Windows - 2000
Description of Business Tycoon
At some point during the late 'Eighties, during the height of Reaganomics, I used to sit outside the Drama department at college, which was directly next to the business school. One of the things we humble drama students used to find so puzzling and hilarious, was that every single biz school student seemed to have a dog-eared personal copy of Sun Tzu's Art of Wartucked under their arm at all times. Rules of warfare as required business school reading ... it was the style at the time.
Flash forward to 1998. Brad Wardell at Stardock Systems releases a game called Entrepreneur to very little pre-release fanfare. The central metaphor of the game: business as warfare. Immediately after its release, almost universally positive reports on the game began to appear on Usenet and in the media, including Dean Gordon here at GamesDomain who . I got into the act, , and while I had some overall reservations about the game, I was easily hooked by the clever game play, challenging strategic elements, and the difficult and unpredictable computer opponents.
Flash forward once more to today. Brad Wardell has just released a sequel to the game, now entitled Business Tycoon (BT). The game has had a complete graphical facelift to bring it more into line with millennial standards. There's also been several key tweaks to gameplay elements which hope to address complaints about the original game as well as some of the items on the designer's wish list. I admit, I was very eager to find out what had become of this very promising title.
Hold your horses!
Before we get into the value judgments, I want to make sure that those out there who missed the original have an understanding of the game itself.
As I said, the central metaphor in the game is business as warfare. What that means in practical terms is that while victory and defeat are defined in terms of profit and market share, the tactics to achieve victory will be more familiar to those of you who grew up on war games than on Monopoly.
Setup decisions involve choosing the number of opponents, the amount of starting capital your company has, and the industry in which you are going to be playing. The game ships with automobile, aircraft, and computer markets. If form holds, more will be available on Stardock's web site soon after release. The final, and most important decision, involves choosing a core competency for your company: marketing, research, or production. Your company will have advantages in the chosen field.
Territorial expansion is a critical first step to success because you need markets in which to sell your products. So you must perform market research on territories to understand the needs and desires of the consumers before you can start to sell them your products. The demographics of consumers differ from territory to territory and what's important in one place may not be important in another. Your products and the products of your competitors are rated in five categories. (Four are specific to the industry and the last, "prestige", is something of a catch-all category which reflects a variety of factors.) Demographics indicate how much a territory values each category; you'll have your best success in territories where the demographics of consumers and the strengths of your product are in synch.
Each territory is also rated for the ability of its workers in labor, marketing, and research, for the cost of living in the territory, the amount of recreation available, and the amount of wealth available. The ability of workers affects the productivity of those types of workers in sites you build in that territory. The cost of living affects the amount each employee costs, recreation affects the morale of your employees, and wealth affects how much product the people of a given territory will purchase.
You begin the game by sending out invading armies in the form of sales executives who makes your product available in the territory he occupies and several surrounding territories. You start the game with a single sales exec, but as your revenue grows, you can attract others to your side. With the right resources at your disposal, you may even be able to attract a sales exec away from a rival company.
Sales executives spread your control across the globe. But in some cases, especially when the demographics of the target territory are not a good match for your product, they are not enough. In that case, you need to send in the marketing campaigns--described as commando units in the manual. Marketing campaigns help to bolster perceptions regarding your product in a territory or to damage the reputation of a competitor's product. Either way, their effect is your gain.
As demand for your product increases, you need to increase your infrastructure to keep pace. To start with, you have a single site (your headquarters) with a "garage" for building products (think Hewlett-Packard or Apple at their start) and a small sales office which can help move product in that region. Each new site costs more than the last, so choosing when to build sites is almost as important as choosing where to build them.
Sites can be improved with a variety of buildings which provide bonuses and extra opportunities. Each of the buildings below can be built and improved over time.
- Factories: Hire employees to increase the amount of product you can build or fire employees to drive down costs. See statistics on production costs and set the price of your products: keep costs low to increase demand, but make sure you have enough margin to stay in business.
- Sales Office: Improve your sales office to increase the radius of adjacent regions into which you can sell products.
- Research Office: Conduct research and development along a technology tree specific to the industry in which you are playing. Increase your product's ratings in important categories.
- Marketing Office: Houses marketers which create and sustain your marketing campaigns.
- Happy Fun Land: Bolster the morale of the employees at your site, which leads directly to an increase in productivity.
- Training Center: Another way to increase the productivity of your employees.
- Company Stores: Drive employee costs down by building these at sites.
- Intelligence Buildings: Provide access to an increasing variety of charts which give you an insight into your own and your competitors' strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
In addition to building sites around the map, you can also alter the competitive landscape with two new building types: Economic Centers and Distribution Centers. An economic center increases the wealth in a region and therefore the number of products they will purchase. A distribution center will provide bonuses in adjacent territories to the market leader in the territory with the distribution center.
Finally, there are the Direct Action Cards (DAC) which provide a specific benefit to your company or a specific pain to a competitor. The cards are specific to a given industry and range from winning a key contract to using child labor. Cards have costs associated with playing them: the greater the effect, the greater the cost. The cost comes in the form of resources which you gain by being the market leader in a territory with a resource center. The cards give the game its flavor and an unpredictability that is refreshing. They also act as a Sword of Damocles during every game, because well-timed cards can dramatically alter the course of the game.
The more things change...
The sheer volume that I've written about the strategic options available in the game should give you a clue to the depth to this game--its greatest strength. Most of the game play is unchanged from Entrepreneur, which in some sense is good because it's this depth that made the original such a success among strategy gamers who encountered it.
