Spice Road – What We Think:
Strategy games have held a special place in my heart ever since I built my first thatch hut in Age of Empires. There’s something about growing a massive, thriving empire from nothing that resonates with me, and fans of the genre will know exactly what I’m talking about. For some it’s the fun of wielding the power of a President, Emperor or God, while others are attracted by the challenge of balancing an ever growing number of resources, opportunities, problems and threats. Forget about building Rome in a day—strategy games let you build Rome in a matter of hours, then tear it all down and begin again.
Spice Road explores the establishment of European trade routes with the East during the 18th century. It’s an important period of human history, yet one that’s seen few portrayals in gaming. That’s a shame, because it’s a concept rife with strategic potential—exploration, resource management, construction and trade in foreign lands full of military threats, political intrigue and cultural clashes could keep strategy fans engrossed for countless hours.
Spice Road looks to capture the danger and wonder of that era through a 20 mission campaign that sees you establishing camps, towns and trade routes on your way to dominating the spice trade (and the ore trade, and the food trade, and so on). It’s a noble attempt at grand strategy, but one that falls frustratingly short of its ambitions.
Spice Up Your Life
You’ll spend most of your time in Spice Road looking at one of two screens: the world map and the town view. Each mission begins on the world map, where your first task is to pick a spot for a campsite.
With your camp established you’ll switch to the town view. Your next task is to expand from a single tent to a thriving population center. Early missions only give you access to basics like houses, trade posts, farms and mines to get your economy going, and wells, saloons and shrines to keep your townsfolk healthy and happy, but in later levels you’ll find yourself building everything from tea houses to fortresses.
Spice Road is ostensibly a complex game, but the gentle learning curve ensures that you’re eased into it. It’s a little too gentle, actually—strategy veterans will find themselves bored by the game’s milquetoast first act.
Town improvement goes through a predictable cycle—build the basics and get a trade route established, improve the infrastructure of your town so your citizens won’t get upset and leave, then when your citizens are happy go back to growing the economic side of things, and so on. Your citizens are awfully demanding for people living on the edges of uncharted lands—apparently they thought colonisation was going to introduce them to the lap of luxury.
Luckily, a series of indicators are present to tell you what the people want, so it’s simply a matter of addressing the need that’s in greatest demand. Again, it’s a little too simple—you don’t need to plan ahead, just mindlessly plunk down the buildings that the game suggests you buy. It doesn’t help that, at least in the early levels, you find yourself with more money than you could possibly spend, eliminating any need to think frugally.
If my town looks awfully haphazard to you, that’s not a coincidence. Construction is a disappointingly simple affair, as the game doesn’t demand any logic from your layout decisions. Put pollution spewing factories next to your freshwater well. Build a drug den next to a church. Surround the armory with saloons. Spice Road only cares what you build, not where you build it, which is an odd omission for a game that focuses so much on city building. My towns all looked like they were planned by councils of madmen, but the people never complained.
Let’s Add Some Salt
Spice Road is a real time strategy game that plays like it’s turn based. It attempts to capture the grand scope of the events it’s simulating—buildings take weeks to assemble and caravans take months to complete routes. That means you’ll spend a lot of time with your finger on the fast-forward button, watching buildings go up and camel trains move across the map. It sounds odd, and it is, but even if you don’t like the timescale you’ll soon get used to its logic.
The first obstacle to your spice empire, beyond whiny settlers, is bandits. They’re followed shortly by traders from other nations, and it’s here that diplomacy is introduced.
Bandits are simple to deal with—you pay them off until you can afford to attack them, at which point you wipe them from the map. Tactics are non-existent—you send a patrol to attack the enemy, and they either win or lose. If they lose, you send another patrol. Repeat until you win or run out of money.
Diplomacy affords you a few more options, such as buying another nation’s town or inciting a revolt, but for the most part it’s simply a matter of being enemies or allies. You can trade with allied and neutral powers, while having enemies of course leads to war. Combat is a frustrating experience, especially since limited diplomatic options appear to prevent you from encouraging allies to help you in battle.
For example, one mission tasked me with mining a certain amount of gold within a set timeframe. Because the map starts off completely fogged over I had to guess where I should build my first town, and I guessed wrong—I narrowly missed the gold in them thar hills, and the deposits were claimed by my rivals. I allied with one while declaring war on the other, at which point we began automatically sending units at each other with no apparent strategic logic.
I had no direct control over the combat—I could build more military buildings to produce more soldiers and I could purchase upgrades in the tech tree to make them more effective, but neither approach seemed to help sway the course of battle. My rival and I just kept throwing soldiers into the grinder, losing and winning at random and never coming close to taking a town. It was an infuriating mission that I failed through what I felt was no fault of my own.
The tech tree is one of Spice Road’s more interesting features, at least in theory. Unlike most strategy games, which make you research the same technology over and over again on each level like you’re leading a civilization of amnesiacs, Spice Road’s techs carry over with you throughout the campaign. It gives you a sense of progression, especially since the tech tree is rather large. Points to spend on the tree are earned as you complete mission objectives—unfortunately, your options are generally limited to unlocking buildings the campaign tells you to unlock or upgrading whatever handful of technologies can still be upgraded. The fact that it’s not always clear what these upgrades accomplish further limits the satisfaction of watching your technological prowess grow.
