Trade in many games still hasn’t progressed further than that of a "Drug Wars" economy. "Drug Wars" is a simple trading game requiring the player to buy and sell various drugs in a number of locations, such as the boroughs of New York City. The basic strategy to that game is to buy low and sell high—add fluctuating prices and a few random events, and you’re good to go. It’s quite simple, but the game is still fun to play for a few minutes at a time, especially since it’s available on the TI series of calculators that are still used in high schools all over the country. Best economics lesson I ever had.
A "Drug Wars" economy is too simple to be played over a long period of time; however, that is exactly the type of economic system that is found in East India Company (EIC), even if some high seas shenanigans have been added to the mix. In EIC players have control over their own East India shipping companies during the 1600s and 1700s. They are given the task of trading goods from Europe for the exotic spices and silks from India. Two game modes in EIC allow players to complete that task: Trading and Battle.
Trading mode works like a Civilization IV strategy environment giving players a top-down view of the Euro-Asia-African map, where they have control over their ships’ movement and trading activities. Battle mode is a 3D ship battle simulator: players take control of warships in order to pursue and destroy other enemy fleets. Battle mode feels like it was Paradox’s original idea for the game, while trading mode seems to have been added after the original idea of ship-to-ship combat was formed. Trading with any given foreign port is as easy as trading with the next. Setting up an automatic trade route in the game takes two clicks, and the fleet will always buy the items with the best return: easy setup, high reward. When the player wants to micro-manage their fleets, and thus has to do a lot more work, the amount of return decreases.
EIC’s UI does little to help a player who wants to take an active role controlling his fleets. There are no alert messages when a fleet has arrived at a port or that a fleet has been idle for awhile, which are features found in other strategy games like Age of Empires. On top of the fact that the there are no clear visualizations or ways of monitoring prices fluctuations on generic items, it makes little sense for players to take an active role in the commerce of their companies.
The game does not seem to financially reward a player’s attention and skill in battle either. Battle mode theoretically allows a player with exceptional skill to take down larger fleets with a weaker fleet of his own. Enemy cargo can be stolen in battle mode too, if a player manages to commandeer a vessel. But battles take a long time, and even if the player is able to capture a ship or two he could have made more money spending that time trading instead. This all points to the fact that EICdoesn’t link its battle mechanics with its economics.
The developers tried to rectify this and other problems by releasing an expansion called Privateer. Instead of focusing on a company, the player controls fleets of privateers who can work with any of the companies in the game. Missions in Privateer include smuggling spies or cargo from port to port, locating and capturing another fleet, and destroying forts at different ports. While the missions are much more developed, and the ability to work for any of the companies is a bonus, the same UI and map problems make it hard to micro-manage fleets. Ultimately the expansion doesn’t resolve the downside of micro-management.
Beginning with the types of items that can be traded in EIC, there are two types of goods: main trade items (MTI) and generic trade items. Each port in Africa, the Middle East and India has a single MTI (like diamonds, spices or silk), and those items offer the largest financial returns. The return on generic items pales in comparison, and the way the game operates also makes it harder for players to deal with generic items.
Scarcity is hardly a factor in the game. The ports in India, where the best MTIs are found, always have tons of items to buy. This makes the most difficult trading decision in the game a question of “which item do I want to buy?” since everything is available. Prices fluctuate at a player’s home port (trading too much of one item drives the selling price down), but there is always another item to take its place without any real risk. Any competing company may take over a port, giving them exclusive trading rights with the port and forcing others to trade elsewhere, but the upkeep of a port is expensive. Most of the time it doesn’t make sense to take over a port, and my AI opponents rarely took over ports regardless of difficulty level. Dealing with generic items doesn’t make sense, because MTI’s were always available.
Accordingly, risk in EIC is always marginal. Resources are always plentiful, so there is never any risk of running out. The selling price difference of MTIs (the amount to be made on each item) is always shown as the player is buying MTIs (no risk there), or the best items are bought automatically if a fleet is on autopilot.
While the game does provide in-game play monitors, few things are tracked over time in EIC. MTI price fluctuations are tracked over a period of ten years, while the player’s entire financial records (records that display a breakdown of all expenses and profits) are only shown for the last two years. No battle that is fought or port taken over is ever recorded. Other long-term RTS games have some sort of event timeline that is shown to the player, but most of EICs events go unrecorded—just another reason why EIC is first a ship simulator and a trading game second.
Price fluctuations of MTIs are followed over a period of ten years and displayed using bar charts, making it easy to determine which MTIs to buy. Generic item values are displayed in a horribly laid out list, making it hard to consistently find ports that will offer the best returns. Having some visualization of the price differences across ports using charts or graphs would have made it easier to find outliers and perhaps entice players enough for them to pursue trading generic items too.
If you enjoy ship combat simulators, then East India Company might be a game to check out. Dealing with trading wouldn’t be a major issue for you. The problem I have with the game is that I found the trading aspect fun for the first few hours, but my frustration quickly grew as all of the problems previously mentioned reared their heads. If EIC made a few changes to its economic systems here and there, I would appreciate it much more—even without the affordance of the battle simulation. Paradox tried to correct some of their mistakes by creating a number of patches and expansions after the game’s release, but none of them help to make trading in the game a nuanced process that is enjoyable and challenging in its own right.