The more cities I build, parks I run and businesses I manage it becomes clearer and clearer that I should never be allowed in a position of power. Somehow my ventures always end up in flames, at least three dead donkeys and half the population having been abducted by aliens. Long story. Still, despite my absolute uselessness at planning a city I still love the city-builder genre. I get an immense sense of pride when I finally get everything running just right. So here we are with Anno 1800, the latest in the long-running series. But does it let me cock things up in new and exciting ways?
Before we go any further, though, you need to know that I’m coming at this from the perspective of an Anno newcomer. I’ve never touched the series before, and thus if you’re a die-hard fan of Anno looking for a detailed comparison between Anno 1800 and its predecessors then this isn’t the review for you. Sorry!
There’s a lengthy campaign in Anno 1800 that you can easily sink 10-30 hours into, depending on how quickly you blast through the objectives. It follows the story of two siblings whose father was accused of treason and found dead in his cell. Naturally events are not what they initially seem to be and thus begins a tale of family, betrayals and new allies. In the middle of it all you have to set up a whole new island in the name of the Queen, earn favor and try to figure everything out.
The campaign serves as a tutorial of sorts, though it does miss out some key ideas and mechanics. To my surprise I found myself enjoying the simple storyline. Sure, it’s nothing special, has no real characters to speak of and has the worst lip-syncing seen outside of a teenage girl’s Youtube channel, but for a game in this genre it’s surprisingly strong stuff.
At first Anno 1800 feels pretty much like any other city-builder, except it’s gorgeous to look at. A quick zoom in reveals heaps of detail, from people wandering the streets to the hustle and bustle of a marketplace or pub. There’s even a first-person mode that lets you walk around your city, complete with the sound of footsteps. And even if you turn the settings down it still manages to look rather pretty.
Things begin as you might expect; a few houses connected to the Harbor via roads, a logging camp for wood and a timber mill to start pumping out the planks needed for more basic structures. Anno 1800 continues this way, the steady growth of your city bringing with it a need for more complex production chains. To make cannons to produce a ship, for example, you’ll need iron and coal mines where people can slave away in the dark, a furnace to melt the iron down, a steelworks and finally a weapon factory. Each of these have different construction needs, too. Finally, each one produces resources and goods at different rates, so to get the most of your production line you may need to double up on certain buildings. Throughout it all you’ll need to expand your city in order to provide enough people to produce everything.
Planning everything out can sometimes be fiddly in city-building games, which is why I was delighted by Anno 1800’s blueprint mode which lets you place down as many buildings as you like without committing to them. This lets you design entire cities from the opening minutes of the game. As much as I love this genre my cities often end up being sprawling messes because I’m terrible at planning ahead. I had planned to turn chunks of land into housing but that was forgotten and they got used for other things. Blueprint mode is the perfect answer to this.
In some ways Anno 1800 feels wonderfully streamlined compared to other games in the genre. Unlike Tropico 6 there’s no need to worry about making sure people are close to their jobs, for example, nor do you have to consider public transportation routes. Hell, even unemployment isn’t a major problem. You can have as many excess workers as you like milling around, provided you have means to meet their requirements. Anno 1800 doesn’t try to simulate every individual person in a colony, and instead treats each group of people as a single entity. If you run out of beer then it isn’t just Tom the Baker whose going to be pissed off, it’s going to be everyone.
People are still very much at the centre of the game, though. Things kick off with simple farmers but if their basic needs for fish, schnapps and clothes are met, and they’re happy, then farmer’s residences can be upgraded to workers. These workers bring access to more types of buildings. However, they also have extra needs such as beer and sausages. Meet those needs and you can again upgrade workers to Artisans. And yes, they have more needs too: canned foods, sewing machines and more. The trick is keeping your workforce balanced because you still need farmers to tend crops, workers to forge steel and Artisans to…er, artisan?
Its by successfully providing basic and luxury goods to your ungrateful flesh-bag citizens that you generate money with which to expand further and further. If your supply of something fails, though, you’ll notice the income dropping faster than a Sumo Wrestler off a cliff. Apparently your citizens are all too happy to leave the city if they aren’t getting enough sausage or if you briefly run out of sewing machines. Ensuring that you’re bolstering your basic infrastructure when adding more housing is key.
But some things can’t be grown or produced locally. Your island might not support the growth of hops, and thus beer has to be bought in from neighbouring islands. This is usually what sparks the urge to settle a new island whereupon it all starts over again. Your treasury is a universal constant but other than that your new island is a separate entity. This is where your forays into setting up trade routes may begin. Ships can be assigned to buy and sell goods with the A.I. characters, but you can also have them ferry goods between your own islands. Before long you’ll have a complex network of shipping routes ferrying rum, fur coats and fancy items across the seas.
Things get more complicated when the game introduces The New World, a separate map with its own islands, a new set of citizen types, buildings and goods to produce. Trade routes can again be set up between this new area and the old, though travel times are much longer. Finally, the rum that your first island wanted can be gotten thanks to the sugar plantations of The New World. Setting all of this up can feel like a real challenge, but once everything is running smoothly there’s a strong sense of pride to be found.