Sugar and Spice and Everything Unattractive
As you probably picked up on from the screenshots, Spice Road is not a pretty game. Your blocky, ugly towns will be built atop barren, featureless landscapes with a bland, text-heavy UI. The world map looks better, but watching simple geometric shapes move hither and yonder is hardly inspiring. The characters that adorn the title screen look blurry, cross-eyed and decidedly unheroic.
Speaking of the title screen, you better hope you like the fanfare that plays on it. It’s the only bit of music you’ll hear in the game—separating performances of the generic ditty is nothing but stretches of silence interspersed with a handful of sound effects. Even the game’s text is disappointing—your orders are full of grammatical errors and uninspired writing. I wanted to feel like I was receiving valuable communiqués from my commander in the home country, but instead I was ordered around by a game developer who didn’t show any attention to detail.
You’ll get over most of these flaws as you sink your teeth into the game itself, but it makes for a weak first impression. And there are other oddities that are harder to ignore. For example, one of the first goals in any mission is to find resources in the wilderness around your camp. Once you locate, say, a source of ore, you can build a mine. But you don’t build your mine out in the foothills where you found the ore—you plunk it down anywhere you’d like in the town, which the world map tells us is miles away.
What? Are your miners building a massive underground tunnel so they can embark on a walk that the game’s timescale implies would take months? It sounds like a small complaint, but nonsense like that removes you from your sense of immersion. The designs of the buildings are strange, too — I’m not sure why your scouts would need a hut, let alone one that resembles a palm tree with a hat on it.
I’m Out of Spice Puns, So Let’s Sum Things Up
Spice Road’s campaign goes by relatively quickly, although a second difficulty level, mission rankings and a sandbox mode give the game a respectable length. The lack of multiplayer is a little disappointing, but understandable for an indie game that focuses more on building than combat and diplomatic intrigue. Unfortunately, the campaign is little more than a series of vaguely connected objectives—if you were hoping for a gripping tale of explanation and cultural clash you’ll have to write one in your head.
But it’s the frustrating gameplay elements that really sink Spice Road. For example, your settlements start as a collection of tents that can be upgraded to a town by building a town hall, which opens up other building options. But doing that requires you to get rid of your tents and replace them with houses, which makes sense because no self-respecting townies would want to live in a dingy tent. You can’t build houses until the town hall is complete, at which point the tents instantly collapse. Everyone who lived in the tents immediately leaves the settlement, creating an instant and idiotic population crisis. What, they couldn’t live in tents for another few weeks while their houses were built?
I don’t want to get too nitpicky, because no strategy game is perfectly realistic—frankly, most would be boring if they were. But Spice Road feels like a game that isn’t finished, a collection of ideas put in a package that’s only half-assembled. Forget the screwy logic—there are parts of the game that simply aren’t explained.
For example, you can level up your buildings, but neither the tutorial levels nor the game’s help section explain the benefit of that. It apparently makes your buildings more efficient, but what does that mean? I guess it costs less to maintain? The benefits of having a level two well weren’t clear from a look at the game’s accounting page.
What’s the difference between primary, secondary and tertiary incomes and expenses? Well, apparently primary income comes from selling resources, while tertiary comes from trading resources. Wait, what’s the difference? And how do I focus on one instead of the other? And why is “Camel Industry Buy Food” a primary expense, but “Feed Camels” a tertiary one? Did buying food for the camels and then paying someone to feed them really have to be broken down?
I was able to figure most of it out through guesswork and trial and error, but that’s not how anyone wants to learn how to play a video game. Why didn’t the tutorial teach me any of this?
Constructing buildings on slopes buries half of them in the Earth. Default trade route selections send you across the map, ignoring the convenient route right next to you. Some missions are too short, while others drag on as you do nothing but hold down fast-forward for 15 minutes and wait for your objectives to finish. The first foreign power I encountered was one that didn’t exist during the game’s time period. You can use the Town Hall to host circuses, despite no explanation as to what they accomplish and the fact that it’s about as historically accurate for a tiny 18th century European trade town in Asia to hold a circus as it is for it to hold a comic book convention.
I could go on, but you get the idea—Spice Road is death by a thousand cuts, countless little annoyances adding up to a tedious experience.
Still, all of these flaws could be overlooked if the core gameplay was strong enough. But ultimately there just isn’t a lot of strategy to Spice Road—watching your massive trade network hum along feels vaguely satisfying, but all you really did to put it together was build what the game suggested you build.
According to the credits Spice Road was made by just three people, two of which only made minor contributions. The fact that a single man basically designed and programmed this game by himself is an impressive accomplishment — unfortunately, he couldn’t make it very fun. One of the first things you learn in Spice Road is that you can’t survive in isolation; you need a network of partners to help you thrive. It’s a shame the game’s developer didn’t follow his own rule.