Port Royale Review

Port Royale is named for the infamous pirate town and is subtitled Gold, Power, and Pirates, but it is really a game more for merchants than buccaneers.  You begin the game with a ship, a chest of gold, and a port to call home.  Where you choose to go from there is up to you, but no matter which path you choose you'll need to start out as a trader in order to build a stream of income and a tidy little nest egg in your sea chest.   Wannabe scurvy dogs will need to master some basic economics before they can become a terror on the high seas.

There's plenty of gold to be made trading in the 17th Century Caribbean.

Since the game is so trade-focused, it is a good thing that it is built on a detailed economic engine.  There are 19 different trade commodities in the game available in varying quantities in the ports of the Caribbean.  The prices of these trade items fluctuates constantly to reflect changes in supply and demand and ongoing trade transactions.  Pull into a port and open up the trade screen and you can watch the prices fluctuate in real-time.  If you purchase a large quantity of a trade item, each successive unit will become more expensive as you drain the port's supply of the item.  On the other side of the coin, try to dump a shipload of a single cargo item and prices will hit rock bottom as you flood the market.  Other factors will affect the prices as well.  Cities experiencing famine will pay dearly for foodstuff, while towns experiencing boom times will have a large demand for luxury items.  As a result of all of this you won't be able to simply find a high-profit trade route and milk it for all it's worth, you'll need to work for your money.

You'll start the game in your home port and have a map of the Caribbean marked with the locations of other nearby ports.  The ports are also marked with small icons indicating the goods that are in high demand there, but as with local prices the goods in high demand is in a constant state of flux.  To trade with another port, you simply fill your holds with goods, switch to the Caribbean map, and click on the port where you would like to go.  Once you arrive, you can either click on the port to be taken to the city screen or do all of your trading from the Caribbean map.  This latter option makes trading streamlined to the point where only those fascinated with turning profits will find it to be much fun.  The game does get more interesting as you become established, but you'll have to work in order to get to that point.  Another point that may frustrate the casual merchant is that turning a profit does not merely mean selling something at a higher price than you paid for it.  You'll also have operating expenses such as the wages for your crew to account for, so you can sell for a profit and still lose money.  This can make things really difficult for a newcomer, especially someone who is just looking to explore and plunder.  Making matters more difficult is the short and inadequate tutorial and a manual which doesn't help that much. There's not even any balance sheet or financial screens in the game to help you determine why your trading company is bleeding money.  There's obviously a lot going on in the game's financial model, but the only way to get a grasp of it is to play the game a lot and to pay close attention to every facet of your business.

Once you start making some money, you can work to expand your wealth even further by purchasing additional ships.  Ships can be grouped together into fleets to maximize profits on lucrative routes and for protection on the high seas.  Fleets can also be assigned automated trade routes so that you can focus your attention on other things.  There are also opportunities to make money on land.  You can establish a warehouse to store goods until prices become favorable.  You can also build plantations and production buildings to create and sell trade goods, either at the local market or at ports around the Caribbean.  Care must be taken when building production buildings - not only do you need a market for your goods, you must ensure that you can get the raw materials that you need to produce those goods.  You can even become a landlord and build housing for island residents, but you'd better fill your housing or the maintenance costs will bleed you dry.