4cr Plays: Rise of Venice
Rise of Venice is Drugwars on steroids. It may seem strange to compare a 15th century historical commerce simulator to the old school dope slinging of Drugwars, but at its heart Rise of Venice scratches the same min-maxing itch, with political intrigue and legit goods like pottery, grain, and wine (though hemp is also featured) added in. Kalypso’s Port Royal and Tropico franchises are known for high production values and have earned strong followings among PC and console gamers. Rise of Venice leverages that econ simulation and city building experience to position itself to join these fan favorites as one of Kalypso’s most ambitious games to date. With a mix of commodity trading, a politically driven story, and even ship to ship combat, Rise of Venice does a great job of balancing economic strategy with conquest sim gameplay.
In Rise of Venice you play the heir to a notorious privateer who, on his deathbed, compels you to take the family down the legitimate road to wealth and notoriety through the mercantile trade. By establishing profitable trade routes, balancing the opinions of the people, earning promotion to the city council of Venice, and ultimately winning election to the role of Doge, you will be more powerful than any privateer and crush opposing city-states with your wealth and influence as a titan of commerce.
On the surface, Rise of Venice feels a lot like Port Royale. The supply and demand driven economy is very similar to what you would expect from its Caribbean cousin, but that is just the surface of what is a more detailed environment. The world of Rise of Venice features a constant progression of real time events across the map which directly impact the value of goods beyond basic, “They sure like pottery in Venice” mechanics you would normally find in economically driven games. Fires, sandstorms, and even volcanoes and disease can impact the production of key goods or raise the requirements for others on a town-by-town basis. These ongoing changes to the environment come into play as you set up trade routes to exploit general requirements around the region and give the game far more depth than just setting up static routes that generate consistent profit over time. By exploiting this dynamic scarcity the game gains a significantly more active pace than you might expect.
To be frank, the main downside of the game is that it’s a trading sim. If fine tuning your wheat buys over a twelve stop route to maximize profits in drought starved North Africa doesn’t sound like fun, you’re going to be hard pressed to enjoy the game. Personally I was skeptical about how much I would get hooked by the core mechanic, but once it clicked for me I found the depth of customization available to actually be more compelling than anything other trade-based game I’ve played. The trade route system is fairly complex and as I alluded to, it definitely has a steep learning curve. You can acquire a license for every port town either through bribery or as a renown reward. Each port you have access to has its own options for buying and selling goods and storing or picking up goods from any local warehouses you own. This allows you to set up stockpiles of goods in one place where profits are more consistent while freeing up cargo space for other goods in your ship. You can set up stewards to manage your goods in the warehouse to take advantages of price surges or simply use them as a stockpile for your roaming convoys. The amount of tuning that can be done on the trade routes is totally ridiculous and almost suffers due to the sparse tutorials the game presents. It doesn’t make the process any less complex, but trade route settings can be saved and loaded, which allows for extensive experimentation with different variables. It took me a good hour of play to fine tune my first trade route, but once I figured out the basic mechanics it was pretty simple to establish a profitable route and then spend more time fine tuning. The process of making minor changes and watching the differences in the returns on your investments is totally satisfying and represents a fairly deep rabbit hole for fans of the genre. For those who aren’t as committed, Rise of Venice also lets you command the captain of the convoy to manage trade. As a default methodology this ends up being a pretty good way to start establishing profitable trade routes.
Rise of Venice isn’t all just profit maximization. The trick to the game is balancing trade against public opinion. In Venice, bringing economic glory to the city helps you remain popular with the senate members who vote to determine if you get promoted once you’ve met the requirements for each new merchant level. As you progress in levels you gain licenses to trade more valuable goods, which have higher rates of return. You can also bribe senators, hire thugs to damage the reputations of your competitors, and donate money to the church to influence public perceptions. If you do buy up the entire stock of a city in one go to generate artificial demand, the citizens will not be fooled and your popularity will suffer. The nuances of managing trade and public perceptions end up being varied and complex and really add a richness to the world.
Rise of Venice also offers limited action in the form of naval battles. These are basically mini-games with mechanics that would be familiar to any Port Royale players. As you establish convoys of multiple ships you gain more impressive capabilities to defend your trade routes against pirates or to attack competing merchants. When you defeat other ships you can pick up their crew (who will join you or be eaten by sharks) and occasionally capture boats which can be fixed up and added to your convoys. Your attacks also impact your prestige and damage your competition. The ship combat is a simple but fun diversion from the main game, but isn’t as engaging as what you would see in a more traditional action game like Sid Meier’s Pirates! Using this mechanism to add more depth to the main game was a welcome choice because it allows you to blow off some steam and take a break from the trade mechanics while still accomplishing something.
From a technical perspective, Rise of Venice also does a great job of leveraging a new graphics engine to enable instant zooming from a wide view of the entire Mediterranean to close up views of cities. As you upgrade and expand cities the changes are implemented in real time and add a sense of growth and life to the game world that really shows an amazing level of polish. World events that manifest on the map also show up consistently regardless of zoom level. It’s not uncommon to have a dust storm blow through a town and totally obscure the buildings and the harbor, preventing your ship from mooring. Additional touches to the game world like abandoned castles and nomadic settlements feature short written vignettes. These add an unexpected richness to the world and are a great example of the high production values of the game.
The bottom line is that Rise of Venice presents a satisfying implementation of the same basic mechanic featured in classic trade-based simulators, while bringing the genre firmly into the next generation. Instead of visiting American cities as a drug mule to turn a profit you’re establishing whole trade cartels and squeezing the competition for every cent. Excellent graphics and a realistic economic engine blend together in Rise of Venice to produce a game that overcomes a steep learning curve to create a surprisingly addictive experience.