The player character (in white) wanders the streets of a port in the Far East, passing a drunk who seems to be miming a flute. How odd.
Oh, where to start with Tai Pan? Ocean Software, the once-mighty Manchester-based British software house, released this game in 1987 for Atari ST, Commodore 64 and 128K ZX Spectrum. I’m playing the Commodore version, as you’ve probably already guessed.
Tai Pan is loosely based on the 1960s novel of the same name (in fact it was the, as far as I know, last of several trading games inspired by that novel) and is concerned with profiteering by trading in the markets of the Far East in the mid 19th century with the aim of making so much moolah that you become the ‘Tai Pan’, the Supreme Trader. The player character starts off in a Chinese port called Guangzhou with pretty-much nothing to his name. Wandering around you eventually come across a restaurant and, being taken into the back room, you do a deal with a moneylender – he gives you $300,000 and half a medalion and you promise to pay him back within six months (blimey) or you get killed. Them was tough times.
I like that opening, actually, because it’s exactly as much plot as a trading game ought to have. We get given the start of a story and the rest is up to us. Admirable. So, how to play? Well, when you’re in port the game plays like a maze game. The player character wanders around the, rather samey, streets of the city passing various other characters and sword-wielding policemen along the way. There are also icons at the bottom of the screen allowing you to buy, sell, pick up (quick! pick up the rubber truncheon you’ll find lying around, you’ll need that for later!) and load and save game. On some screens there are entrances to various shops and establishments (including, rather racily, a brothel; or “ladies house” as the game has it in it’s PG-cert way). First thing you need to do is head to the bank and buy a ship (I’ve no idea why it’s the bank and not a ship merchant selling this) then to the supplies store to pick up a map and telescope and some food. Then onto the Inn to hire some sailors.
Now, there’s also the warehouse which sells goods which can be sold at a profit at the right ports but this was my second time playing the game and, on my first, I made the mistake of buying up goods in the starting town without knowing if they were cheap or not. So, I left the goods and instead bought some contraband from one of the many dodgy characters hanging around some of the streets offering it. It’s never made clear what the contraband is but I assume it’s supposed to be illicit drugs of some kind. Anyway, having picked-up my package I made my way to the dock and set-sail.
Ah, the open sea. Insert joke about salty seamen here.
The sailing section is shown from above with the player given the option of raising/lowering sails as well as checking maps or entering combat mode (to fend of pirates or even pirate yourself) and using the telescope to check for ships on the horizon. I raised the sails and headed East and towards what I hoped would be start of my trading career. Oh, there’s another icon – one which lets you distribute food rations. To be honest, I wasn’t keen on this level of micromanagement and wished the game would do it automatically as, for example, Sid Meier’s Pirates does. It’s easy to forget about it. For some stupid reason your box of food only lasts one voyage too and needs replacing when you enter a port.
The first port I entered was quite close to my starting one but I found the prices were roughly the same (unsurprisingly) so I set off again, having had to buy some food again (grr) and decided to sail much, much further this time. I pointed the ship roughly in the direction of what is modern-day Taiwan and raised the sails. The game claims that leaving the “shipping lanes” (which seem to be white lines on your map) is risky due to pirates but I had no problems and reached a port called “Qingdao” on the island. Here I managed to flog the contraband for a small profit (around $4000) and picked up two boxes of tea which was quite a bit cheaper than the home port. Having loaded up with another (sigh) box of food (did I mention they cost an absurd $2000 a box? What the flippety flop is in them? Pickled venison and caviar?) , I made for home hoping my tea would raise around $3000 a box.
The journey back was very slow, though, owing to the wind now opposing me more than it was behind me and I ended up dropping-in on a “midway” port. The tea would make no profit here, I discovered so I headed back to the ship and sailed off.
Oops, forgot to replace the food. Silly me. Nothing to give the crew on the journey home leading to one of them dying of scurvy just before we entered port. Oh, cruel fate! Anyway, got off at a port (Shenzhen, a word I associated with nom-able chicken) very close to the one we started at (I thought it was the actual port but it wasn’t) and managed to flog the tea for a measly $1000 profit per box. Not happy with this but noted jade was cheaper here than out in Qingdao so I bought a box of that and some more contraband and having used the truncheon I mentioned earlier (if you thought it was for doing something dirty you lose ten points!) to cosh a wandering drunk and press-gang him into replacing the dead crewmember (you can do that, you know, it’s very naughty and the police don’t like it) I set sail for Taiwan again and, I hoped, more profit.
Except, only a couple of days into the voyage, my ship sunk without explanation and I was told I’d drowned. Oh, cruel fate! I had $0 in assets (I still owed the moneylender) and the status of “slave”. So, rather abruptly, endeth my game of Tai Pan.
In conclusion, there seems to be a lot to this game. It’s got a great atmosphere and the C64 graphics are pretty good although the constantly playing music gets a bit annoying. I found the trading harder than in any other game of this type I’ve played, though, and barely managed to find goods that could turn much of a profit – it also doesn’t help that there are essentially only four things to trade: tea, jade, silk and the aforementioned mysterious contraband. I’m sure spending more time on the game or having suitable maps/charts to hand might make things easier. I also thought that the sailing part was needlessly slow (the instructions claim that it speeds time up to avoid slowness but I didn’t see this) and the need to manually issue rations was annoying. Oh, and having to buy fresh rations for each journey is both expensive and unrealistic. And don’t get me started on the ship suddenly sinking, I really hope there was a reason for that (perhaps because I didn’t use the brothel, maybe the player character sails badly if he’s too horny, I dunno) and it wasn’t just random.
So, overall, maybe worth a look if you like the whole trading/pirating genre (although I didn’t get to do any pirating or combat because my bloody ship sank) and admirably atmospheric, but when it comes to an enjoyable game you’d be better off plumping for Sid Meier’s vastly superior Pirates instead.