As a child, Peter Levius would sit in his local public library, enthralled by the tales of exploration, strange creatures and undiscovered lands that lined the dusty racks. Growing up in Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia, he found escapism in the imaginative leaps made by those to whom the world was marked by a sense of the mythical and fabulous.
At home he spent hours exploring and trading in the limitless universe of Elite on his Didaktik M, a socialist clone of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It's this child-like sense of adventure that fuels Levius' debut game, Ancient Trader, a little gem that popped up unheralded on Xbox Live Indie Games recently. It's a real discovery.
Ancient Trader is a wind-powered strategy game that plays out on a crinkled, sepia-toned map of real cartographic beauty. You navigate a little galleon ship across the ocean, puffy fog clouds parting to uncover new lands and ports at which you can trade tea, spices and fruit.
As you ply the waters, buying low at one port to sell high at another, you'll encounter rival traders, monsters and mythical beasts intent on eating away at your profits. These battles take place according to a simple card game, a slightly enhanced rock, paper, scissors affair that, while not the deepest, offers some strategic scope.
Raise enough gold and you can invest it in upgrades, increasing the size of your hold, the speed of your ship or the power of your weapon cards. Progress far enough and you'll discover the locations of three artifacts. Raise funds to buy them before your enemies, reveal the location of an ancient guardian, and defeat it to win the game. Simple.
It's exactly this simplicity that constitutes one of the game's great strengths. It's a straight-forward, accessible experience with clearly defined rules and goals, perfectly realised within its own confines. Compared to its inspirations - Levius cites Elite and Advance Wars as influences - it is massively limited, but it doesn't seek to compete. It is its own game, a lovingly crafted little gem.
There are an impressive amount of features too, for such an unassuming game. There's a whole raft of difficulty settings and options, as well as online and offline multiplayer (though unless you have friends with the game, don't expect to find strangers to play with, the servers are empty). The only disappointment is the lack of an online scoreboard, which is to the detriment of the game's replayability.
But it's that game map that really shines. Alive with character, it's an animated, ink-scrawled masterpiece of bobbing ships, topographical islands and incidental details. It has a sense of place that rivals even the most fully-realised of AAA 3D environments, testament to Levius' art-direction and Petr Vcelka's beautiful line drawings. Its utterly gorgeous.
XBLIG is often criticised for being a hive of massage apps and terrible games, yet it's not so different to your local game store. Wander up and down the rows and you'll see crap game after crap game. The only difference is the huge network of sites, mags, shows and guides to help you sort the wheat from the chaff. XBLIG has few such resources. Even Xbox Live's own guides are woefully ineffective. So dig around a little, have a look and, if you're lucky you might just find buried treasure like Peter Levius' Ancient Trader, a game for the daydreaming child in all of us.