What happens if in one game you allow players to: use equipment, gain experience, and combat others; participate in a huge economic model with over 60 resources, intermediate objects, and finished products; and control the life of a single player, including that player’s heirs? You get something like Europa 1400: The Guild from German developer 4HEAD Studios, a game that is both fascinating and addictive to play, and yet has so many rough edges that you might not want to play it at all.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Oh, geez, not another role-playing game / economic simulation / life simulation! Those things are a dime a dozen!” But that’s the kind of genre-busting title The Guild is. Put another way, The Guild is sort of like The Sims, but it’s much more of a game, and it focuses on a player’s profession rather than his or her leisure time.
But what exactly do you do in The Guild? To start out, you have to pick a profession and then use it to make money. Professions include standard things like being a blacksmith or a carpenter or a preacher, but then you can also try your luck at being more unusual things like a thief or an alchemist. There are 11 professions in all, but unlike in The Sims where each profession is essentially the same, in The Guild they can play wildly differently. For example, blacksmiths have to buy iron, silver, and gold, and use them to produce weapons and jewelry; preachers rely on scribes to write poems and other documents, and they can also hold sermons for extra donations; and thieves spend their time picking pockets and burgling homes, or maybe even kidnapping people. Most of the professions involve buying resources at the marketplace, producing some product, and then selling the product back at the marketplace, but there are only so many resources and products, and how they’re managed is just different enough that the professions in The Guild end up being a lot of fun to explore.
Of course, once the money starts rolling in, you also need to take care of your character, and there’s a lot going on in this area as well. For starters, during each round of game play you get some “action points” to spend. Mostly what you’ll do with action points is to build up your skills (like combat and negotiation) but you can also use them for other activities. For example, preachers need to spend an action point if they want to hold a sermon, and thieves need three action points to kidnap somebody. You can also woo a potential spouse and start up a family, or spend money to upgrade your house or business (or buy a new house or business), or you can enter into politics and eventually perhaps become the sovereign of the town you’re living in.
One of the most intriguing parts of The Guild is that the game doesn’t end when your character dies. As long as you have a child of suitable age (older than 11) then that child will inherit everything, minus a nasty inheritance tax. And so, instead of a life simulation, The Guild is more of a dynasty simulation. That means, along with everything else, you need to take care of your children by giving them learning toys or by sending them off to school, so they’ll be prepared to take over after your current character’s death. It also means, conceivably, that you could play The Guild forever. Each round in the game is the equivalent of a year and takes about ten minutes, and characters usually live until they’re around 45. So just playing one generation might take a few hours, and if you really get into a dynasty you could be playing it for weeks.
That makes The Guild an intriguing game, and it’s also addictive because there’s always something coming up, whether it be a marriage or a death or a promotion or an upgrade you’ve been saving up for. The problem is that 4HEAD Studios maybe bit off more than they could chew with the game, because there are all sorts of rough edges to deal with. For example, combat in the game is atrocious, as if 4HEAD Studios had never heard of let alone played a real-time strategy game, and it means playing a combat oriented profession, like the guardsman or the robber, isn’t a lot of fun. The interface isn’t especially friendly or informative, either. The Guild is a game that could be played almost entirely through menus, but for some reason it employs an ugly 3D engine for everything, and that just slows things down. For example, each room in a business has hotspots in it that allow you to do things, but if you want to hire a new apprentice, you have to go to the room with the “roster” hotspot, pan around the room until you find the hotspot, and then click on it to bring up the hiring menu. That’s a lot of work for something that in other games would just be a keystroke away. But probably the greatest problem with The Guild is the AI, specifically the AI for running businesses. The AI just can’t handle the job, often manufacturing the least profitable products it can find, and while you can use the AI if you want to manage your businesses, the computer-controlled families have to use it, and so no matter what difficulty setting you play on, eventually you’re going to win easily. For my games, I usually blow past the other families by my second generation, and after that The Guild gets boring to play.
Supposedly, a patch for The Guild is on the way (it’s been on the way for a while now), and if 4HEAD studios can fix up the AI then I’d probably play the game some more, because there are still some professions I haven’t tried yet. But as it stands now, The Guild is an interesting “near-miss” game. You might want to try it out regardless, just because it’s so different than anything else out there, and since it’s been priced down to $20, but otherwise keep your eyes peeled for a patch announcement, and give it a try then.