January 11, 2023
It’s easy to see why the ocean is such a popular setting for video games. There’s a certain romance to sailing the seas, and plenty of danger too be it from rowdy pirates or menacing sea creatures. Usually it’s fair to say that games set on the waves are action packed, with swashbuckling combat and cannons to fire. That’s not really the focus of Sailing Era though.
I guess you’d describe Sailing Era as a strategy game, with different end-goals depending on which character you choose to take adventuring. Andrew wants to be the world’s greatest navigator and travels the sea attempting to make the first world map, whereas Abdullah has a run-in with pirates and plots his revenge, and Yun Mu wants to get into global trading via the waves. Whoever you pick you’ll have the opportunity to partake in all of the above categories though, so just go with your gut and get to work.
I started my time with Sailing Era playing as Andrew, as I figured exploring was probably the easiest activity to get stuck into. After meeting up with some friends I got my first glimpse of the complexity of this incredibly deep sailing strategy experience. Before even thinking about raising a sail, you need to assign your characters to different rooms of your ship, which applies different bonuses when you sail. As well as a captain you need someone to map as you go, and if you want to scope out treasure and natural wonders (which is both satisfying and rewarding) you’ll want someone up the crows nest as well.
Don’t think you’re ready to set off yet though, you need to hire some sailors and stock the storeroom with grub to feed them while you head out. Of course if you want to purchase any good to sell around the world you’ll need to decide how much of the ship will contain food and how much will contain items to sell like silk or beeswax. Finally, you’ll be ready to hit the seas and explore the world.
After all the work you put into getting off the dock, moving your ship around is actually very easy. You view the boat from an isometric perspective, and after raising the sails you just need to move a stick to steer. There’s not really a whole lot to worry about most of the time you’re traveling (besides a potential lack of food) so cruise along to the next port and see what’s going on there.
There are hundreds of ports spanning the entire globe in Sailing Era, from Lisbon to Cape Town, and each one has a variety of locations to check out. The local tavern or tearoom is a good place to take the men to unwind to raise morale, and might even hold a few rumours of treasure if you butter up the barmaid. Libraries are packed with knowledge of the world but require some brain power to take advantage of, and town halls have bounties to collect if you sink the pesky pirates bothering the locals. If raising some cash is your main goal though, the trading centre is the place to be.
Each port has one of these handy trading posts to visit, at which you can buy and sell various goods. You’ll get tips as you travel the globe about places that will pay a pretty penny for certain precious metals or wines, but to be honest as long as you buy goods when they’re being sold for 80% of the price and sell them for 120% you’ll never be short of cash
As it so often does, money makes the world go around in Sailing Era. Food supplies and rounds of booze for the sailors rarely break the bank, but if you want to expand the fleet it’ll cost you some serious change. There are some huge advantages to adding extra ships to your boat family. I mainly used the extra space to make even more money by carrying more goods, but it’s also helpful if the time comes to take on some other ships.
Combat really isn’t a huge part of the game, but it certainly comes up from time to time. Winning a ship battle generally involves lining up the side of your vessel with the enemy and letting loose with some cannons, but if it suits your style you can ram into enemies to initiate hand to hand combat. As long as you’ve been keeping morale high you’ll usually dispatch of the enemy pretty easily this way, especially if you’ve been levelling up your main characters for combat.
Yes, as well as managing all the elements of your fleet, you also need to level up characters. Just like in real life this is done at the pub, and features you pumping hard earned experience points into your characters and occasionally choosing a stat you’d like to boost for them. Some of these are fairly straightforward, like improving turning speed when at the wheel or dealing more damage on deck, but others are utterly baffling. Without any further explanation it took me a while to find out what the Geography stat did from the description of “improves Geography knowledge”, and confusion and complexity is a bit of a running theme in Sailing Era.
For example, as well as exploring the sea you can also venture inland in some specific locations to explore. This is done via a grid of hexagons, and is influenced by the number of supplies a donkey can carry and around a dozen exploration items you can buy to improve certain elements of the journey. I never felt particularly confident going inland because everything about planning it just seemed overly complex, but when quests send you in that direction there’s not really another option.
Exploring in your boat is a bit of a mixed bag too, because really it just involves about a minute of sailing until you find another port to investigate. Even when you max out supplies you can only last around five minutes of real time before having to restock your ship, so it never really feels like you get to spend enough time exploring the globe.
It’s also easy to get carried away mapping out an area, and once you go too far from your main objective the only way to get back is another big slog across the ocean. One evening I spent over two hours mapping out the coast of Africa, only to realise that my main quest was back in Europe and it would take another two hours to return. I made a lot of money at the ports along the way, but going into menus to refuel and buy goods for an entire evening is hardly my idea of a good time.
Sailing Era has some interesting ideas, but ultimately the complexity and amount of time it takes to get anything done is just too much. If this game clicks with you there’s hundreds of hours of seafaring to enjoy, but I personally need just a bit more adventuring and fewer menus in my games.
An incredibly deep sailing strategy game
Building up a fleet is satisfying
Discovering the world and its wonders can be compelling
Is far too complex for its own good
Doesn't explain key mechanics very well
Most activities take far too much time to complete
Sailing Era will definitely have its fans, but for me the constant menu navigating and overly complex mechanics made my time at sea fairly underwhelming.