are produced cheaply, since clicking on a town brings up a list of its local products, and the best prices can often be found by using common sense. For instance, there's plenty of wine in the Rhine region, whale oil can be found in Scandinavian ports, and there are premium animal skins in the Russian trade centers.
Prices fluctuate dramatically, but it's always easy to see if the goods stored in your warehouses or on a ship can be sold for a profit because the break-even price is always conveniently displayed in the trading windows. When you move on to manufacturing to increase the volume of goods available to trade, it's important to buy raw materials cheaply and to produce in high enough volume to make the end product as inexpensive as possible, which helps to fatten your profit margins. Unfortunately, it's impossible to get an estimate on the costs involved in manufacturing until the goods are already in your warehouses, so sometimes, despite your best efforts, you'll spend time setting up industries that are completely unprofitable. Another option is to hire a manager for your trade offices and have him automatically buy or sell goods when they hit certain price levels. While this means you're dependent on cities or competing traders to produce the goods, it can practically guarantee you turn a fat profit on the transactions.
New paths open up as you grow your trading company: You can join the local guild, establish trading offices in other towns to maintain local warehouses, and build additional and larger ships. Your larger goal isn't just wealth, but it's also power and social status. There are several levels of social status that are dependent on your wealth and your reputation among the common and wealthy residents of your hometown. Additionally, there's a hidden score that is improved by providing needed goods, sponsoring public celebrations, upgrading local civic buildings, and by simply being impressively wealthy. When you reach the rank of counselor or patrician, you can be nominated for the yearly mayoral election. Once mayor, you're eligible to be elected alderman to lead the Hanseatic League itself, but with official power comes the responsibility of building and maintaining the town's defenses out of your own pocket. Fortunately, by this point it becomes much easier to make large sums of money quickly as you group your trading ships together in convoys that can be instructed to automatically run a set trade route.
Patrician III succeeds in creating a lively sense of Hanseatic League trade. There are many ships owned by other merchants that come and go from ports and crowd the sea-lanes near key towns. The many competing merchants have a direct effect on market prices, and as soon as they dock, they can dump goods onto the market or buy up surplus goods, and they can drive prices dramatically up or down just as you prepare to make your trades. However, these same merchants can be a boon when you're trying to protect your ships from the pirates that hunt the open seas. Any ship can join a public convoy for protection, but unless you've formed the convoy yourself, the destination is set in advance. Although you're not the only merchant supplying the Hanseatic towns with the goods they trade, distant towns often aren't supplied with all of the goods they demand. With sufficient scarcity, towns will post contracts for large deliveries of specific goods at a fixed price, which can be a quick windfall for high-margin goods, given how prices otherwise fluctuate so dramatically.
Once your trading company grows to encompass more than a dozen ships and has several offices scattered around the Baltic, you'll start to appreciate the limited automation built into Patrician III. The most important such feature is the automated convoy trade route. This first requires a suitable convoy flagship, stuffed full of arms and manned by one of the captains who are very occasionally found hanging out in the port tavern (finding captains is one of the few reasons to look around towns you visit, rather than sticking with the overhead map's trade screen). With convoys, you have the option to carefully set up a trade route by specifying exactly which goods to buy and sell and the minimum and maximum prices to charge.
Trade routes demand a fair amount of effort, but by the time you get the option, you should have a good sense of where you can get goods and what prices are appropriate. Routes can also be saved for later use, or they can be exchanged on the Internet. A major convenience is that convoys group the cargo space of several ships, so you can carry huge amounts of valuable bulk goods, like fish, timber, or wool that often won't fit in smaller ships. Trade routes can even be tied into your production centers--by moving raw materials and finished goods around--and then the automatic manager can sell products off whenever the price hits certain levels. Set things up right, and watch the guilders roll in. Unfortunately, the system isn't all that flexible. It can't adjust the sale prices as your costs fluctuate, and it can't check to see if the market price is above cost. As a result, you always have to be vigilant, even if the system does remove a lot of micromanagement.
To break up the rhythm of trade and to inject a sense of danger, there are pirates that cruise the seas, and encounters can be resolved automatically or in manual battles. The ship combat is a minor part of the game, especially when compared to Ascaron's Port Royale or Pirate Hunter, and is quite rudimentary by comparison. The four classes of ships can be customized to trade cargo space for more room for weapons, which consist of catapults and medieval cannons. A consequence of the low-tech weapons is that the battles can be quite slow, and there aren't tactical options, like various ammo types, to keep combat from being anything other than a slugfest.
The interface is well suited for making quick transactions on the regional overview screen, and it also lets you jump to a detailed view of the city. The 2D graphics are generally colorful but unremarkable and can't be zoomed to varying levels of detail. The game simply doesn't look as good as Ascaron's Port Royale or Pirate Hunter. This is particularly true of the ship combat, which uses 2D ship sprites instead of 3D models. Furthermore, the water is very flat-looking. The audio is somewhat sparse but cleanly recorded, with occasional sound effects in the ports to remind you of bustling cities. Music also cuts in for certain locations or events. The game runs in real time at an adjustable speed, and it can now be slowed down to a crawl to let you pour over financial statements at your leisure.
Patrician III is a successful blend of trading and city-building, and the dynamic world and late-game missions mean you can spend dozens and dozens of hours building a trading empire. Although the game is so fundamentally similar to Patrician II that those who own the previous game have little reason to pick it up at full-price, the feature additions refine the open-ended gameplay by removing some of the micromanagement and by providing more significant milestones to achieve later in the game. While building a town from the ground up is an expensive proposition, it's quite satisfying to see how the trade dynamics change as a result--and it's nice to have yet another outlet for your own products. Anyone looking for a new dose of the long-distance trading found in the Railroad Tycoon series and space trading games should enjoy the intricacy and challenge that Patrician III brings to the table.