Picture it: You are the mayor of the unfortunately-named town of Buttsville. It’s a small pre-industrial town in the south of England, a quiet collection of buildings churning out wool and occasionally fish. It’s not much of a realm, but it’s yours—and it’s the fuel to greater ambitions.
You have a child. You take your child up to a hill—looking out over the six cottages you call Buttsville—and you say “This…this is all yours. This I give to you. When I die, you will need to take over.” But then you gesture around to the surrounding areas, to Europe, and say “For your children and your children’s children though…All of Europe shall kneel to the Poohands, Lords of Buttsville.”
And your child looks up at you wide-eyed. And somewhere a developer says “Ugh, I knew people wouldn’t take our very serious trade simulator seriously.”
Let’s get serious
Take your jokes where you can get ‘em, because Grand Ages: Medieval is one semi-hardcore economics/empire simulator. It’s got the pseudo-4X stylings of something like Total War mixed with the real-time-with-pause progression found in something like Europa Universalis IV—but all centered around trade and the economy.
You start the game as the leader of a single medieval town—maybe a coastal fishing village, or a mountainous mining settlement, or a loosely assembled group of shepherd hermitages. Then with the time-honored arts of capital-B Business, you set out to forge an empire across Europe.
Trade your fish inland. Trade your lumber to the grasslands. Trade your metals to…well, pretty much everyone. Slowly accrue gold. Slowly hire more trade convoys. Slowly expand your operations to cover a larger part of Europe. Send settlers out to establish new towns, with silly names like Buttsville.
See, each town can only produce four resources (out of a possible twenty) at a time. Excess is traded away to neighboring towns in return for whatever you’re short on. Skilled merchants can make a profit both coming and going.
It’s X Factor, except the “X” in this case is not a questionable amount of music talent—it’s the ability to “mutually aid” your neighbors by selling them dubious-quality fish and taking their gold in return. Every week. Forever. Until the entire town collapses and you volunteer (quite graciously) to take over as mayor, thus expanding your own domain.
Taken another way, it is accounting. Your job in Grand Ages: Medieval is basically a glorified course in Imperial Accounting 101—balance the books, learn about supply and demand and trade networks, figure out how to cycle food and metal to the cities, tools to the farms and mines. It is beautifully-rendered spreadsheets.
And yet if I’ve learned anything in my time playing PC games, it’s that I have a boring streak about a mile wide hidden right at my core. The same streak that compels me to put Europa Universalis IV on our Game of the Year list—for good reason, I might add—also finds something strangely addictive about Grand Ages: Medieval.
Buy. Sell. Buy. Sell. Buy. Sell. Upgrade your town. Repeat. Grand Ages: Medieval is hardly going to win our entirely-fictional “Most Visceral Game” award. But there’s something about a strategy game that allows players to conquer through economic warfare as readily as actual sword-and-board warfare. There’s something addictive about the cycle—about gradually optimizing trade routes, automating them so you can focus elsewhere.
More than Europa Universalis, more than Total War, more than Civilization, Grand Ages: Medieval is like peering into the guts of an empire instead of sitting above it. Why is an emperor concerned with trade routes? I don’t know. But in this game, that’s life. Grand Ages: Medieval is about slowly building a massive machine out of piecemeal parts, and then tuning those pieces towards perpetual motion—towards self-correction and permanence.
The sun will never set on the Butt Empire.
I don’t know how the Grand Ages: Medieval experience will hold up across a dozen, two-dozen, two-hundred hours—but I do know I enjoyed what I’ve played so far. So much so that I accidentally extended my demo to twice its planned length, almost missing a later meeting in the process. It’s definitely not for everyone—more for the scotch-and-a-quiet-night-in crowd than your typical game. But I think it might be worth checking out.
We’ll presumably have a more solid opinion when the full game launches in September.