Game Review: This Merchant Life
In a previous life, I used to be a professional game player. I still am hard at work on a new tradable blockchain card game, Emergents, now in closed (but soon to be more open) beta, and I still love playing games.
This weekend I had the chance to take a break and play This Merchant Life, which (as the game would approve of frontlining) is currently on sale on Steam for $2.19. If you’re into this sort of thing, at that price it’s a buy. I figured I’d share my thoughts.
If that isn’t your cup of tea, you can very safely skip this one.
Overall verdict: This is a tier 3 game. It’s not essential or the best in its genre, and not everyone will enjoy it, but it’s quick and if you like the idea of the game it’s worth playing until you feel like stopping.
This Merchant Life is a trading game. You are a merchant.
Usually in such games, you own a ship, which allows you to do what is good in life but is in America for insane reasons prohibited by the Jones Act: take spices from one port and ship them to another port. No ship for you. You own a cart. So you take less exciting goods that aren’t spices that you buy in one town, and you ship them to another town. Where you sell them.
It is very good to be a merchant. By good I mean highly profitable. Depending on what price you put on the initial cart, your rate of return is super high. The job is not entirely safe given the number of bandits and animals on the road, which is especially true early on before you can afford and locate proper security. But man is it profitable.
The Good Life
Real life shipping of goods from one town to another town is not this profitable.
That is not only because this is a game. That is because the roads are now safe, and the skills and knowledge involved are easier to acquire. There’s a lot more competition. Profit margins are not what they once were in such games, especially not for long.
Yet the merchant life still does seem to largely be pretty good.
My last post was a personal story of air conditioner repair. I noted that given what they charge for their services, this seemed like an excellent business.
For a long time, my friend Michael Vassar has been pointing out that being a merchant, buying things low and then selling them high to the people who want them, is also generically a very good business, and it is very responsive to both hard work and smart work. If you focus on using your brain to optimize what you are doing, and put in the work, you can do much better than is typically done, and also doing typically well is pretty good.
I was reminded of this recently when someone did a survey of who the typical millionaires are, and it is exactly the people who created and ran such local businesses.
This is also a time honored way of the immigrant. Start a small business, usually one that’s pretty generic, work hard, have good unit economics. Don’t depend on anyone else to hire you, don’t depend on connections or loans or anything complicated. It works, it is good for everyone, we need more of this.
Of course, if you want to do even better than that, you’ll want a startup and VC funding, but if you’re not trying to save or own the world it’s worth a periodic reminder to consider the middle path.
No, it’s not easy, but most people have no interest in working in this way. They want someone to tell them what to do and to get a steady paycheck in exchange.
I have gone both ways. I have tried to do funded start-ups, one of which failed and one of which may still yet succeed. I have also been out there on my own dime buying low and selling high. That worked out great both times.
Trading is a good profession to be in. Doing it less abstractly is not as fast a path as what I did, but it is also a lot easier and more reliable, and a lot less competitive, and it is a lot easier to appreciate the value you are creating.
So, before I discuss the game, I will say that I give two big thumbs up to this actual merchant life.
Retro Trading Games Roundup
This Merchant Life is a simple game at heart, with simple graphics. It could have been done on an old NES or Apple II with only slightly worse visuals.
This is the way for such games. If your commodity trading game is taxing your system to the limit, at least one thing is wrong with that picture. Better to keep it simple.
I’ve played a number of previous games of this type that I have enjoyed.
My favorite game of the genre is Star Traders: Frontiers, which is also currently on sale. It captures the essence of the thing while providing lots of things to do and telling a variety of stories. It’s pretty great. The downside is that the need to micromanage your crew and various subsystems can make getting into it a bit daunting and takes up a bunch of time in each playthrough. You are allowed to let the computer handle this, but it’s really bad at it and it actually interferes with what you want to do (whatever that is), so don’t do that.
Merchant Prince was an old (90s) attempt to do this kind of trading as a competitive 4x game, appears to be lost now and isn’t on Good Old Games. I remember enjoying the opening but it getting tedious as the games dragged.