Once the money is flowing you can always look to start grabbing shares in your competition’s islands. Each individual island has five shares and their value is determined by the local economy. Buy a share and you’ll damage diplomatic relationships with the owner, sure, but in return you get an extra chunk of income. Buy all five shares and you can buy the island outright, tossing the opposition to the curb and taking over all the existing infrastructure. In this way you can get rid of pesky A.I. without declaring war. Capitalism, people!
Speaking of which, building a navy is a big part of the game. We’ve already covered setting up trade routes, but you can also spend time and resources to build frigates, gunboats and massive ships of the line. These are handy for dealing with pirates who may seek to raid your trade vessels. You can also just sell them if you prefer with a ship of the line fetching about $50,000, a good chunk of cash.
I mentioned diplomacy a few paragraphs back so lets talk about that briefly. I say briefly because there’s no much depth to that side of the game. You can compliment A.I. players or give them gifts, or you can insult them or declare war. They’ll also approve of or dislike things you do, so choosing to alter the local newspaper might not go down well with the larger world. If your status is good enough a trade agreement can be reached, opening up more opportunity for turning a profit. And if its really good you can agree upon an alliance.
Somehow there’s even a light loot game jammed into all of this. From ship wreckage, other players and for completing missions you can acquire various bits of gear that can be slotted into special buildings or onto ships. These can bump up productivity or add self repairing to a warship. Gathering up the best stuff is quite satisfying, like you’re a posh collector of fine arts.
These bits of gear include items for your zoo and museum, yet another layer Anno 1800 has. Tourism isn’t as much of a focus as in something like the Tropico series, but you can still build a nice zoo and museum to attract visitors to your islands who will then spend some cash. If you want you can even specialize an island for this by avoiding industrial factories and other eyesores. Sadly positioning housing well away from farms and factories doesn’t seem to have any impact. A factory spewing smoke will have the same negative effect on island beauty wherever it may be.
And that’s not even mentioning the expeditions that you can send ships on. Occasionally a character will pop up offering new expeditions to acquire zoo animals or relics for your museum or other perhaps even special citizens. To go on an expedition you just have to assign a ship and then watch it sail off into the distance. It’ll probably fail, mind you. You see, on the expedition screen you’ll see things that will most likely be needed on the mission: diplomacy, or firepower, or a high chance of needing to hunt. To help out with this you can equip various bits of gear, plus chuck some food on the boat to help with morale.
Okay, once the ship has been successfully shoved off into the big wide ocean it can be instantly forgotten about. For the most part it requires no oversight. That is, until the captain pops up on your screen with a predicament. Your vessel can come across numerous situations which will appear as chunks of text. Perhaps there are some pirates hunting the ship down, or maybe you’ve encountered a small village or whatever. You’ll be presented with a few choices on how to handle the issue. Depending on your ship and the gear you equipped it with certain choices will have a much higher chance of success. Regardless of how things play out after each event your crew will take a morale hit, simply due to the rigours of the expedition. If morale hits zero bad things will happen, so sending the ship home is always an option. But you can also use rations from the ship to massively reduce the morale hit.
Aside from an example in the campaign these expeditions are entirely optional pieces of Anno 1800. It’s an extra layer of gameplay that fits neatly within everything else yet never needs to be touched if you’d rather focus on building your islands up.
Speaking of optional stuff, you can pick up various quests along the way. A.I. players will occasionally offer you missions to escort their ships or deliver a crap-load of a specific resource like sails. Doing these typically nets you some extra cash, plus it’ll improve your relationship with the quest giver. Meanwhile, in settlements your people will occasionally ask for things like taking a picture of a wedding or finding five random alligators that are roaming the streets. Yes, that’s an actual thing that pops up.
Sadly the quests are one of Anno 1800’s weaker elements. An escort mission means nothing more than assigning a ship or two to the vessel needing protection and then forgetting about it. Finding five random alligators or some woman’s husband is no more exciting than scanning the streets then clicking on a few things. Meanwhile, the constant needs and demands of running multiple cities continue to churn away in the background while you stare at a street because you can’t find that lost sodding alligator.
The biggest flaw within Anno 1800 is one that the developers are already working on. On the whole the game is a bit crap at giving you the information you need to solve problems. A glance at a warehouse, for example, will let you see whether a particular item is stable, decreasing or increasing. That’s fine if all you need is to know if you outputting enough beer, but for setting up trade routes it’s incredibly vague. How much beer can I export? I have no idea because I don’t know how much excess I’m producing nor the amount my city actually needs. Likewise, if you upgrade a few buildings you can suddenly find income dropping like a stone because now Schnapps production isn’t high enough. Again, there’s no way to figure that out beforehand and have the right infrastructure in place.
Still, while the lack of detailed information did lead to a few crazy moments where my entire economy suddenly collapsed like a tower of cards that had been piece together by the local drunk, for the most part I was able to work around it and enjoy Anno 1800 thoroughly. Indeed, I might put this up there with the likes of Cities Skylines as one of the best city-builders around. It really is that good, even if it doesn’t do anything particularly new or ground-breaking. I was invested in planning out my islands, in setting up lucrative trade routes and buying up competitor’s shares. I really, really love this freaking game and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.
4 out of 5