Review – Knights & Merchants

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.

8 thoughts on “Review – Knights & Merchants”

  1. Chris, I was just bemoaning the lack of a good resource sim to some friends. I miss the days of Pharaoh and Caesar. This seems like an intriguing game, especially with the expansion. Would you recommend I get it if I was into these type games? Can you play the non-expansion missions with the “speed up” capability of the expansion? I think I may kill myself if I can’t accelerate the speed, like in RCT2.

  2. If you like the resource-management stuff this is a good game for you. You can play the non-expansion missions with the “speed-up” capability of the expansion, as long as you do have the expansion.

  3. Another really good resource sim, that in many ways reminds me of Knights & Merchants (and in some ways Colonization), is “Anno 1701”. Specifically, the version for the DS. Let’s just put it this way; when you find yourself building an *Apiary* (with *bees*), you know your supply-chain sim is pretty deep. πŸ™‚

  4. DS, you say? It looks to have gotten good reviews, too. Thanks for the recomendation, maybe I’ll finally take the plunge into simdom!

  5. I’ve been meaning to pick up Anno 1701 but wasn’t sure if it actually came out in the states and was also going to check out the Civ Rev DS reviews before choosing my sim.

    Nice avatar, TT. Looks like me.

  6. Much like Knights & Merchants, combat is definitely *not* the thing Anno 1701 does best; if you’re looking for a deep combat sim definitely look elsewhere. In fact, I’ve found I have the most fun playing Anno 1701 with all the AI turned off, so I’m *only* playing the economic sim. There is quite enough challenge in just making sure you have the correct supply chains in place and the correct ‘service’ (churches, schools, bathhouses, etc) buildings close enough to all your townspeople (so there is an interesting spatial/radius overlapping game to be played too) to level them up to aristocrats. Very fun game… of course, that all said, FFTA2 has monopolized my DS since the day it came out. πŸ˜‰

  7. Wow, that sounds even better now. I actually sort of dislike the combat aspect of Civilization because it interrupts the building and resource gathering. Time to hunt down Anno 1701. Thanks for the help, JDM.

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