Patrician IV, along with the Rise of a Dynasty expansion, is the most niche game I’ve ever seen: it’s a business simulator, specifically a Hanseatic League simulator. For those not in the know, the Hanseatic League was an economic alliance of trading cities that dominated northern Europe in the middle ages, starting roughly in the 13th century. The Hanse, and the game, focuses on trade from Novgorod to London (although mostly in between those cities), and in time you can send expeditions to the Mediterranean.
The game has you take the role of a young merchant, with but one small ship, some gold, and the goal of becoming the top trader in the Hanseatic League. Your first order of business, however, is to make money. To do this, you go to the port in your home city, buy what is in surplus (and thus cheap), then go to a city where the goods you bought are in shortage, and cash in. The value of goods changes dynamically as you trade, each unit you purchase/sell can cause the price to change, and even a city with a great shortage of, say, wheat can go from paying a high price to a very low price if you try to sell too much to it at one time.
"…you’ll be motivated to trade not just for profits, but for the resources…"
Eventually such trading runs will net you sufficient profits to buy another boat. You’ll need to go to a city’s shipyard, order it built, and pay, but even gold is not enough. Ships require a wide variety of raw materials, and if the city doesn’t have, say, cloth for the sails, the ship may never be built. Thus, you’ll be motivated to trade not just for profits, but for the resources to build another ship.
In time, your wealth will be enough to allow you to build your own businesses, giving you more goods to sell. You’ll need to have a good reputation in the city (generally by selling things the city needs or completing city quests), but you’ll also need to ply it with gold – a higher reputation and even more gold will let you build special goods like beer and pelts. Once you’ve received permission you can build the business, quite possibly having to make a trip to bring in building materials from other cities (cities that can make bricks and wood, building materials, are critical to the game, and are great for expansion, since they provide the resources to allow for expansion directly). The most profitable businesses require base resources before they can produce (e.g., metal goods require metal ore, beer requires grain, etc.), so you’re motivated to set up trade routes to be sure your businesses have what they need to be profitable.
A business also needs workers, of course, and so you’ll want to bring workers to the city, usually by offering free meals to beggars (which attracts more beggars to be hired) or by making the city prosperous by supplying all its needs. You might also want to build houses to rent to your workers, as well as fountains to keep the risks of plague and (devastating) fires low.
With enough ships and businesses, you’ll be allowed to expand into other cities (after paying fees), repeating the processes on a larger scale. Unfortunately as you grow, pirates enter the game. These guys are a menace, and won’t leave until you kill them off. The shipyard will let you equip your ships with cannons, and the tavern supplies crew, provided you’re lucky. and your reputation is good. Naval combat is basically up to three ships shooting at each other with cannons with no boarding and minimal tactics really possible. The game isn’t really centered around combat, but I’ve seen many games do it worse than this; a “quick combat” option lets you resolve things in a moment, which is useful when the pirates start swarming (keep in mind, this era is only slightly past the heyday of Viking raiders).
In time you’ll have the money to finance highly profitable expeditions to the Mediterranean, possibly even discovering new cities for trade. You can also get married, commanding a dowry that at least sometimes offsets the expense of a wedding. Children will come soon after, more if you keep your city wealthy (but beware: your wife and children can easily die in plagues). As your reputation rises, you can become mayor of your home city; this gives you the ability to do many special things, the most important of which is guide research at the university. While you can’t get truly advanced technology, things like “division of labor” can greatly increase your profits, and the most important “research” by far is learning how to establish a new city. (Actually it’s described as negotiating with the locals, but it’s under research. Whatever.).
Building a new city from the ground up is hard but rewarding work. First you’ll need to transport great loads of wood and brick, then build all the houses and businesses, and city walls, and a minster (a large church; you’ll need a cathedral if you want your city to grow past 10,000 people), set up trade routes, and on and on. Create a wealthy city, and you can even get a statue built in your honor.
"There’s always something to do, and usually something that critically needs doing."
I’ve glossed over many details, but Patrician IV does its job very well. There’s always something to do, and usually something that critically needs doing. Long after the game was “won” and I’d gotten all the money I could ever need, I found myself playing for another hour or two or three, building up one more city, getting one more statue built, accomplishing one more quest. Nevertheless, the game has a few warts: you can go from nothing to fabulously wealthy in around four years (making the whole “Dynasty” thing pointless), many quests are basically impossible (but easily skipped), and the micromanaging can be brutal until you learn what all the little buttons do. The latter is perhaps the biggest problem with the game, as the learning curve can be steep at times. The campaign game serves as tutorial, with many videos highlighting exactly what you’re supposed to do; it still leaves a few things out however.
If you’re not already the kind of gamer who obsesses over making an extra 2% rate of return on investment, this game probably isn’t for you, but for those that enjoy business simulation games and are willing to put the time into learning how Patrician IV works, this game delivers incredible value.