It’s quite a common theme for me that when I’ve had a few drinks I start spouting off the glories of British Imperialism. This tends to involve espousing the virtues of Churchill, redcoats, tea, getting the cane out of the cupboard and using it on the bloody Frenchies and how we can all agree that this whole “experiment” of USA Independence has clearly not really worked out. This is why strategy games set in this era are something I am particularly fond of, despite a criminal lack of them. Empire: Total War is reasonable fun but beyond that the combat lacks nuance (and the sailing ship combat is so dire that it’s hard to overlook), meanwhile the seemingly fabulous Europa Universallis IV is so damned complicated that after two separate failed attempts to figure it out, I rather despair of ever getting into it.
So, imagine the sense of desire awakened in me after I learned that Anno 1800 by Blue Byte and Ubisoft. The newest instalment in a apparently long-lived series I had genuinely never heard of beforehand, set in (approximately) the Golden Age of Sail and colonialism. Plus as well as having exciting ship-to-ship combat it also is a resource-management and expansion game which might tickle the same pickle in me that Factorio did. Not as a replacement mind you, I just can’t get enough of the style at this stage… And because I love Factorio basically as much as I love the Empire the game seemed like it would be ideal for me.
Of course, I also had to put up with the fact that it’s a cocking Epic Store Exclusive in order to buy it (because I’d be damned if I bought the thing on UPlay!). I know Tim tends to beat me around the head for being irrational about this, and with GOG Galaxy 2.0 on the horizon my complaints have never been more pointless, but it still just irks me in a way I cannot put into words that I couldn’t have the thing on Steam.
In Anno, you and 3 other factions (player or AI) are competing to see who can become the biggest, baddest trading company within a fictional Empire. You each are charged with building an island settlement from the ground up into a flourishing city and economy, expanding to other islands to get new resources and even eventually out to the New World to set up distant colonies and import foreign goods. In a sense, you become much like the East India Trading Company, more or less independent but beholden to some unknown, distant Crown (which doesn’t really play any major part in the game).
From this point there are a few win conditions: eliminate all opposing factions, reach a certain number of final-tier citizens, reach a certain value of money in the bank. Even better, there are several means of going about your goals as you can subsume other factions via diplomatic means, or conquer them via economic means instead of military. Of course, you can also personally aim to be the first player to have denizens in your city of all 5 tiers of citizenry who are happy, which means massive expansion to late game and rushing to try and complete the check list of items that each tier needs in order to be fully satisfied. However, I would argue that neither of these are really the point of Anno and that a big part of the enjoyment comes from the simple act of expansion and development of your colonies. Much like Factorio, and any of these sort of engine-builders in fact, it’s about the journey not the destination.
I will say though that it is very pleasing to see a strategy game in which victory can be achieved through economic means. Normally games of this sort do have access to allied “diplomatic” victories and obviously domination victories by blowing your foes to kingdom come. But normally economic victories in strategy games aren’t really doable because how do you define when an economy has “won”? Thus the economic system in this is actually pretty damn neat in that you can buy shares in other people’s islands. This ranges from pretty expensive for newly founded colonies to unimaginably expensive for their main islands, but if it can be pulled off then you will now be receiving a chunk of that player’s income every tick. And you can keep buying the shares to eventually get to the stage where you even have the option of totally buying the island out and thus destroying your enemy without firing a shot. It’s a pretty clever solution to the problem of economic victories in other games always being so unrealistic. Unfortunately though this option also destroys all existing development on the island, but I suppose if you could keep it that would be outrageously broken.
In fact, the economy is really the biggest draw of Anno, it’s why we are all there. You start small, having to invest significant chunks of cash into your settlement and making tiny profits (or even losses) but gradually starting to add more and more onto your production tree and hauling in the big bucks.
It’s one of those games which I can’t decide whether it’s absorbing or just addictive, because the work of it is literally never done. You can switch the game on for just a quick session, determined to do one thing, and after the next three hours hours it’s still not finished because you’ve been so vastly side-tracked by the dozen other things that need your attention.
Of course, it starts off small and simple to lure you in. You need a market and a port, connected by a road. Then you need some houses near the market for some farmers. Your farmers need fish, so you need to build a fisherman, and to make clothes so you need a weaver, supplied by wool from a sheep farm. Easy peasy. For all of that though you need a couple of lumberjacks and sawmills to provide you with timber. You probably want a fire station to put out fires too. Straightforward!
Of course you probably want to keep your farmers happy as happiness reduces the chance of riots and also increases your income. So you get some potato farms so you can make schnapps and build a pub. Naturally all of this means you have to build more houses so you have the workforce to supply all of these buildings.
