If you’re like me, few things give you greater happiness in life than looking down on an anthill and watching them run around collecting food, attacking other bugs and working the land. Occasionally it’s fun to spit on them or zap them with a magnifying glass, but even that is just to see how their society absorbs the blow. Spice road is a game that allows you all the fun of watching an anthill, except that the anthill is full of people and they are establishing a regional trade-network.
To further enhance the insect-oriented analogy, the game regularly quotes economic magnates such as Donald Trump, Lee Iacocca and others. This gives you the feeling of being a money machine without having the crappy toupee. If you have a toupee, you have my sympathy. When you start the game, you are looking down on a region that is clouded by fog and filled with possibility. Your initial task will always be to establish a town, which will be your primary base of operations. City-building is a major part of this game, and it is a lot of the fun. As you build your towns bigger and bigger, you will have more people come to live in your town. Pretty basic shit, really.
Some of the first things that you will build at any settlement will be houses, for the plebs, and scout camps, for innocent exploitation. On the region screen, you will see your scouts appear as little blue bullet-shaped things. While your scouts meander the terrain, they will discover resources, which appear as white diamonds. As you uncover these resources, you will be able to establish more and more resource buildings. Now, having fucking resources is great, food gets you more people and makes them happy, alcohol lets you get drunk at the saloon etc. You will be able to manufacture goods from ores you mine and have a full, booming industry. The thing is, you are in this game to make some serious fucking money.
This is where trade routes come in and make things more interesting, simultaneously making your settlements much fucking weirder. To start trading, you have to build “trade route” buildings (The names of buildings in this game are pretty abysmal but it is still fucking fun). Setting up the trade routes will allow you to trade with foreign trade routes (they appear as white arrows on the edge of the region map), other towns you may have set up or other factions. Sure, you can set up a town and make that your only area of operation in a region, but that makes things a little lame. If you limit yourself to one town, that limits how much money you can make. Not to mention, if you can get closer to the foreign trade routes, you’ll have a significant advantage over competitors. And on top of that, controlling a majority of resources in a region will (fucking obviously) give you an undeniable trade advantage over competitors. So getting a couple towns, maybe even just a small trade camp or two alongside your towns, will put you above the competition.
Now, not everyone is capable of building a massive trade empire and making money appear out of nowhere. There are some men who just want to watch the world burn, which is where bandits come from. These guys are fucking annoying, and they will attack your trade caravans. First, you have to find them, which can be quite a fucking chore; but if you have little angry-colored arrows going after your trade caravans, all you have to do is build a few extra scout huts and they will locate them. All finding them will facilitate is a solution. You can pay them off, but as you make more money, these parasites will want more, so paying off a bunch of bandits all the time is not a long-term solution.
Eventually you want to cut their throats and leave their corpses in the sand for the vultures to feed. You can build a number of public-order buildings like armories and watchhouses to keep your citizens in line; but to deal with external threats, you’ll need to construct a few barracks. These babies create expeditionary forces that you can use to guard caravans and murder bandits. Once you have a few of them built, you can go to the region map and select the bandits’ camps to begin negotiating with extreme prejudice. This is also the final solution that you’ll end up employing with competing trade-nations, because no one likes to share profit!
Meeting some of the goals set out for you in the campaign is difficult, but once you get the hang of it, the game is a lot of fucking fun. You can build a vast empire that encompasses and entire region and vie for control of trade routes, like a true imperialist dog! You’ll also be able to unlock new buildings and upgrade your existing buildings. For those more keyed up by micromanagement, you can go into each caravan, see its trade statistics and monitor the number of camels in a caravan to optimize the amount of money you are making vs. how much you are spending to get your camels out there. Chaining trade across a region also becomes useful as having a smaller town is good just to get your main town into contact with a closer trade target and so you can trade across undiscovered areas. There is a lot to do in this game, and it is a lot of fun for anyone looking for a great economically-driven RTS. Combat is an option, but not the main thing.
Looking at the title of this article, you might be wondering what the fuck this game has to do with cultures. Take a closer look at your town once you get it decently-sized. Looks neat, huh? Nations are mostly named after european powers like Burgundy and Moldovia.. You know, all the really important trade powers of their time. The buildings that you use for trade routes look like these middle-eastern spires from downtown Baghdad and then there are these old-timey, wild west saloon that you build for your peoples’ recreation. The town hall looks like a plantation from 1880’s Confederate America whereas the religious shrines are either little Ottoman-domed structures or Christian chapels. Each settlement looks as culturally tangled as a set from Firefly so that you think one half might initiate a Jihad on the other half at any moment. I was confused and a little terrified, but it just looks like a lot of ideas came together to make this game happen. This is the only thing is suffers from is a serious thematic disparity. If everything were added together and you told me this took place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and made things look like that, it might be less confusing. But as it stands, it seems to be pulled between some kind of Age of Exploration and Age of Imperialism discussion with wild west tossed in there somehow.
Overall, if you are the type of person that likes to win an RTS through economic dominance and politics, this is a game for you. There are a lot of features that add to the combat aspect, but combat is not directly controlled. There is equal development to the city-building, economic and political aspects and it constantly allows you to find ways to make money. The art is a bit on the minimalistic side, but enjoyable. Music feels a little generic, but the overall design of the game itself feels and looks clean. One feature of this game is that it eases you into the greater game fantastically. It is complex and easy to fuck up, and the game itself gives you a number of goals and levels to screw up before you get to the game itself. Steam will sell you this game for only 19.99$ and I will tell you, it is worth it. Check this title out, it was a lot more fun than I expected it to be and is worth a few plays!