There's also still a good (and free) matchmaking service at Stardock.Net and latency free multi-player, even with narrowband connections. BT is every bit as good a multi-player experience as Entrepreneur. In addition, the computer opponent remains formidable, which is another aspect of the original that received much deserved praise. The ability of the computer AI to play DACs at well-chosen moments is a tribute to the AI programmer's work. And the ability to fill out the game with capable computer opponents for a multi-player session adds to its spice. (I've played in a game where a computer opponent won against four human opponents.)
The computer opponents are, generally-speaking every bit as capable an opponent as they were in the original. It's still one of the few games where it's possible to lose after you've reached a point where you feel like a win is inevitable. But there's at least one faulty AI quirk which detracts from the experience. In almost every game I played, after 3-4 years, a competitor with 30-35% market share would inexplicably go belly up all of a sudden. Maybe it's a bug, maybe poor management (over-extension, for example). At any rate, it's puzzling..
Despite a lot of returning features, there is still a lot that's new here.
Much attention has been paid to both the UI and the graphical presentation of the game. While neither is ground-breaking--or even really industry standard--it should help those who are new to the game find their way through the first few sessions. And hopefully, the graphical touch-up can help attract players to the game who may have skipped the original because of its low-end graphics.
The research model was extensively updated as well, making use of much less generic technologies to give unique flavor to each market. For example, you'll research things like Radar, Smart Bombs, and Cannons in the Aircraft Market while researching Rubber Tires, Radios, and Assembly Line Production in the automotive market. Each advancement will affect one or more aspects of the product: its ratings for various product categories, time-to-manufacture or cost-to-manufacture. The visual representation of the product changes when key development milestones are met as well (the change from biplane to monoplane construction, for example).
Finally, knowing a good thing when they see it, Stardock has included more DACs than before as well as the ability to edit them and create your own! There are a few "killer cards" in the bunch that upset game balance. More than once I had a card played on me early in the game that drained $10M from my coffers and essentially killed me off before I started. But generally speaking, the DACs are my favorite aspect of the game.
The more they stay the same.
Unfortunately, for all the changes to the game, most of them only run skin deep. That left me somewhat disappointed because I couldn't rekindle interest in the game after having played Entrepreneur extensively. Too much "been there, done that."
The first legacy problem is that, for all the effort that went into the technology trees, the markets are still pretty much the same. Playing a computer market should feel different than playing an aircraft market, but it doesn't. The problem lies with the rigidity of the underlying economic model, rather than the technology tree and visuals. For example:
- Marketing campaigns, while feeling like a natural for the automotive and computer industries, just seem silly in the aircraft market. I mean, when was the last time you heard a jingle for the B2 bomber on the radio? The importance of various elements of game play should scale to the market in which you are playing.
- Sales figures are too standardized. The automotive industry should be based on high volume sales at relatively small margins while the aircraft market should rely on small unit sales with huge margins for each item. That type of difference is not reflected in BT which makes the markets feel too much the same. There are some differences between markets, but you can expect to sell 40 computers per region as opposed to 10 planes, which doesn't really create a noticeable difference.
- The pace of technology between markets is the same. The computer market should be characterized by fast-changes in technology and a reliance on innovation to stay ahead. Aircraft on the other hand should be forced to engage in a much more protracted research cycle for each technology step.
- Costs and pricing are basically the same no matter what industry you are in. A vehicle costs are in the $12,000 neighborhood and prices in the $19,000 neighborhood. Cost and price for airplanes hover around $13,000 and sells for $21,000, respectively. The vehicle costs seem relatively in line with reality, but most combat aircraft are multi-million dollar purchases last time I looked.
This is the kind of change that was really needed to differentiate the markets. While changing the names and visuals helps some, it doesn't really change the way you play the game which is what I was hoping for.
While the graphics were updated dramatically from the original, it's puzzling that no zoom levels were included. The basic map level at which the game is played is at least the largest you could ever want it. I would have benefited from a zoomed out map view to cut down on the amount of scrolling necessary. Also, the color-coding for map overlays (showing how wealthy a region is, for example) lacks intuitiveness or an on-screen key: are darker colors better or lighter colors? I know that information is contained in the manual, but even after checking it, I can't remember the answer.
Finally, the game audio is pretty bad, to say the least. Your sales execs respond with what can only be described as a chipmunk voice. I don't know what else to say but that. Also adding to the problem is the fact that key events are announced by a computer voice, but it's far too easy to miss the content of the announcement, and there's no way to repeat it or zoom to the location of the event.
Another legacy problem is that when research in a particular region is completed, no announcement is made to the player. Since continuing research into regions is critical, it would be nice to know when one project is done so another can be started.
Finally, the documentation supplied with the review copy did not do a good job of explaining anything other than the UI and the barest details of game play. Perhaps Ubisoft will improve the manual and peel back some of the layers on the engine for the user. I certainly hope so.
It pains me to not be able to recommend this game without reservation. I have enormous respect for the effort and design behind it and the original. But in the end, I don't find enough new here to really speak for the game, especially if, like me you played the original to death. Hardcore fans of the game who never got enough will be more than happy with this release. And I hope those who never tried the original will rush right out and buy a copy, because no matter what my complaints after playing extensively, there is a great game here.
But personally I'm going back to what I was playing before Business Tycoon arrived and will hold out hope that the next step in the series will focus on improvements to the engine behind the game rather than the chrome surrounding it.
Review By GamesDomain
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