Version tested: Xbox 360
The average title on Xbox Live's Indie Games service stays on the 15-strong New Arrivals list for all of 10 days - if it's lucky - before it's forced to give way to a clutch of new releases, commonly involving Avatars, with most of a fairly low quality. It's an extremely short shelf-life, only ever extended should it sell enough copies to make the Top Downloads list, or be scored highly enough by its players to earn a spot among the coveted Top Rated selection. Why Ancient Trader should sit on an identical star rating to, say, The Impossible Avatar Getaway 2 is hard to fathom, because this terrific turn-based strategy certainly doesn't deserve to float among the flotsam in the Browse All section.
Its distinctive visual style is, naturally, the first thing that impresses. Artist Petr Vcelka, one of just six names listed in the credits, has taken inspiration from 16th- and 17th-century cartography - most obviously, Abraham Ortelius and his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (the first modern atlas) - and crafted some beautiful, imaginative and exceptionally detailed art across the game's ageing, weathered maps.
The creatures that you'll battle as you flit from port to port are all hugely characterful creations, ranging from oversized crustaceans to bizarre leviathans of the deep. Subtle animations bring them all to life and as you cross the oceans, you'll see dolphins leaping out of the water, whales briefly surfacing for air and clouds gently circling over unexplored areas. Upgrade your ship and it gradually transforms from a single-sail skiff to an almighty galleon with golden leonine figurehead.
It's decorative, then, but never at the expense of functionality or clarity. Information is clearly presented, and charmingly so. Your current movement limit is represented by huffing wind clouds behind your sail, while icons indicating the three commodities of tea, spice and fruit are piled up neatly in your ship's hold. Everything's laid out so logically and accessibly that you can happily skip the 'How To Play' section and figure out what's going on within minutes of your first game.
The ultimate objective - at least, in the default game mode - is to collect three sacred artefacts so that you can tackle the Ancient Guardian, a monster so huge and fearsome its name warrants capitalisation. Naturally, even if you can afford the items in question, your ship will be woefully underequipped to take on such a behemoth, so you trade and upgrade your way to success. Buy cheap, sell for a hefty profit, and hope you don't bump into any sea monsters or your trading peers as you sail between los puertos (the game quite rightly insists on the Spanish term; it sounds that bit more exciting than its English equivalent).
If your boat is moored, you're safe, but finish a turn on the ocean wave and you might come under attack, at which point you play a simple card game to find out whether or not you lose money to a rival or cargo to the hungry mouth of a sea beast. The highest-numbered card will win each round, unless it's drawn against a colour it's weaker than; the stronger hue gets a two-point attack bonus.
It's classic rock-paper-scissors, only in this case it's swords, cannons and, er, bigger cannons - or heads, tails and claws for the monsters. Admittedly, the outcome against a similarly-able opponent can rest on an initial lucky pick, which perhaps seems a little unfair, but then the punishment is rarely unduly severe, with barely a handful of gold coins changing hands or perhaps just two or three crates of fruit lost to Davy Jones' locker.
It's sometimes worthwhile taking a detour, not just because the artefacts are spread across all corners of the map, but because you'll often find some useful stuff floating around, from treasure chests to crates from the various wreckages that the roaming monsters have left in their wake. Whirlpools act as teleports, gusts of wind blow you double the distance on your next turn, while messages in bottles clear away clouded areas to reveal previously hidden ports. You'll be offered the chance to take on side-quests when you drop anchor, though the monetary reward for doing so is often meagre recompense for the effort required, and only worth taking on if you were already planning on a spice run in that direction.
Despite the various wrinkles, it's a fairly simple-minded game, and the size and layout of the maps in each of the three difficulties rarely makes a significant difference to the basic flow, instead merely extending the number of turns required to finish off your aquatic foe. That said, the AI provides a decent challenge and it has the decency to get its turn over with in just a few seconds.
Besides, you can mix things up a little with the alternative game types, attempting to amass a total cumulative wealth, or to reach a particular cash tally before your opponents. With little need to chase artefacts, you can either focus on defeating monsters for a quick buck, or opt to discover the most efficient trade runs for quick and easy lucre. Either way, the game settles into a hypnotic rhythm that's hard to resist.
Its leisurely pace might make it an unlikely candidate for Live play, but online multiplayer is included, though larger maps can require a time investment some may not be prepared to give. Ancient Trader is arguably better suited to online rather than hot-seat play thanks to the secrecy factor; while you can check the wealth of your opponents and the artefacts they possess at any time, their tactics remain a mystery. It's a pity there's no mid-game save option, but sensible players will restrict themselves to the faster-paced modes on the smaller maps, not least because it means you can squeeze more games into a single sitting.
Though not as feature-packed as full-fat XBLA titles like Risk: Factions or Catan, Ancient Trader deserves the opportunity to do business with the big boys rather than risk getting washed away with the shovelware tide. That a game so elegant and accomplished should have to be dredged up from the depths of Indie Games is worrying; if a title of this quality can so easily slip the net, what other undiscovered treasures remain submerged?
8 / 10
Ancient Tader is available now from the Xbox Live Indie Games channel for 240 Microsoft Points (Ł2.04 / €2.88). It is also available on PC: more details at the Ancient Trader website.