Can we just talk about how cool it is that you can buy a game from 1987, originally made for the Amiga, for a handful of pocket change and just run it on your modern PC? This is the fate of Ports of Call, a German-made economics game about freight ships that you can just buy on Steam or straight from the developer’s website. Hell, it even runs on mobile devices these days.
The premise of the game will sound boring to most people. You run a company that buys and operates various trade ships that you sail around the world to move goods around. The game is played mostly on a map of the world that simulates the movement of your ships and the current climate conditions. With the press of a button you start or pause the timer and watch things unfold.
When a ship is in port you can fuel it up, perform repairs, have it laid-up, or take on a new charter. You’ll be presented with a list of locations and potential goods, and can make a decision about where to go and what to take with you. Oftentimes this will be a simple case of comparing the distance between locations and the payout of the contract and choosing what will be most profitable. There are other factors to consider, however.
The more dangerous the destination, the more it will pay for goods. Countries in Africa or South America are willing to pay double or even triple what those same goods fetch in familiar shores. This means sailing past active warzones and dealing with pirates, which can do serious damage to your ship or even steal all of your goods. And, while these countries are willing to pay high prices, they don’t have much to sell in return, making for a meager return trip or even forcing you to sail off with nothing. Even “safe” locations might be troublesome to reach due to frequent storms, reefs, or having to sail past the perilous arctic.
You see, there’s not much to do between accepting charters and waiting for your ships to arrive, so Ports of Call throws in plenty of semi-random events that require your attention. You might have to navigate a maze of reefs or dodge another ship with which you are on a collision course. You can also volunteer for such mini-games anytime you reach a port, as you can either pay to be tugged to your dock or play a top-down mini-game where you have to park the boat yourself. Each port has a unique design and it can safe a lot of money if you master the challenging controls and precise movement. On the other hand, that $5000 tugging fee starts to sound a lot better after you smash into a wall for the umpteenth time.
It’s a repetitive game with a lot of downtime to it. You take on charters, improve your reputation by running a stable business and succeeding at mini-games, and expand your operation by buying new and better ships. You can buy and sell at a ship broker, take out and repay mortgages, it’s a slow-boil of a game that’s best when watching something on the side or listening to a podcast. The game is also more fun with friends and supports multiplayer up to 4 people, which works wonderfully through Steam’s Remote Play Together feature.
The game does have some severe annoyances. The docking mini-game is inconsistent in what it will accept as a successful attempt and the “economy simulation” mode is just the same game with all the mini-games letting you automatically win, which makes it trivial to improve your reputation and dodge all tugging fees. Some random events are also aggressively common, with the most frustrating being thieves that rob your office if you don’t pause the simulation frequently enough to open the office menu, even if you have nothing to do there. These punishments can also be horribly severe in the early game. Take it from me: if you’re running out of time trying to dock your ship, it’s better to run it into a wall and pay the repair fee than to have the tugboat lads charge you an extra 300,000 because they got impatient with you.
Ports of Call won’t appeal to everybody as it’s a largely hands-off management sim, especially when in the Economy Simulation mode. It is, however, rare to find an Amiga-style game that is still so easy to run and play with your friends, both through the internet or clustered around the same computer.