Saturday, January 11, 2014

Review of "Merchants of Spice Islands" by Chan Sing Goh

Merchants of the Spice Islands is an interesting gamebook, one which I would describe as a near miss. It starts out strong, with a very compelling premise and effective, thorough rules--if slightly on the long side for such a short gamebook--but once you get into the meat of the story, it quickly becomes lackluster.

I think Spice Islands fails in exactly the same place where Tipping Point succeeded: the structure. Whereas Tipping Point made use of a beautifully effective blend between sandbox and story-driven modes, Spice Islands had the perfect opportunity to do bring in a touch of sandbox style, but failed to do so. Instead, you are railroaded from one port to another (or from one set of options to another) without a whole lot of a feeling of agency. Furthermore, while Tipping Point was masterful at creating choices that have consequence, Spice Islands did not reach that same level of excellent choice-crafting. Sure, things do have consequences from time to time. Take the rotten trader, for example: if you buy his cheap goods, you find out later they're bad and that has consequences. But it's not as effective as the consequences that come out of Moonowl's "rob the treasury" choice, because there's no real choice for the player. We're here to trade; why should we suspect this trader is any more likely to cheat us than any other? Like many of the encounters in Spice Islands, it feels a little random and arbitrary.

I would like to see a re-write of Merchants of the Spice Islands. The premise is so rich, and it comes so close to being excellent, I can't help but hope that we'll see the author do another draft with improved structure. When I first picked it up and read the introduction, my very first note was "This is the kind of gamebook that reminds me why I like gamebooks." I just wish it had lived up to its promise.

Opening: 4

The opening was very strong, probably the best part of the book. It really effectively tells you what you're getting into, and despite not having a whole lot of flavor text, for me at least it really whetted my appetite for digging into this historical scenario. The scenario itself is just compelling. My only complaint is that all the pre-game material (descriptions, choices, rules, etc.) is a little long. It comes across as a bit top-heavy for such a short gamebook.

Flow: 2

Though I think this is essentially where the book failed, I'm giving it at least a two because there were some strong points. I found the system effective and engaging, with the party-based combat, and the ship to ship combat. That said, even on the pure system side, I did think the balance was often a little off. Some of the encounters were too hard to survive, such as running from the French Frigate--I got killed even with no cargo--and some of the fights with the natives.

As for the structure of the interactivity, as described above, it was too weak for this gamebook to really excel, despite it's potential. The player needs to be given more choices, and given more information on which to base those choices. I never felt that I got a "big picture" perspective. Instead, I was just kind of thrust in without any real sense of what was coming up in the future or what the overall arc of my adventure would look like. I would like to see a map, for one thing. I think just the simple addition of a map would work wonders. And if it were accompanied by a slightly more open choice structure, that would be a lot stronger. Last but of course not least, more developing of consequences for your choices.

One more note: I think randomness was a bit overused. It can be good for replayability, but there were several times where it was really apparent which of two randomly determined options would be the "best." That just begs the reader to cheat (as I ended up doing, several times, just to get through the game. Why not, when the alternative is to just stop reading the whole thing then and there?) If you're trying to improve replayability, then randomness is good, but if the player's in control of the dice, don't make it a random selection between one good or one bad option. In fact, you probably usually shouldn't randomly send the player to either something good or something bad. I think it's stronger to use randomness (or choice!) to direct the player between two different routes, each of which has advantages and disadvantages.

Writing: 3

The writing was competent, and probably would have been a four, except that it needed an editor. There were almost no capitalization, punctuation or spelling errors, but way too many sentence structure errors. For example, there were at least two times where the word "are" was dropped, and I think once where "is" was dropped. That makes for some very strange sentences.

It's wierd though, that in other ways it was grammatically impeccable. Everything was perfect, except that the sentences just didn't always sentence properly. I think it's just the oversights that any author could make; this is why we need editors!

Story: 3

I loved the premise, and I think a lot of the ideas that went into the story were great. Taken individually, a lot of the encounters were interesting and suitable for both the gamebook format and the historical scenario as we were given it. It's just how all the encounters were strung together that I take issue with.

The only other problem, and if it weren't for this, I would have given story a little stronger of a rating, there just wasn't much of an actual throughline for the piece. There's no real ambition for our hero, except to make as much money as he can. In fact, there's not much "character" to any of the characters. It's just pretty straightforward. If it were me, I would try to find something to work in to make it personal--a lost companion, a rival, a missing treasure--and use that to provide a throughline that can hook the reader and keep them engaged as they meander their way through the various mini-quests and encounters, making money.

Secret Sauce: 2

I have to give it a little on the low side here, just because, as mentioned above, it got a little bland once I got deeper into the story. I loved the premise and had high hopes for the whole story, but it just got grey as it got rolling. Shrug. Again, some of the individual encounters were exciting, and the premise was beautiful. But that connective tissue that brings it all together isn't developed enough to carry it.

(P.S. I'm officially changing my schedule to update on Wednesdays and Saturdays, since Saturday seems to be when I do the weekend post anyway. Just an FYI.)


  1. Very thorough review style! Minor suggestion: give your rankings as a part/whole. 4/5, 2/5, etc. I assume there's a 5 scale at work here but it isn't expressly stated and first-time readers may not know.

    1. Thanks! And that's a good point. I may also want to do a total at the top somewhere too. This one only got 14/25, which I feel may be a little lower than it deserved, in retrospect... in many ways it was quite a solid little gamebook.