Europa 1400: The Guild Review

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Publisher: JoWooD Productions
Developer: 4Head Studios


Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 400 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 16 MB 3D video card, 750 MB HD space, 8x CD ROM

Arrive in a late medieval town with a small inheritance, and use your wits or brawn to rise in status and wealth in this economic and political simulation.

Rating:
Kyle Ackerman


Like many folks, you've probably envied those who were able to join an industry in its infant stages. It's hard not to think about what might have been had you pioneered in computers, built a railroad system, started a dot-com or perhaps innovated in something as pervasive as industrial plastics. Plenty of games bring you in as the "tycoon" of some industry or other, but Europa 1400: The Guild lets you get in at the ground floor of capitalism itself. Themes of urbanization and late middle-ages economic development may not immediately seem like exciting material for a game, but Europa 1400 manages to build a varied and fascinating experience out of a sometimes dreary and strife-ridden period of Western Europe's history.

There is a lot that you can do in Europa 1400, and it can seem overwhelming at first. In fact, the game's greatest fault is that early play seems daunting – this is unfortunate, because if you can learn the interface and the basics of your medieval trade, there is a lot of rich and satisfying gaming ahead. There is a tutorial that is absolutely vital in learning the game. It takes some time to get used to functions as simple as the mouse buttons. Holding the right button will usually call up extra information. Tapping the right mouse button will exit the current menu or location. Once that has been burned into your sense memory, the game will flow. Until then, you'll find menus disappearing, and an accidental click will transport you suddenly outside of the building you were exploring. The manual is also less of a help than it should be. Much of the information (but not all) you need is buried somewhere in the manual's contents, and it can be difficult to find.

Urbanization


Beyond the initially steep learning curve, Europa 1400 has a tremendous breadth of game to offer to economic and political simulation fans. The production values are spectacular. From the beginning of the abovementioned tutorial, you see a three dimensional town, filled with living and working citizens that you can watch as they go about their duties. There is a narrator, who guides you through the tutorial, provides advice, and informs you of pertinent events. He has a mellifluous voice that matches the period-styled musical score, and helps to indicate the spirit of happenings in your town. The three dimensional models are a little blocky, but are covered with detailed textures that convey everything from costume to architecture. You can freely move the camera to view the town in which you live, and you can go inside buildings to purchase wares or just discover how the townsfolk live. From street level you can watch public figures storm by, or you can view the town, like a tiny, life-like diorama, from high above. The building interiors are set pieces, with each type of building set up in exactly the same way, but they are tremendously detailed, and you can move to pre-set view angles to better take in your surroundings. Both inside and outside of buildings, you can see the populace stroll or work, and select them to hear what they think of the town.

The town isn't just something pretty at which to stare. You start off in the town of your choice as an adult, with a place of business and a basic dwelling – just enough to start practicing your trade. There are five historical cities available for play: Berlin, Madrid, Paris, London and Milan each with its own quirks and actual history, which will be unveiled as time passes in the game. You can choose any of a variety of professions, from blacksmith to landlord to guardsman, that are entirely above-board, in which you deal honestly with customers, employees and competitors alike. Or, you can choose the darker profession of thievery, including pickpocketing, kidnapping and burglary. You can even pursue more twisted paths, and become a man or woman of the church raking in the cash selling indulgences to wrongdoers, or vilifying your enemies in public sermons.

An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations


Your occupation is the economic simulation component of the game. The early moments of the game can require significant micromanagement as you have your workshop gathering simple materials and making intermediate products such as paper or fittings. At this point, you will need to carefully manage your employees so that you can earn enough cash to improve your business and home, add more staff and move on to more valuable finished products, such as books or fragrances. As you advance in your career, assuming you have sufficient resources, you will be able to turn your simple workshop into an impressive edifice and economic engine. Greater wealth will allow you to expand into other professions, build (or buy) other businesses, and bring in master craftsmen to manage your employees. So, while the early game requires some micromanagement, after playing for some time you can micromanage to your heart's content, or automate the majority of your daily work.

