You Should Be Playing: Port Royale
You'd think with all the time I've been spending of late bathing in my bacta baths of Star Wars goodness (and adequateness), I'd have no time to play anything else. More importantly I'd have no interest in playing anything else. Well, I'd have thought the same thing, and yet, there's one game that keeps calling to me even through my aching desires to blast things with blasters (hence the incorporation of the word blast into the name of the weapon). And that game is as far away from Wookies and Droids and Jedi (oh my) as Sway is from starring in a pilot to a TV sitcom.
I think every gamer needs that one game that they play as a relaxing diversion to the overstimulation of seizure inducing polygonal overdose. For each player it's something different, be it puzzle games, party games, sports games, RPGs or sims, a king of digital zen garden where gamers can breathe softly and rake sand or prune miniature metaphorical trees. That's not to say that these games lack passion, plot, or peril, but that such things are delivered in more manageable doses. It is into this class of games that Port Royale fits for me, and does a magnificent job of drawing me into its world, its sometimes languid but compelling pace, and allowing me to lose time in the crashing of waves, the trading of goods, the pummel of cannon fire, and the ever desireable accumulation of wealth.
Port Royale might not be for everyone, but I tend to think that an objective gamer who wants to immerse themselves into a deep and engaging sim would be hard pressed to not enjoy this game. It takes place in the Carribean during the tumultuous colonial years as England, Holland, France and Spain jockeyed for position, power, and the opportunity to exploit a virgin lands. While exploiting virgin things is, on its own, laudable enough, the setting is complicated by pirates and mercenaries that besiege shipping lanes and terrorize the colonial expansion. Enter your character, a man of most modest means, with a ship, a few dollars, a handful of knowledge about his immediate surroundings, and a dream. A beautiful dream of loading down great ships with tons of gold, swimming in his riches in a very Scrooge McDuck kind of way.
Ultimately, Port Royale is fundamentally about buying low and selling high. For example, the drunken town of Margarita has rum and lots of it, and the dry throated people of Port of Spain would pay a pretty doubloon for a taste. You buy low, sell high. Additionally, the markets fluctuate both through your actions (take advantage of a given trade route too long, and the needs balance out of profitability), and through the actions of hundreds of other traders that are trying to make the same money off the same products. With that alone Port Royale could have been an adequately engaging simulation, but developer Ascaron explored several layers deep instead of scratching the normal surface of a budget title.
As I mentioned, pirates abound - though they often have political ties, and you're in less danger sailing familiar waters - and occasionally can't resist the temptation to raise the Jolly Roger and pillage as necessary. So, you must either balance your limited and precious cargo space between men, swords, muskets, cannons, and ammunition, not to mention the goods you're supposed to be carrying, or risk military weakness for the profitable run. Of course, you could also bear down as the colonial vigilante, and hunt pirates for reward. Further still you can run missions of delivery, destruction, and exploration for provisional governors.
Not to mention that your actions affect how different towns and nations perceive you. Doing that exploration might not be profitable in the short term, but the respect and gratitude of the town will pay off when you hit the market or seek special treatment from local officials. Additionally, how you trade affects your standing with the people, as buying all the local food, loading on your ship, and sailing away with a hungry town looking beguiled and miffed in your wake, will not win you friends ... unless of course you sell that food (for a profit, of course) to another town equally starved and perhaps with a bit more strategic import. Knowing how, where, and when to make friends is as important as stuffing your pockets with cash.
Is that enough to tantalize you sea legs? Just wait, there's more. Not only do you command your naval enterprise, but you also have the opportunity to create your own buildings and do your own manufacturing. Instead of wasting your own precious money buying up rum from Margarita, instead bribe the local Master Builder for permission to construct your own rum distillery ... of course, you'll also need a way to stock it with the necessary wood and sugar, not to mention a place to store your stock while ships are out to sea. Then make your own rum (or one of 14 other resources) and sell it for even greater reward. In increasing layers of complexity, but without feeling overwhelming, one can over time establish self-sufficient manufacturing through the use of trade routes and construction, as well as exploiting profitable trade lines and plundering the occasional ship.
Best of all, Port Royale allows for automation of many elements, so that you have the choice of focussing on what you're interested in, and leaving the rest to your workers. Set up your storehouse to sell locally when the time is right. Implement automatic trade routes for your ships to ferry needed supplies, or exploit lucrative opportunities. Split your armada and manage a network of profitable trade across the Carribean, or focus your efforts on complete domination of one region.
Port Royale is, thus far, a first rate game that is probably sitting ignored in your local EB for a budget price. If you've any interest in sim games at all, you'd be hard pressed to find a better representation of the genre on the shelves now.