Knights & Merchants is a sim’s sim. In fact, it’s a sim’s sim’s sim. They don’t come much simmier than this.
It’s not a new game, but it’s hardly well-known. The game is said to be quite popular in its homeland of Germany, but knowing no German nor Germans, I cannot say for sure. I came across it many years ago, and after actually doing research for an article, found that it is nearly 10 years old. An expansion, The Peasants’ Rebellion, came out in English more recently, although non-German resources on it are hard to find. For its age, Knights & Merchants does its job quite well. Depending on who you ask, that job could be creating a living and breathing city, sucking your time away like a sponge, or boring you completely out of your mind.
Knights & Merchants is primarily a resource-based city sim. You build roads and buildings, and each building produces or processes something. For example, a forester’s hut produces tree trunks by chopping down trees (via its mindless slave, the forester). These trunks would then be taken over to the carpenter’s place to be turned into lumber, which is useful for several things. Through production of infrastructure necessary for the various implements of war, you can build military units which you command in a slow-paced RTS fashion.
The bulk of the game lies is in city-building. The campaign missions come in two flavors: those that are over in 5-10 minutes and focus on the battle system, and those that take 3-4 hours and require town-building followed by enemy conquering. City-building itself is quite relaxing; you simply place a building-marker someplace, create a road to it, and watch your laborers and serfs go to work. Once it’s done, train the appropriate inhabitant and he’ll go to the building and do his little production/processing routine. A fully built city, when “running”, looks vaguely like an ant farm. Serfs cart goods back and forth through the streets, laborers scurry around to build your most recently placed roads or buildings, farmers walk out to plant or harvest corn, and so on.
City-building is the best part of the game. There is a great feeling of satisfaction from watching a well-designed city run – especially if you had previously also designed cities poorly. Watching your food supplies slowly dwindle to nothing – your townspeople walking to the inn to find its stores empty, the little skulls appearing over their head telling you they’re near death – makes it clear your main enemy is more often poor planning than hostile soldiers. There’s a need to balance things, and that really appeals to the problem-solver in me. You may not be able to level up your workers, but it’s still pretty fun to try to design a city as efficiently as possible.
Unfortunately, the campaign suffers from the primary flaw of any building-sim. You start off a mission, spend hours building up a bustling city, crush your neighbors and salt their fields, and then… on to the next mission. Your well-designed city is now a thing of the past; time to build a new one from scratch! This game’s main appeal loses its luster when it needs to be done several times – and, in yet another flaw sims share, you can’t scale the entire tech tree until several missions in. By the point you have iron, for example, the first half of the tech tree will be old-hat and boring.
Combat has the potential to be interesting but is more often downright confusing. You command your archers, footmen and cavalry in groups, and they often respond sluggishly to your orders. Footmen can charge for an attack advantage, and cavalry have the mobility to flank, but often a single warrior on the edge of your formation will get sucked into battle and it becomes impossible to command that entire group. Ordering archers to attack an enemy seems to send them running in as often as it starts them shooting. Considering the slow pace, it’s not difficult once you know what you’re doing, but it lacks the strategic depth of an RTS.
I would like to mention that Knights & Merchants is also inaccurately named. Knights require so many resources they’re not really worth it; sword, shield, armor and horse are required, when other units are often just as good and don’t have eleventy bazillion requirements. Merchants, for their part, don’t even exist; your loyal townspeople do their job and expect only to be fed. I suppose “Crossbows & Cornfields” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
All told Knights & Merchants isn’t a bad game. It is a game that exemplifies both the best and the worst of the sim genre. It requires careful planning, and has a relaxed feel, but it is also repetitive in nature and lacks a clear focus. Thankfully the expansion pack offers “time compression” which makes the 2-hour missions actually a tolerable 40-50 minutes long.