Version Reviewed: PC
(The copy reviewed was purchased by the reviewer themselves)
Caravan is a single-player merchant trading game where you play as the prince of a caravan merchant from the city Iram of the Pillars. Created by it Matters Games and published by Daedalic Entertainment, Caravan tells a tale loosely based off the folklore and stories of One Thousand and One Nights, otherwise known as Arabian Nights.
In Caravan, you play as the son of a wealthy merchant who insists that you learn the tricks of the trade of becoming a caravan merchant. Your first task from your father is simple; trade some goods to the neighbouring city. To ensure that everything goes well, your father makes you travel with your uncle. Right from the start, it is clear you have the innate skills of a tradesman. Upon you and your uncle’s arrival, things quickly go awry. The city has been hit by a massive sandstorm, leaving it in ruins. You have lost your uncle, and your mother is nowhere to be found. Thankfully, your father is still alive and quickly decides that the two of you must leave Iram of the Pillars and embark on a quest to the nearest cities out west. As the two of you travel the desert together, something goes amiss. A djinn suddenly appears and your father lays down his life to protect you. Suddenly, you are alone, and you are forced to go alone in the vast South Arabian desert. Now you need to rebuild your life, your legacy and possibly find a way to rebuild Iram of the Pillars and have its coffers flow with money and goods once more.
In a nutshell, Caravan is a trading game. However, trading isn’t the only thing that can be accomplished. Caravan has a quick and compelling story which is advanced through fairly quick quests that can be picked up in different cities. A string of quests from citizens and important government officials can unlock newer cities across the South Arabian desert, advancing the storyline and, of course, rewarding you with experience points to level up your character.
Caravan also introduces a unique combat and haggling system, which both operate the same way through skill and chance. All characters have attributes in battle and haggling. Battle attributes are offensive, defensive and cunning, while haggling has aggression, rationality and emotionality. Upon entering either one of these systems, you are faced with that looks like a Yahtzee board game. There will be a total of six dice that will roll automatically. The dice match the same colour as characters attributes: orange for offensive/aggression, purple for defensive/rationality and light blue for cunning/emotionality. There is also a Joker dice, which allows anyone to add the given amount to any category. These dice will only roll the numbers 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50. Each opponent has victory points, which determines the outcome — a number that changes as each dice is added to a player’s attributes. To win in either battle or haggling is a matter of just having higher numbers than your opponent. Although both systems work essentially the same way, they do slightly differ. In combat, the winner is determined of when ones HP has fallen to zero. This means that there could be more than one round in battle. The more rounds the more you play in a game of luck and chance. Unfortunately, for haggling there is only one round and only once chance to get it right and win.
Becoming a successful caravan explorer means you will need lots of money for the long arduous journey that awaits you. Money isn’t just for buying tradeable goods; money is necessary for buying camels, horses, donkeys, skilled men and women, artefacts and, most importantly, ranking up your character. Characters can be ranked up to a maximum of twelve ranks, which increases stats, unlock skills and auxiliaries. These stats include combat and haggling, as well general stats such as HP, speed, water consumption and capacity. Artefacts can be equipped at the start of the game; however, many artefacts require certain ranks to be equipped, and can be equipped by both you and your retinue. Once equipped, artefacts add certain bonus stats to your characters such as better water consumption, speed, offensive, etc. Auxiliaries allow you to equip animals such as camels, horses and donkeys, each of which have their own advantages. Camels are, obviously, the best choice for caravanning. They consume less water and can carry a large cargo. Horses, meanwhile, are faster than camels, however they consume a lot of water. Donkeys, on the other hand, are fairly in the middle between camels and horses, although they travel much slower than the two.
Although it is may be possible to make the journey on your own, it greatly benefits you to build a retinue of your liking. You can hire mercenaries, scouts, sages and traders, and each of these classes have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Once you have your team assembled it’s time to do what you know best ─ trading. Everyone knows the basics of trading – buy low and sell high. In each city that you travel to you can see a chart of what goods sell well. The range of goods that can be purchased and sold include food, raw materials, textiles, spices, and jewelry. The selling chart will let you know where these goods are either cheap, normal, expensive, extremely expensive or invaluable. These markets fluctuate as time passes by, which keeps you checking for the hottest deals in each city.
However, while buying goods comes as easy as baking apple pie, trying to sell them can become troublesome and a journey unto itself. Even when you find a merchant in a city that is willing to buy at a high price, it doesn’t mean they have enough money to buy everything you have. Merchants don’t go into debt (unlike the rest of us) when they don’t have enough money to buy your goods, and the game kindly reminds you that they don’t have enough and confirms whether or not you really want to go through the trade. If you’re desperate to sell in the city that you are in, you might be able to get away with selling the rest of your goods to other merchants who can only sell water or artefacts. However, if they don’t have enough money, be prepared to hit the desert and venture forth to the next city with your tail between your legs. Always follow the trader’s code – buy low and sell high – if you can’t get the best deals, try your luck at haggling. Rinse, wash and repeat is how the game is played, and while this can become a tad repetitive at times, the story of redemption and reconstruction might keep a player attentive as long as they continuously pick up quests along the way.
Finding a place to unload your goods isn’t the only peril that you will face. The desert has many uncertainties and dangers just waiting to claim your beleaguered caravan, rendering it but a long-lost memory hidden within an ancient and dusty shipping manifest uncovered by explorers hundreds of years later. Some of those uncertainties come in the form of your water being tainted or losing your goods due to a possible thief from your caravan. Many of these circumstances are out of your control, but others do give you an option to dictate your caravan’s fate. One of them could be, “Your animal is tired, do you, A. Rest, B. Keep traveling and risk losing and animal, or C. leave an animal behind”. The choice is obviously quite apparent, and unfortunately happens way too often. I would have liked to have seen more risk and consequences beyond the players control.
Aside from gameplay, Caravan impressed me with its stylised graphical representation of ancient Arabia. They use actual ancient city names such as Marib, Petra or Sana’a – which still exist today – as well as cities such as Babylon which now remain as an ancient Mesopotamia city in ruins. Although many of the cities don’t have any distinct features to set them apart, the most famous ones, such as Petra and Babylon, are given distinctive features that set them apart.
In the end, Caravan combines strategy with RPG elements to tell an ancient Arabian tale that spans the entirety of the vast southern Arabian desert. Outwardly, Caravan comes across as a trading game, however its fulfilling story, rich lore, history and unique gameplay makes this game worth the journey across the sea of shifting sand.