Hello. I’m an ex-sailor today, but I’m looking to become a rich and well-known merchant in the towns and villages of a fantasy medieval land. I have a horse-drawn cart, 2000 pieces of gold and a can-do attitude. But these things will only go so far in a world inhabited by highwaymen, spiders, and larger-than-average potholes. Join me as we travel the roads of our non-existent ancestors and repeatedly fail to make any significant sum of money in This Merchant Life.
*cheap BBC documentary music*
At the start of my new life, I’m allowed to choose my former profession out of four backgrounds. I’ve gone with sailor, because I've always liked dolphins. It also lets me carry ten units more of anything in my cart. The other options are soldier, scholar and stablehand, none of which feel as useful to an aspiring trader. In hindsight, the added speed boost to my cart from being a stablehand would often have been a great help. As would the extra security and concealment of being an ex-mercenary (this lessens the chance of being attacked on the roads between towns).
But I’m an old sea-dog. I’ve made my hammock and I intend to lie in it. I'm disappointed, however, to be stuck with the default name of Malcolm Jameson. I click on it a lot but am unable to rename myself to something more befitting my character. For example, “Barry Bogfed” or “Muckraker McGuire”. I cannot stress enough that the ability to rename your character “Legboiler Curruthers” is the most important aspect of videogame design in the world. First test failed, Merchant Life. First test failed.
You get an overview of a big map. I can only travel to about ten towns at the moment, the rest require tading permit which you unlock later. Likewise, I can only trade in simple goods – timber, iron, meat, grain, ale and hides. Products like pottery, jewels, wine, or books are not for the likes of a simple man such as I. Not yet. Anyway, the idea is simple. Fill up your cart with cheap things from the market in one place, travel somewhere else and sell them high. You also need to bring along armed cronies, paid for in the town tavern. This is a security measure so you don’t get mugged on the way (the more filled with loot your cart is, the more likely you are to be set upon by bandits).
My first stop is Woodforde, where I pay a visit to my old boss. He tells me in idle conversation (an event window pops up) that I forgot to pick up my last paycheck. He’s right, I definitely did.
With the extra cash I stock up on grain, meat and iron. Wood is super low in price but it’s equally cheapo in all the nearby towns, so no thanks timber man. I also hire a burly peasant and a local hunter from the bar to guard me on the journey to the next town. I am unable to rename them “Fallow Joel” or “Kendra Warts-for-eyes”, so I’ll have to just accept their blank faces and stoic silence as a sign of competence and courage.
Apart from the front wheels falling into a sizeable pothole, we arrive at the next town and sell most of the gear for a small profit. At least, I think we have. I can’t remember the prices at which I bought the iron. But it feels like I’ve made money, and that’s what matters in the merchant game.
I stock up on ale and head to the next settlement, an armoury town that can’t get enough of this amazing new thing called iron. We meet a priest along the way and I offer to have him along for the ride. he’s a strong fighter it turns out, but he’ll only be with me for 2 trips. The hired hands you pick up only stick around for a limited amount of time, you see. So you have to keep re-investing in your caravan’s guard, and they won’t all be equally good in a brawl, or stick around for the same amount of time. When we arrive in Atton, the hunter unofficially known as “Kendra Warts-for-eyes” leaves my service. The monk and the peasant will stick around, but not for much longer.
I decided to saunter through the town, using the giant button marked “explore”. A man is being mugged and I attempt to reason with the robbers. They see my point of view, but they also see my purse. I fend them off, but the game tells me I’ve been injured, a little heart icon vanishing from my character screen. I still have two left though. I’m not sure what happens if I run out of hearts. I probably explode or something.
Little icons keep appearing on the map. Ale with a red down-arrow. Hides with a green up-arrow. A number appears below the icon, ticking down when I’m on the move. It’s a difficult signal to decode. Does an up-arrow mean that the price of meat is going up? Or does its green-ness men that it is getting cheaper? Does it mean the stock is just increasing? Does the number below stand for the number of that produce available on special offer? Or is it a timer?
Malcolm is as confused as I am. I decide to travel straight to Mandrago, a picturesque town in the north, where a wood icon has a green up arrow next to it, to find out.
It means wood is well cheap, that’s what it means. Only 10 gold a pop. Let’s forget what I said about wood and buy alllll of that. I am getting to understand the management side of the game now. A large window has popped up. It wants me to make 5000 gold in a month, to reach the rank of "junior merchant", at which point I’ll be allowed to trade rarer goods like artisan pots. Right, 5000 gold pieces. I can do that. Piece of potato.
