Before I go any further I think it bears mentioning - this isn't really a game for me. Or you, for that matter. Or just about anybody else, except for people with an interest in the Middle-Ages seaborne empire of Northern Europe known as the Hanseatic League. Anybody? No? You know, I'm pretty certain that any gamer who has heard of the Hanseatic League more than likely knows it from a previous version of the Patrician games.
Just as they will know most of the other stuff too. This is a trading game, so y'all know the drill. Buy beer for low in Lubeck, sell it at a profit in Riga, buy a shipload of furs in Riga, shift them for a tidy sum back in Lubeck, and continue until you've got a very large number at the top of the screen rather than a very small one.
This overarching mechanic, if it can be called such, is the central idea for each and every trading game. The problem is making it into a challenge. A trade route is either profitable or it's not - if you find one that is, it'll pay out and you'll advance through the game. If not, you won't. So the key is to throw challenges in your path while you ply the verifiably-profitable sea-lanes. These challenges invariably take the peg-legged form of buccaneers, naturally, and the seas in The Patrician IV are, presumably, filled with ne'er-do-wells. Or so the pop-up news broadcasts seem to suggest. Actual face-offs against pirates are pretty rare. Rare enough that the shipboard combat sub-game can get away with being lacklustre.
This would be a huge problem if the main challenge that faces you is combat with pirates. However, The Patrician IV just kind of assumes that you're going to steadily accrue wealth, and challenges you more by what you do with it. As you progress through the levels in the campaign game you unlock abilities that allow you to flex your financial muscles in a variety of ways, starting out with the purchase and construction of houses for new workers in the few cities where you have influence, working up through the creation of new businesses to fill your warehouse with your own brand of home-made products (peasants throughout late-medieval northern Europe just love the great taste of Schweezenbrau, my famous rat-flavoured beer) and finally building improvements to the church and other civic buildings in order to buoy up your bid for the post of mayor.
Politics is a focus in the mid-to late-game, and gives you your first real taste of conflict, as you attempt to outdo the established master traders and mayors of the towns where you spread your influence. Even here you're never really given the feeling of locking horns with a political mastermind - grind enough money into the right areas and press the right buttons to increase the town's attitude and you'll come out on top.
So it's all very nicely balanced - perhaps a little too well balanced. Tutorials are mostly clear and information pops up where you need it (except in a few critical places - trade routes are breathtakingly unclear to set up). There are always new things to try as you progress through the levels, although the requirements for levelling up mean that everyone will play the game in pretty much the same way. By the time you reach the level of Travelling Merchant, and get the benefit of establishing counting houses in other towns, you'll need to have built at least four ships, regardless of how much money you've made or how many businesses you're running. Personally I'd have preferred the new abilities without the cast-iron requirement for me to use them in such specific ways.
Earlier iterations of The Patrician had less for you to do. Throw a feast now and then, marry a local woman, and lots and lots - and lots - of trading. Now there's more to do other than trading (although you'll be navigating the buying and selling windows for a good nine tenths of your gameplay, make no mistake).
Let me ask you a question. Have you ever played a game with intricate, complex rules that you've learned over the course of weeks, and really immersed yourself in, then a friend has watched you play it for about two minutes before declaring, ‘Why, my dear Andrew,' (assuming your name is Andrew, of course), ‘this is nothing but a spreadsheet!'? If this has happened to you, you might like The Patrician IV. If this has happened and you replied to your friend with an eager nod, you'll almost certainly like the Patrician IV. If you've actually gone out and bought a game on the basis of it being reviewed as being ‘a bit like playing a spreadsheet', go and buy this immediately.