Review by contributor Quinn Sullivan.
I went on a family reunion vacation in the Mediterranean once. It was a weeklong booze-filled voyage of debauchery that started on a dock in the outskirts of Rome and ended in the airport of Istanbul. We traveled on a cruise ship; I’m sure it’s not the ideal romantic’s way of sailing the seas on which Homer based Odyssey, but it was easily the most relaxing way. One of the most academically fascinating (there’s that word again) things we saw was on the Greek island of Crete. A harbor there was donned with the remnants of the old Venetian Empire: warehouses, docks, and a fort that was converted into a museum. The fact that a single city-state could expand their borders to the Greek archipelago during the 15th century was astonishing, and the harbor, still standing after all these centuries, stood as a testament to the power of Venice during that time. Rise of Venice doesn’t help me capture that feeling of power. In fact it’s rather dull – very dull.
Rise of Venice is a 15th century economic simulator made by the talented folk over at Kalypso, the people who brought you Tropico. It’s based off the simple economic principle of supply and demand. This city has one thing that the other city needs, and that city has that thing that the previous city needs, so they’ll trade – simple stuff that we do in our everyday lives. It can get a bit more complicated than Rise of Venice initially lets on. Some cities sell a particular item for less money than another city on the Mediterranean might, forcing you to search for that deal that could not only save you coin, but the gratitude of a city while you’re at it. Buy low and sell high.
The tutorial doesn’t introduce you to that, so it really was a happy accident I came across during my initial run throughout the campaign. In fact, the tutorial introduction is on the brink of pitiful, and the lack of explanation about the trading mechanics will make you want to shut off the game in near the first five minutes – which is something I did, admittedly. But once you get past that, Rise of Venice starts to redeem itself.
In Rise of Venice‘s single-player campaign, you take on the role of a Venetian merchant with the most badass name imaginable. You make a promise to your dying grandfather that you’ll take the family out of the mercenary business and turn them into a family of successful traders. Apparently, the old man left you a few things like ships, grapes, spices, lumber, pottery, and a few other things for you to start your journey off with. The story then begins with you trying to conquer the Mediterranean through fiscal means: bribing councilmen in the chambers, hiring lobbyists in the tavern, and just sailing between cities with stock in your fleet are all effective ways of achieving the wish of your deceased grandfather. This leaves you to accomplish the campaign through whatever means you deem necessary.
However, things get a lot harder a lot faster if you wish to climb up the social ladder of the Venetian elite, forcing your convoys to trade at an absurd rate as demand starts to grow. This left me to wonder if there was some way of making it easier on the player, because I haven’t even had time to think during most of my trades, making me accidentally pick up an obscene amount of the wrong items I wanted to trade with a city. This forced me to hold on to the stock until I could find a city that wanted the crap that I had, turning me into the Costco of Rise of Venice.
Where Rise of Venice gets interesting is in its politics. Rivals will try to sabotage your work by spreading rumors about you that will effectively get you banned from harbors, or even hire thieves to steal from your warehouses. Nothing is stopping you from visiting a tavern at the harbor you’re docked and doing the same thing to them, however. In fact, the game pretty much encourages it. There’s nothing in Rise of Venice that is more satisfying than saying to yourself, “I can f*cking do that” and then actually doing it. Gaining the favor of councilmen in Venice is another thing you do to master the politics here. They’re essentially quest givers, but the skin they put on top of that is impressive enough to make me forget that I’m just doing a fetch quest.
Yes, you have to do these quests and throw the dirty punches in Rise of Venice. You level up through a vote issued by the council. Fail to trash foes and grease palms, and you stall in gaining the levels needed to run the large numbers of convoys and access all of the goods that are traded. The only drawback is that you can make money so readily through trade routes that you can simply bribe your way to winning council votes without fooling around with the great political system that Kalypso has cooked up.
Then there’s the combat. It’s kind of the worst part about the game, and unfortunately it’s something that you need to partake in throughout the campaign. The threat of pirates is a very real threat in the Mediterranean, and when you start to level up throughout Rise of Venice, it’s a constant threat. It tends to be a chaotic mess that happens way too fast for you to be able to strategize a battle plan in order to protect a convoy. It’s definitely not the most thought-out feature in Rise of Venice, but it’s definitely not the mechanic that surrounds the meaning of this game. The only positive aspect is that it forces you to strategize your convoys. Attaching escorts to your fleets and giving guns to sailors are all valid ways to ensure that your convoy reaches its destination safely.
I might have been too harsh on Rise of Venice in the past. It’s a fine game with some amazing features that can be implemented well into other games. Hell, Firaxis can even learn a thing or two about the political system in this game. The more hands-on mechanic of dealing with other city-states by throwing around dirty punches is a lot more appealing than signing some treaty. It certainly is a lot more fun to play politics in Rise of Venice that it is in Civilization V. However, one excellent mechanic doesn’t cleanse the frustration and mediocrity that surrounds the rest of the game.