One of the primary focuses of the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion, Storm of Zehir, is building up a merchant trading company. When I first found out about that, I didn’t think it sounded very exciting but let me tell you I was wrong about that and I actually became quite hooked by the system.
It starts once you arrive at the Sword Coast. You’re told that in order to build up your own start-up trading company, you need to merge with one of three small, pre-established companies. So you travel to Neverwinter and meet with the three managers of those companies, with them representing, as I interpreted it, socialism, capitalism with a heart, and a ruthless, free market capitalism with no concern placed on anything outside money. I’m not an economics major but I think that’s more or less an accurate representation of your options.
From there, you travel around to different cities and try to establish caravan routes. Every town requires you to invest easy-to-come-by resources toward creating your local headquarters, though some towns additionally require extra effort to clear obstacles and road blocks. For example, Port Llast’s ruler, Haeromos Dothwintyl, has been imprisoned thanks to a Luskanite take-over. You have to free Haeromos and liberate the town before trade can be established (I only played the game once; I suppose it’s possible that if I had evil characters or sided with the free market merchant guild, I may have been able to trade with the Luskanites).
Once a route is established, you can build a caravan and get trade going. The cost of setting up a caravan is related to the danger of the route between the two cities. The greater the risk, the greater the cost. From memory, the cheaper routes cost as low as 1,500 or 3,000 gold, while the more dangerous routes could go for around 10,000 or so. (Again, that’s from memory.) Finally, you can either walk along the trade route ensuring the path is cleared of bandits and monsters and coming to the aid of your embattled caravans, or you can spend double or triple the investment costs to upgrade the merchants so that they can protect themselves (or you can ignore the situation as I did early on since you never run out of merchants; I suppose you make slightly less money when caravans are sacked, but it’s nothing I noticed).
If it isn’t clear by now, the addictive quality of the economic system is hitting every town and opening up every trade route and then building/upgrading the merchant caravans. Every successful journey by your merchants results in trade bars for you (1 trade bar equals 15 gold), which you parlay into upgrading your Keep, investing into the merchant group you initially chose, or enriching your company (for example, paying for advertising which nets you greater returns).
Sounds great so far, doesn’t it? And for a long while as you play, it really is. I invested almost every penny I earned back into the company and was having a blast with what seemed to be a perfectly balanced system. I loved going on long adventures, knowing I was making money back at town and waiting to see what new upgrades I could get.
And then it all fizzled.
There was a point where I went out adventuring and when I came back I was staring at tens of thousands of trade bars. I invested them back into the company, like normal, but discovered that there were no further upgrades available. I had max’d out. So from that point on, every time I returned to town, the pile of trade bars drastically increased. At first, I used the money to outfit my adventuring party (through the crafting system), but soon found that even that avenue had been exhausted. With nothing left to spend my money on, it started leaking out all over the place. I hit a million gold and then 4 million. I went into the final dungeon with 7 million and came out with 9.5 million.
In a sense, I suppose, since the game was over, it doesn’t really matter. On the other hand, it’s really disappointing to work so hard to earn money and then so quickly find the effort worthless. It’s also disappointing to think that even though I could play on after beating the game, there was nothing to do to make it remotely worth considering. I wish that Obsidian could have toyed with the system more — perhaps adding another couple dozen expensive, high-level upgrades (that don’t result in you earning more trade bars) or have a moment in the story where your company is brought down or betrayed and you have to start over to some extent or bandits overwhelm your merchants and temporarily shut down your trading or Lord Nasher raises your taxes too high or the start-up costs for most of the towns are much higher (10x, or more) or if you lose too many caravans to marauders the costs go up to attract new traders and protect them or you need to invest more heavily in the roads and patrols or — anything to create a better money sink.
Another minor criticism, some towns create certain resources. For example, New Leaf, buried in the forest, has an abundance of lumber and they sell it cheaply. Other towns pay high margins for specific resources based on their need. I really thought that was going to come more into play and I’d have to focus on fluctuating supply and demand and pay attention to happenings or manipulate them to some degree. Or, at least, I thought if I wanted to get richer/faster I’d have to exploit these structures. Maybe, thanks to too much trade, the forests would be over-cut and trade would cease for a while. A personal stockpile of lumber would become invaluable, if I had one. Or maybe a caravan hauling lumber to a town that didn’t need it as much could be axed in favor of doubling up lumber to a site desperate for it. Also, I thought there might be quests associated with these resources. For example, maybe dragons would burn down the forests of New Leaf and I’d have to adventure to enlist the aid of druids to re-grow the woods to balance the system. But no, nothing like that ever happened and the costs at the various towns never really entered into my thought process.
In all, I loved the idea and for a long while (about 10-15 hours of the approximate 20 hours where you’re engaged in trading while playing the game) the system was great, but it died off at the end and makes me hope we get to see a second revision in some future Obsidian game where it’s a little more polished and extended.