Europa 1400 relies on three main currencies. There is always money – necessary to pay workers, buy materials and luxuries, and improve buildings. You are also awarded a set number of action points each day, which will limit your ability to take certain actions. You can order your workers about as much as you wish, but blackmailing enemies requires careful machinations, and expends action points. There is also the very real limit of time. A day in Europa 1400 passes fairly quickly, and while you can pause the game, you can take no actions while paused. You can even speed up time, but not slow it down, leaving you the ability to perform only a finite number of actions before the day comes to a close, and everyone must go to bed. Time is a nice game mechanic, in that the game plays out a single day, representative of a whole year, and that day proceeds in real time. Each day occurs one year and one season after the last, so if it is currently spring of 1413, you will wake up for another "day" in summer of 1414. Time passes quickly, so it is important to not only improve your character, but to build a dynasty, training your children to take over once death strikes, so that the family empire may go on. After a first character's death, the player can take control of any single offspring that has reached the age of maturity.

The Prince


The political simulation challenges you to rise through the pyramid of public offices to a position of power. In many ways, this is more difficult than building a financial empire. Assets can be built up by your dynasty, with daughters and sons amassing fortunes built on the foundation of their parents' wealth. Political appointments are not hereditary, so climbing the ladder to a vaunted position such as Archbishop is extremely challenging. You can only run for one open office each year, and you must be a citizen. Most importantly, offices are appointed by your peers and higher office holders, so you need to maintain your popularity. When running for office, you also must be more popular than the competition, so you need to manage other characters' relationships. Either you must be held in high esteem, or you need to use darker means (such as blackmail) to influence your enemies. Holding an office not only provides a salary to supplement the income from your business, but (depending on the position) gives you the power to change laws, bring citizens before the inquisition, and gain immunity from prosecution. If you go the path of politics, be prepared to spend your valuable cash and action points throwing banquets and gaining friends by any means available. A vast array of objects can be used to further your ends, if you have the funds. Potions can make others find you appealing, or create a loathing between enemies. Wearing the right jewelry can make all the difference in the world. If all else fails, smear your competitor's door with toad slime, and hope he comes down with a debilitating illness.

In commerce and in politics, your skills matter. Each character has five talents that influence success and failure. Improving these talents costs action points that could be otherwise spent to build your economic empire or further your political goals. Becoming expert in the negotiation skill might take time, but will ultimately improve your business dealings. Skill in rhetoric will improve sermons and make you more successful in court. These considerations mean you must balance your activities to make sure you have the skills you need to succeed. Building a genius character with many strong talents is of tremendous value, making you more effective in nearly every way. Unfortunately, when your character passes and you move to the successor in your dynasty, you shall start with the child's talent levels, so experience is valuable but fleeting.

The only thing in Europa 1400 that seems a little off is the combat model. Running your business, and even conspiring against the competition, is engrossing, but a few circumstances rely on a combat model that is very bare bones, and difficult to control. If you choose the occupation of guardsman or robber (or even thief) you may find yourself engaged in repeated assaults. Even if you operate as a conventional merchant, as long as you guard your caravan, you will end up in combat. The actual battle lines up the two sides and lets them attack each other, with the efficacy of your forces determined by their combat skill and armament. If you select soldiers you can point them toward a location or, with some difficulty, a foe. Otherwise, they will stand about and watch the proceedings. A force of five men will stand idly by while a sixth soldier is slaughtered by a large enemy force. Men will defend themselves if attacked, but very little AI has been implemented, requiring a lot of micromanagement. To aggravate would-be captains of the guard, it is very difficult to select opponents in combat, making the process frustrating. Far better to run a tavern or work with wood.

Victory and Class Stratification


Hardcore simulation enthusiasts will probably most appreciate the freeform play mode, in which you run your dynasty as you see fit. You can also choose victory conditions by choosing a goal and a difficulty. The game will then assign you a task, such as amassing a certain amount of wealth, or gaining and holding a political post. The towns influence the difficulty tremendously, so there are many combinations to achieve. You are effectively competing against seven other dynasties, but unless you are on a local-area network playing with other humans, the computer foes are rarely much of a threat to your purpose. You must simply achieve your goal (if you can). With multiple players sharing a city, the game could be exceptional, but this is very difficult for many players to set up (no internet play, requires one copy of the game per player). The game is fascinating enough that it is already a worthwhile acquisition for the single player experience.

With so many play styles, professions, goals and activities to offer, Europa 1400: The Guild is an excellent simulation game with tremendous replayability. You can choose to play as a noble priest converting the town to your faith, or use the inquisition to inflict suffering on all those who would stand in your way. Run a pub, or burgle the homes of nobility, if you prefer. Make sure you approach the game patiently in order to overcome initial confusion with the interface and the proliferation of options, then settle in to enjoy a deep, medieval experience.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on February 9, 2003 8:01 PM.

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