Then you upgrade one of your farmers to the more profitable, but more demanding “workers”. Suddenly, on top of existing demands, these people need sausages and bread and schooling. And to keep them happy you’ll have to supply them with beer and a church, plus all of these buildings mean you need clay and bricks and MORE farmers, so you have to expand and expand. Plus, most likely you need to go to another island because your starting place can’t grow the hops needed for beer. That means you need to set up a trade route which means building ships. Plus, there’s pirates in these waters so you need to protect your vulnerable trade ships with gunboats and frigates.
THEN you upgrade to Artisans. Then Engineers. Then Investors. At each stage the demands becoming increasingly complex and the production trees increasingly demanding, all while still keeping your previous and existing needs fulfilled. As well as this, keeping your various citizens “needs” supplied is challenging enough, but keeping them all happy by supplying them with luxuries as well is quite a whole new kettle of fish. On top of this you’ve also got to supply your other islands, which means expanding to the new world so you can ship stuff back like cotton, coffee, rum and gold.
And that’s not even everything you probably need to be spending at least a little of your time on with things like quests, investing in making your island pretty to attract specialists and tourists, then there’s trading with others and naturally you need to build ships of the line so you are ready for any kind of war!
PLUS of course you need to- Wait… What’s that? Your farmers are upset because you’ve run out of Schnapps AGAIN?! For FUCKS sake!
If this is starting to sound like a pretty crazy workload then you are so absolutely right. You can spend hours upon hours attempting to min-max your islands to optimise all of your production trees. Meanwhile you’ve got 6 other things all vying for your attention and so you can spend hours just micromanaging everything desperately.
This does mean that there can be something of a trade-off in how a session playing the game can feel. On one hand, you can sit down at your keyboard intending to spend maybe an hour playing and then get so drawn in and have so much fun doing so many little things that your time just vanishes. On the other hand, while you’ll have enjoyed the hours you end up playing, you’ll potentially feel frustrated because of how little progress it might feel like you’ve made as you just spent your entire time rushing around dealing with distractions and putting out fires (sometimes literally).
This is particularly true as soon as the game opens up to the New World. Now, I love the mechanics of Anno and I actually completely approve of allowing colonisation of distant islands and having to merge different economies and production trees with trade. It’s just a lot of fun.
The issue however is with how much the pace of the game basically grinds to a halt as soon as you start this. One finds oneself clicking back and forth and back and forth between your different islands and different production chains. There’s always something in demand, something not supplied correctly and something which is going wrong SOMEWHERE in your supply chain which means that actually advancing becomes more and more frustrating.
Note I say “frustrating” and not “challenging”. Because while the latter is certainly true, it starts to feel less like a good challenge and more like the game is just dicking you about as you have to re-shuffle large portions of your base to now fit in electrical plants and Universities and hospitals
And it’s certainly not intentional, this is one of those situations where you simply have to “git gud” or die trying. Except that gitting gud here gradually becomes increasingly less challenging and more just a grind. Something where multiple playthroughs might be required to really nail certain aspects.
Part of this is to do with the minutiae of every playthrough. This might be something which will lose a lot of you reading this, but frankly I feel like in some places you’re not given enough data. You are told which of your various products are increasing or decreasing on any given island. But there’s no information beyond that, and GOD help me it would be so useful to know at times. For example: a single schnapps distillery will provide schnapps for 600-odd individuals, and if you have less than this then technically you supply will be increasing but you will be told it is holding steady. So, vice versa this means that when your supply is gradually decreasing which will at some point cause problems, you might not become aware of this until the shortages actually start.
This is not even to begin talking about the ridiculous multitude of specialists who can provide small bonuses to your cities if placed in strategically located buildings, creating a perfectionist’s nightmare. Or the fact that expeditions for obtaining rare rewards are really weirdly (and sometimes even inexplicably) difficult.
Lastly, I have to add that I’m not so sure how I feel about the multiplayer. In terms of private multiplayer, if you can stomach the prospect of losing 5+ hours of work when playing against friends then you are a braver man than me. Added to this mixed bag is that you have the choice of deliberately working together from the start or accepting that you will genuinely compete which can result in some rather resentful moments. After all I imagine it somewhat takes the joy out of victory when you defeat one player knowing that unless you deliberately exclude them for the rest of the (many, many hours of) game you aren’t really going to get to continue your own expansion.
Alternatively playing online against randoms has the issue that you can bypass the above frustration because the victory conditions are essentially based on the mid-game, making reaching them much quicker. But I personally feel like this takes almost the entire purpose out of the game: the purpose being the journey towards end game.
Despite frustrations with the pace of the late-game and I think some inherent issues with the multiplayer, overall Anno succeeds in being an absolutely stellar engine-builder. There is always something to occupy your time, sometimes even too much, and its stupidly easy to just lose yourself in hour after hour of trying to perfect your islands to an obsessive degree. I love it!