by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Forging an empire
East India Company takes you back to the 17th century and puts you in control of your nation’s expansion into India. Starting out with a small fleet and a modest bankroll, you are tasked with forging a trading empire bigger than any the world has ever seen. The challenges ahead are big but not insurmountable. Others are trying to do the same and must be thwarted in order for you to be successful. Remember, money is power. If your trade flourishes, no one can stop you from monopolizing the burgeoning trade with India.
Striving to balance a complex mixture of trading strategy with sea combat simulation, East India Company offers a rather unique gameplay experience. Players compete in real time to control India’s riches with a total of seven other nations. The game consists of three views: an overall map, a city view and a zoomed in view that is used to play out sea battles. The overall map covers the area from Europe to India and thus includes the Middle East and Africa. You can reach your goals by either bankrupting the trading companies of all competing nations or controlling all ports in India for 10 years without interruption. Neither of these goals is easy to reach, but then again, the game wouldn't be any fun if it was.
Bringing home the bacon
Trade is a fairly straightforward affair: you sail your ships to distant ports, pick up juicy looking cargo and return home to sell the goods on the local market. Your initial fleet consists of only a handful of small vessels, limiting the quantities of goods that you can trade and thus your profits. While big fleets sound more convenient, there is one very positive effect to having small fleets: you can't flood the market. As soon as your fleet's capacity increases you will see the selling prices of the goods you hauled home go down dramatically. Back in Europe, the only port you can trade in is your own. This may feel a bit restrictive, but your opponents are hampered by the same rule and won't be able to dump goods in your port and bring the prices down. On the other hand, if you have already caused a big price drop in a particular good, you don’t have any other choice than to sell at a loss or store your wares until the price goes up again.
Fortunately, there are thirty-two different types of trade goods available and you can switch to trading another good while you wait for the prices to go back up. Even so, forty years into the game, buying and selling becomes a real balancing act. Of the thirty-two tradable goods, only nine are able to fetch high prices. Items such as tea, coffee, silk and spices are considered Main Trade Items and can literally be worth their weight in gold. The profit on most other goods will barely pay the wages of your ship crews so you can imagine that finding a good balance between what goods to trade is an important aspect of the game.
Micromanaging your trade will maximize your profits, but you will soon feel the pressure of controlling every minute detail for every fleet. When you have several fleets sailing under your flag, you can assign some of them to automated trade routes. Unfortunately these are rather simplistic in nature. Come to think of it, you can hardly call it a route at all. You give a trade order to a fleet, click on the port that the captain should trade with and you are done. Seriously, that is all. The fleet commander will simply focus on the port's main trade item and fill up the holds with other goods when he is lacking funds or when the main item is not available. You also can’t tell him what other ports to visit along the way.
Your trade profits do more than just pay the salaries of your crews. Owned ports take a massive chunk out of your income, requiring funds for upkeep and maintenance of buildings and garrisons. Fleet commanders don’t come cheap either and will charge you an arm and a leg for their services. Just how much is determined by their special abilities. Some commanders are excellent scouts while others are able to get a discount on the goods that they buy. Do you intend to take your ships into combat? A commander who is able to motivate his crew to go beyond their call of duty in the line of battle can make a big difference. Experienced commanders will have more than one special skill and while this increases their already formidable salaries even further, they are usually worth it.
Money will also buy better ships. Some ship types such as the Frigate and Ship of the Line will only become available after a particular date. Additionally, most ship types need to be researched before they can be built. Although... calling it research… Before you can build a new ship type, you have to pay twice its price to unlock it. After that, you still have to give the build order at its regular cost. In essence, the first time you buy a ship you pay three times its price. This proved to be a steep hurdle for me and I ended up leaving all but two ships locked.
Competing for control over India with other European nations is a blast. Diplomatic system is well worth exploring.
Patience is a virtue in the game's lengthy sea battles.