1 month later
I have 4 pounds.
You don’t understand. I went south to make my fortune in the riverlands, but didn’t realise the roads down here are more unsafe. I had many adventures. Expensive adventures. There were storms, wolves, highwaymen, bandits and an old lady the game simply introduced by saying: “Oh no, it’s the riddle woman”. She likes to ask me simple riddles about candles and follows me to every town. At one point I also met a monster hunter – a man whose description was basically Geralt from the Witcher – and he was kind enough not to rob me. That was a few days before an eagle dropped dead from the sky right in front of the cart and I had to bury it just to make sure my guardsmen didn’t run off in fear at an ill omen. On another journey, we parked the cart for a rest and a group of hungry ants spelled out the word “GRAIN” with their own bodies. I don’t know about you, but I just can’t say no to an intelligent collective of insects down on their luck. Especially when they spell with the urgency of all-caps.
The game has a lot of good humour, even if it only happens in the form of text boxes with two or three choices laid out in front of you. It’s a happy and silly depiction of a fantasy RPG land where you aren’t a hero fighting baddies (although there is a rudimentary fighting screen which pops up when you get into an unavoidable scrape, and relies on the age-old battle system of “who has more of the big numbers”).
But mostly you're just a dude with some wet barley in a cart. I especially like that your character sheet, something that begins with all traits marked “average” slowly becomes personalised according to your actions. I am now “pleasant” in Charm, “sharp” in Wits. And in the attribute titled Bravery I am deemed “not brave”.
But I still only have 4 quid. Everywhere I go I scrape by. It isn’t an easy game at first, and bad decisions seem to make you tumble into a whirlpool of bad finances. That’s a learning curve thing. I started a second game, knowing all the systems and icons, it took me a whole 10 minutes to achieve 5000 gold, simply sticking to the same four towns. But it’s also a “these icons aren’t well explained” thing. Later, those very icons showing where things are selling high or low, seem to dry up. And when they do raise their pretty wee heads you are often at the other side of the map and unable to get to the appropriate marketplace in time for the firesale. Also, a couple of hours in and the funny in-town events have mostly evaporated, replaced with decision-making exploration options that just repeat themselves. No more riddle women, no more Witchers. Just same-looking choices in every town – explore for some charm, learn for some XP, or earn a few extra coins.
All this means, in my first playthrough, I just can’t reach the junior merchant rank. There’s only a few days left to hit my five grand target and I have no hope. I also now have skill points just piling up. These are points you normally invest in a skill tree. Higher cart capacity, more stock in towns, the ability to shout at your horses in a louder voice. I’m unable to buy any of the “second level” skills because I have to be the next rank of merchant. And without my shiny five large I’m unable to hit that. There is a debug button, which looks like it’ll just unlock all that stuff when you press it. But that is not the salesman’s way.
My final journey takes me back to the north. Slouching back to my homeland, as poor as an ant. We pick up a Red Bard on the way. But only because he pays big bucks for the ride, and I need that monies. The game informs me that he might sing bad things about me if I don’t act graciously around him. So when we come across some wolves – an encounter I normally simply run from, seeing no point to killing the animals – I feel pressured to act tough. What if he sings about me being a scaredy cat? We stop and slaughter the wolves. Their little in-battle portraits make them look like nothing but a pair of desperate pups. This must be how Orwell felt when he shot that elephant. The bard says nothing when we start moving again. I’m not even sure he was paying attention. When we reach the northern town of Serenity, we never hear from him again.
It’s now the last day of my challenge to become a junior merchant. I’ve sold some stock and got money from the bard, but am still thousands of gold pieces short. Then, a glimmer of hope – an icon in a town nearby showing wood selling expensively! I pick up all the wood I can carry and race for Randos, the biggest town in the northern woodlands. I’m gonna make it, I’m gonna make it…
No, I’m not.
My first step onto the road was interrupted by the game telling me: time’s up. Malcolm “Barry Bogfed” Jameson was not a good merchant. The life was hard, much harder than I’d thought. In the end, I’m pleased with the feeling of this happy-go-lucky salesman sim. It’s flawed and, like a lot of management games with story-bits sprinkled throughout, there is a definite point at which the humourous messages will disappear, replaced only with the drive to get more money and a better cart. But it’s also as cheap and cheerful a game you’ll find in the early access bargain basket. I did poorly on the road. But maybe you will profit by it.
This Merchant Life is on Steam for £5.99. These impressions are based on build 2047014