Uncharted Waters (NES) lets you take spices from one port and ship them to another port in the Age of Exploration, eventually upgrading your ships and focusing on a combination of exploration, then treasure hunts and combats. It is pretty great, and features a lot of moments of high tension and feelings of accomplishment, but also has an economic system that allows for some super exploitable trades - prices for individual commodities don’t move, only price levels overall. Once you figure out how to make all the money you need super quickly almost from the start, you’re no longer trading in a meaningful sense - the correct answer seems to involve buying tons of artwork at Pisa.
I am also slightly reminded of M.U.L.E., which was great but is very much a competitive exercise with the main focus on production, and plays out more like a board game, so it’s even less in the genre than Merchant Prince.
I have been told Sid Meier’s Pirates! is the GOAT of these games, but haven’t had a chance to play myself. Sid has taken a lot of years off my life as it is, so maybe that’s for the best.
Keep it Simple
What I like most about This Merchant Life is that it keeps it simple. It’s easy to get started, it’s easy to understand most of what’s happening (the charters need a better explanation and combat is a little weird) and you can mostly get right to it. If anything, I’d have liked it to be slightly simpler in some ways - I have no idea what the band is doing in the game - but mostly excellent work here.
The flip side of this is that you get a bunch of cool vignettes at various points but most of the little things in the game end up mattering very little or not at all. You can complete a campaign while having no idea what the traits do, not caring about reputation except for the random requirement to be friendly with one faction, mostly all you got to do is buy low and then sell high and then plow that money back into the business. Which is what I came to do, so it’s all fine, but it still felt like they set up this cool little world and then didn’t give me much to do with it.
Even when the little things do matter, the game doesn’t do a great job telling you how they matter or why you should care.
There are three modes of play. One is free play, which takes all the pressure off. The second is the default, the campaign mode, which still takes all the pressure off but tells a story while doing it. I played in that mode. There are (as far as I could tell) no deadlines. I finished the story in month 23 after about 10-15 hours of play, while not knowing what I was doing, and just as I had reached the point of having infinite money. My guess is that the campaign requirements slowed down the infinite money a few months, but mostly it seemed right to focus on making money and leveling up.
After here there be spoilers, so if you’re looking to play blind you should stop here.
The Road to Riches (Spoilers Starting Here)
The game has four fundamental resources: Money, experience, reputation and time.
Time is the only reasonable way to score your results, and in the only mode that presents a challenge, where you start with a debt you are forced to pay off or else, you are very much on a deadline. In hard mode the deadline is a big deal, in normal mode it’s presumably more of a ‘do you know how any of this works’ check.
Money is the basic resource, which you’re constantly making. When you get it, there are lots of ways to reinvest it in the business. Early on, the most important investment is in your cart. Improvements to your cart radically improve its speed and carrying capacity, which are crucial. You’ll also need money to buy goods, and there are various other things to spend it on like buildings, security and so on.
Experience gates the second half of cart upgrades, it gates key skills which include access to the far more profitable second and third tier goods, and it gates access to half the kingdom. It’s the more profitable half once you can handle it, and having more space to go around also gives time for stocks of goods to replenish and prices to restabilize, especially once you get the second set of cart upgrades so your cart is fast and can carry a lot of goods. So it’s a sea change.
While you’re waiting to cross those thresholds it is tempting to sink your surplus cash into various less effective things and not worry about surplus. This is a mistake, especially heading into the first unlocks. You want to be sure to cross the unlock thresholds with full wallets so you can buy the unlocks and then get right to work. For levels beyond that you can afford to invest in reputation if you’re trading reasonably, it isn’t that hard to have enough cash on hand.
Then there is a fourth resource called reputation, both with factions and in cities. At first you can very safely ignore it. You do need to eventually handle this, but it will some combination of happen on its own and can be rushed along with various highly affordable purchases when the time comes. Until then, holding back your reputation keeps the danger level low, so it’s fine to focus on other stuff. The problem is that when it doesn’t keep pace, you won’t have enough goods to trade. Then suddenly reputation feels important to increase goods available and unlock crafting and a few more quest options.
