Anno 1701

18The problem with cities is that they sprawl, getting big and messy. The challenge of city builder games is keeping up with that inevitable sprawl. It’s one thing to watch a few settlers tending a farm and maybe a weaver’s hut. Perhaps they want a church, or to go to school. How cute. But fast-forward a few thousand people and a handful of tech levels. Now you’re dealing with a new set of problems on a whole different scale, with a new set of rules. The interface and graphics engine have to accomplish something else entirely. It might as well be a different game.

1701 A.D. does the first game very well—the one about the villagers with a weaver’s hut who want a church. It has scads of charm and personality, and even a shrewd island gameplay model. You’re in an archipelago, where certain goods only come from certain islands. Getting those goods begins as a simple matter of automating a ship to sell your excess lumber to the trader and then to swing by and pick up some tobacco from your second colony. This is the cute early stage of 1701. It holds up for a while as a quaint 18th-century version of Transport Tycoon.

But, somewhere north of an hour into any given game, 1701 stops getting by on cute. There’s no way to manage resources other than as hard numbers. Yeah, sure, I have “20 food†in my warehouse, but why do I keep running out? How much is being eaten, and how quickly? There’s no convenient way to monitor supply and demand, which makes trading more difficult. Trade is a lag-intensive operation (these ships are awfully slow), so it’s hard to get a bead on how much of what needs to go where. Unlike Caesar IV, which lets you specify that anything over a certain amount is to be traded, 1701 only deals in absolute numbers. Is 10 honey enough? Why can’t I tell my ship to wait until there are 20? Or is 20 too many? As a result, the Transport Tycoon part of 1701 requires constant attention and tweaking. The automated trading is no such thing.

There are long stretches of time during which nothing happens. The economy is hands off once you’ve plopped down your buildings—though, ironically, your tax rate is hands on. To optimize your gold, which is the main resource, you need to click on various houses to set a little needle on a continually shifting scale of happiness levels. Happiness is largely a matter of how upwardly mobile your citizens are, which results in a shifting scale of resource demand. Your economy may suddenly implode when you don’t have enough chocolate, because you were busy building up your alcohol before you could get ready for the inevitable chocolate demand. And woe to the colony that has to rebuild after some calamity. There’s no way to get an overview of your economy. What were those smoking ruins before they were destroyed? What’s missing? Where are my cattle farms? Do I have enough ore smelters?

Once you’ve resigned yourself to the vagaries of this obtuse economy with its bad interface, there’s a lot to see and enjoy in 1701. The graphics engine is nothing if not lush, perfectly suited to the sights this game needs to show you: tropical islands, fancy water effects, dramatic disasters, ships sailing to and fro, detailed, ornate cities, a smattering of bustling citizens, the occasional marching band, and even fauna. Hey, look, it’s a gorilla! Why couldn’t Sid Meier’s Railroads look this good and run this smoothly?

8There’s a quaint worldview of natives as people you trade with until they like you enough to give you a secret power. The Queen is a benevolent overlord who will give you independence as a victory condition if you can make a fancy enough island with a palace. There are pirates, who are nuisances at first. They eventually start messing with your trading ships, which means you have to build warship escorts. Armies are silly diversions that you’ll probably want to avoid if you can help it. As is typical of city builders, combat is mainly a hands-off resource sink.

Anno 1701 is a cute game until it isn’t, so enjoy it while you can. With flexible set-up options, cleverly scripted scenarios, and even multiplayer support (not that it’s any good multiplayer), these islands are a great place to visit. You just wouldn’t want to live there on a long term basis.

System Requirements: Pentium IV 2.2 GHz, 512 MB RAM, 2.2 GB HDD, 64 MB Video, WinXP

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