In our typical grand strategy games we’re far more used to seeing the medieval world conquered at the edge of a sword, or under the feet of a charging war elephant, than by the savvy sale of fur-lined robes, but in reality it was trade, not war, that carved out the foundations of many major civilisations. Grand Ages: Medieval casts you as a merchant lord in the early middle ages, and tasks you with spreading your influence across the globe via exploration and economic might.
You’ll start the game with one holding, an unglamorous settlement from which a continent-spanning empire can grow. Each town in Medieval can specialise in creating five products – these range from unglamorous but useful grain and fish, to fine clothes and jewellery. The key here is that no town can thrive solely on the goods it produces for itself. Whether it’s food for your citizens, tools for constructing new buildings, or core resources required for complicated goods, you’ll need to build a thriving trading relationship with nearby towns in order to secure what you need.
Obviously, then, you need some merchants. You only get one trader per city, so they become an incredibly valuable resource – make a mistake with their trade route, such as sending them to sell wood to a town with roughly three hundred lumber mills, and you’ll waste not only your time, but most of your money. It’s vitally important to examine the trading zone you occupy, recognise shortfalls and shortages, and exploit them ruthlessly. There’s a certain underhanded joy to settling a town right next to a rival, and slowly driving them out of business by offering cheaper, more abundant goods, until they’re forced to accept an offer to join your empire.
The story campaign is essentially a nicely paced tutorial that does a good job of easing you into the game
For the most part, feedback is pretty good as to where your incoming and outgoing expenses are coming from. You can check each town and trading route to see if they’re turning a profit, and it’s generally pretty easy to spot where your economy is weak, and take steps to correct it. There are a couple of things that irritate – I’d like a clearer breakdown of production costs, which tend to all be lumped together in the balance screen, and I found it needlessly fiddly to upgrade my traders’ caravans. You have to queue up new carts in town, send your merchants there, and then manually add the carts onto their caravan. It disrupts the otherwise smooth flow of trade, and because you can only build five carts at a time, takes a lot longer than it should to fill the caravan up.
Those are relatively minor quibbles, and generally Medieval’s interface and presentation does a good job of making its potentially headache-inducing economics feel intuitive and accessible. The right balance is found between automation and manual control; you can allow your merchants to decide on their own acquisitions and sales, but if you want to fine-tune their trading, you can very specifically choose certain goods and towns to target. Upgrading your towns, roads and trading ports is simple and rewarding, and it’s a relaxing change of pace to slowly expand across the game’s attractive 3D map of Europe, swallowing up rivals and neutral townships as you go. There’s a distinct satisfaction to be found in forging a continent-spanning mercantile empire run by silks and salted meat rather than spears and swords.
Sitting back and watching your fleet of traders slowly fill up your coffers is very satisfying, especially as your empire grows and grows
There is combat in the game, but it’s lacking in depth or interest. That’s not entirely a criticism – rather than attempt to outdo Total War at its own game, it’s probably a sensible decision on developer Gaming Minds’ part to keep battles pretty much hands-off. There are several different units in the game that operate under the usual rock-paper-scissors tactical structure that RTS fans will be familiar with, but generally the side with the largest army will win out. You simply point your forces towards the nearest enemy town or unit, and they head off to deal with the fighting automatically.
Natural disasters such as storms, forest fires and even erupting volcanoes do crop up, but they don't seem especially devastating. At most they'll put a moderate dent in your profits
The lack of depth to combat does mean that once you’ve carved out a decent economy, there’s little to really do other than keep an eye on your cities and towns, occasionally throwing down a couple of upgrades or switching a merchant’s trade route around to increase your profits. There is a fairly engaging story campaign that takes place amongst the intrigue and politics of the court of Constantinople, but that’s largely an extended tutorial to get you used to the game’s core mechanics. The other main issue is that other than a few units that can only be recruited in certain zones, there’s little to really differentiate each fresh game from the last. There aren’t any factions as such, and trading resources are the same wherever you start on the world map. Medieval offers a fun game of economic dominance, but once you’ve mastered it there’s little depth to reward further play.
GRAND AGES: MEDIEVAL VERDICT
Grand Ages: Medieval remains an acquired taste, but it’s certainly the most accessible game in the series to date. The trading mechanics are intuitive enough to avoid confusion, while remaining complex enough to encourage micromanagement and enjoyable risk-reward tinkering. Simplistic combat and a lack of variety mean that it begins to run out of steam by the end-game, but if you’re looking for a more relaxed approach to world domination, Grand Ages: Medieval is a perfectly solid option.
TOP GAME MOMENT
I like to set up shop right next to a rival town, then flood the market with exactly the same goods until I drive them out of business.
Offers a unique, enjoyable alternative to your standard grand strategy games.
Well designed interfaces and efficient presentation.
Lack of variety hurts replay value.