So the game is running around trading goods. Once you realize what the good trades are, you’ll be doing them a lot, which leads to the problem of waiting for restocks and price stabilizations. You quickly are able to ‘make the rounds’ faster than they can make new goods.
Thus, the game is forcing you to march in a kind of lockstep. If any aspect ‘gets ahead’ of the others, you will need to fix it. There is much less of a sandbox feel here than one would expect, in sharp contrast to the other trading games - you are pretty much using everything the game gives you as fast as you can.
Trade and Grow Strong
As the months go by you’ll be radically improving your profits.
The first few weeks offer very rapid improvement, as you plow your profits into cart upgrades. Your cart starts utterly pathetic, very slow with almost no space, so even small upgrades make a big difference. Then you hit a wall where you can’t keep doing this without hitting level 4. At this point, experience is the limiting factor in your progress if you know how to trade, and you’ll cycle around exhausting every opportunity and doing quests for want of better options.
Once you hit level 4, you can upgrade the cart again and even more importantly you can unlock Finer Things, which gives you another set of (more expensive and more profitable) trade goods. Thus, you get a huge sea change in profitability, and you’ll want to save money for this to get going right away. Soon, your cart will be big and fast enough you’ll again be running out of trades to do, while also supporting enough good guards that combat goes from danger to opportunity.
At level 8 you unlock a new area, which is both a great route and means you give everything more time to replenish. Then at level 12, you get the exotic goods and another very profitable area, and you’re on easy mode and nothing matters. It’s cool for a bit but soon there doesn’t seem like there’s anything left to do.
The game needs something more impressive to do after level 12, or some obstacle that needs to be overcome - every game wants ‘endgame content.’
Shortages and Surpluses
On top of the basic trading, the game offers periodic random opportunities in the form of surpluses and shortages, and monthly price changes.
Random commodities will see their prices doubled or greatly reduced in a given town for a few days. A reduction comes with a boost in supply. They last a fixed number of hours, then go away all at once. It feels weird, especially when the price reverts to its new high base during the shortage, but on reflection I get why this gamification has some advantages over a more realistic model. I’d still like to remove the surplus label once they sell out, or the shortage label once you stabilize prices.
If the change makes a place double down on an existing trend, especially a town that buys expensive stuff at high prices having a shortage of that same stuff, it’s a huge boon.
The other thing that happens is every month there’s three goods that go up or down in price everywhere for a while, and also there are events in various regions with unclear durations.
All of this means that it is a very good thing to have access to inventory and storage. Guild halls are expensive to build and offer you permanent storage, which you can use to store cheap-this-month goods or things you want to store until someone has a shortage. Then you can flood the market. Similarly, as one improves you learn that a marginally profitable trade is often not worth making because the option value of the inventory is bigger - you’d like the option to return for it when it matters. It’s also easy to underestimate the value of the time you lose to an overloaded cart.
Together all of this does often give you the feeling situations are unique, especially when combined with missions.
Every town offers you three missions to choose from. You start off with two mission slots, which becomes three and then five if you care enough. The options are basically:
Go to point B.
Go to point B, then return here to point A.
Go to point B but B could be any of (C,D,E) then return here to point A.
Take a fight traveling from here to point B.
That’s pretty much it. Your chance of being attacked goes up while you are transporting valuable stuff, so early in the game some caution can be warranted in dangerous areas, but mostly I didn’t notice much difference. At first battles are a terrible idea, but once you have good guards they become free money that comes with a few goods, and they pay very well.
Missions get you small reputation boosts that can add up over time, and they pay money. Mostly they pay money.
The time limits start off harsh, because your cart is super slow. In some cases the deadlines are either ‘go there right now or it isn’t happening’ or even look actually impossible even if you travelled empty. Need to be careful. Later on, you have if anything longer, and your cart is much faster, so you have more flexibility.
The good news is that failing missions costs nothing. The cost of failing is it takes up a mission slot while failing - if you buy out of the mission to free up the slot that costs a little, so taking on a mission isn’t fully free.
Doing missions while doing good trades means you make money two ways, and missions also buy you time for goods to replenish. The interesting question is when it is important to do missions verses it being important to do good trades, and how much to value holding open mission slots.
The combat in this game is pretty strange but ultimately simple. You hire and pay guards and heroes, then you deploy them to fight in one of four quadrants, where you compare offense vs. defense both ways each turn. If you ever have no one in a quadrant where they have a unit, you lose and the cart gets attacked.
The trick is that the game limits your deployment points, which means you can only send so many guards out to fight at once. It’s quality that matters, as measured by benefits versus deployment cost, and the best way to improve your fighting is to always get yourself more deployment points.
Mostly it’s all-or-nothing, either you have what it takes or you don’t. Luckily you can mostly automate it away.
What Have We Learned?
Having put about twenty hours into two playthroughs - one on campaign mode, one on debt mode, which I may or may not stick around for until the debt is fully collected - what can we learn from This Merchant Life? About game design, or trading? And what might be done on the margin to make the game better?
The biggest lesson here for me as a game designer is the value of accessibility and simplicity, and letting players jump right in. I make a choice of background at the start of the game, but mostly I’m not worried I am blowing it. I’m not maximizing profits or efficiency, but it feels like a safe playground to mess around in while also telling me where it might be dangerous to go at first. There’s no fear that hidden systems will spell my doom in ways I won’t understand.
If anything, the one big oversight on that is that the unlocks aren’t explained until you get the first ones at level four, which led to a bunch of worry. Ironically, the solution to this is to ‘unlock’ the unlock button from the start, so you can see what is coming. Simple fix for a simple oversight.
Beyond that, there were things I didn’t understand, but they did not feel oppressive, and it felt fine to have the game force auto-saves on me. Life doesn’t have do-overs.
The game emphasized the value of giving players the ability to store information. Games like this require spreadsheets to play ‘properly’ if you don’t get very good notes, especially when you’re starting out or don’t remember how things go. The aid of what is cheap and expensive is great, but it would have been good to have in-game notetaking to supplement it, and I also would have liked to know what was in-general for sale at each location from the overviews. There were also cases where the overviews were appearing off-screen, bugs like that can be remarkably annoying, as could the one where I kept getting the mining equipment event over and over.
What the game was missing most was endgame content and a sense that you were changing the world. You could build buildings, but that mostly speeds up the roads and builds your reputation, and the guild houses give you a place to store goods. The towns change as you unlock them and find things, but not as you actually make the kingdom prosperous. Realistically, given how much you move the markets and handle production that otherwise sits there, your cart is actually a pretty big deal. It’s a continuous problem that merchants don’t get the credit they deserve. Some games in the genre let you invest in cities or planets purely to make them better trading partners, but mostly they don’t show the human element of that, and you never enjoy most of the benefits.
This Merchant Life simply doesn’t offer much in the way of interaction with the world that feels impactful to either you or the world, and that’s a shame. The band does not do the job here, and I still don’t know what it’s there to do.
When I saw this game reviewed, it talked about it as what it was like to be an NPC. I think that’s exactly the problem. You are not an NPC. You are very much the hero of this world, greatly enhancing life in the kingdom by moving goods along dangerous roads from town to town. If those who play the game don’t understand this, that is a missed opportunity. The hints are certainly there, but it isn’t driven home.
Economically, the game does an excellent job of illustrating why some trades are much better than other trades, and that it comes down to the difficulty of doing them. That can be due to the danger on the roads, or it can be due to the difficulty of unlocking permits. Government regulation of trade is killing the kingdom, by locking merchants out of half the cities and the ability to trade the best goods. That’s doing a very good job limiting trade and keeping everybody poor and stuck in the middle ages.
That, together with all the dangers on the road, explains why trading is so profitable. There aren’t that many merchants because it’s so difficult to get started. You need to master a variety of skills and build up a reputation, or no one’s going to let you trade.
Despite that, as noted earlier, there’s huge opportunity out there. Even if you start with a tiny slow as hell cart and no one will sell you that many goods, that’s fine. You can still buy low and sell high, and rapidly dig your way out of trouble, although not at first without some risk of animal attacks and banditry. Opportunity knocks.