Anno 1800 Review
Anno 1800 is the latest in a long-running series of strategic city-builders that has been going since the late 90's, with settings ranging from the 16th century to the distant future. I know this because I looked it up on the internet, not from personal experience. That is because Anno 1800 is my first real foray into the long-running franchise, so this review is from the perspective of a total newcomer. If you are looking for detailed comparisons about how 1800 stacks up to its many predecessors, you will not find that here. Instead the review will focus on the experience of jumping into a well-established formula without any real prior knowledge of the series.
As the name suggests, Anno 1800 takes place during the 19th century, and has you building up a trade empire by means of colonizing islands, trading with other companies and advancing through industrialization. This vague premise applies to pretty much the entire game, though the campaign mode that mainly serves as an extended tutorial has a bit more narrative context. You take the role of a man or woman whose father recently passed away, with his lands going to your conniving uncle, and you starting your own trading company to repay some debts and re-establish your family's wealth. The narrative is serviceable but rather bland, with sometimes annoying and over-the-top voice acting undermining the attempt at a fairly straight-faced story.
Fortunately, the campaign does succeed at easing you into what may seem at first like a rather intimidating game in terms of depth and complexity. Story objectives typically align with advancing your empire in a way that gives you purpose and direction that isn't immediately present in the much more robust and flexible sandbox mode, which I will get to later. Whether playing through the campaign or in sandbox mode, the early stages of Anno 1800 are simple enough; you start out on an empty island with a small trading post, and put down roads, houses, and basic infrastructure to feed, clothe and entertain your initially agricultural community. You will have plenty of time to zoom in and watch your village's people going about their day. Everything is rather calm and peaceful.
Once you have a big enough population and the farmers have everything they need, if you want to expand your company, you will need to start upgrading farm houses to larger worker housing. This will let you gain access to mining that lets you produce bricks for better roads and advanced structures, as well as steel for weapons and ships. Of course, to keep your workers content, you will also need to invest in schools, churches, and a police force to prevent riots, as well as production chains for beer and sausages which your workers will consume in great quantities. At this stage, you will probably realize that your starting island only has fertility and ore deposits to supply some of the resources you need.
And so you load up one of your ships with supplies and set off to find another island that looks suitable, and once found, start a new supporting settlement to produce the missing resources. Once you have resource production up and running in the secondary settlement, you can set up a trade route that has ships moving resources from your new settlement to your main island. Alternatively, you can attempt to enter diplomatic relations with one of the AI companies that are growing and expanding in much the same way that you are, and obtain a trade agreement that can be beneficial to both parties. Various AI faction leaders have different personalities and will require their own approaches to improve relations.
Only at this juncture of setting up secondary colonies and trade routes does the overall picture of Anno 1800 start to come into focus. The core loop of the game involves expanding the size of your empire while also advancing through technology tiers driven by supporting increasingly demanding but also well-educated and trained classes of citizens. Each tier of your empire's advancement comes with another class of people and access to new technologies. You must satisfy every need of a class of citizens before you can advance to the next tier. Building these technologies and supplying the increasingly demanding population involves continually expanding to new islands for access to different resources. You will also need increasingly elaborate trade routes and production chains, and you will also need to build ships to populate the trade routes, and bigger ships with guns to defend the trade routes against pirates and rival factions.
The genius of Anno 1800 is that it makes understanding and going through this process of slow, steady advancement surprisingly straightforward. This is mostly achieved through excellent user interface design, and the fact that the early stages of your civilization are relatively simple, with complexity being added gradually enough that it is very digestible, until you find yourself worrying about electricity production and railway systems on top of a dozen other spinning plates. Most goods needed to advance or satisfy your population are obtained through supply chains, and the user interface clearly lays out exactly which buildings you need, and exactly how many and what type of people you need to run them. If your people are unhappy, it is always easy to figure out what the problem is and how to resolve it.
One of the most interesting design choices is that every class of people in your society remain useful; for example, it will be the worker class who demand beer and will do the brewing, but you still need farmers to grow the hops and wheat. Thanks to the brilliant UI and gradual pace of progression, learning how to play Anno 1800 ended up being a joy rather than a chore, and the prospect of starting fresh is enticing as you apply knowledge from later-game stages to your early game plans and building layouts.
As you continue further into the technology progression of your empire, more layers of complexity emerge. Once your main city gets big enough, it will start to attract tourists who become an important source of income. However, certain building types reduce the attractiveness of your settlements. If your island is full of pig farms, slaughter houses and polluting factories, you will get far less visitors. At this point, you can start to think about moving unsightly production lines to smaller satellite settlements, while also building zoos, museums and parks to attract further visitors who might include production-optimizing specialists. Of course, you will also need to find animals and artifacts to populate these structures.
These are among the many special items you obtain in Anno 1800 that serve a variety of purposes. If you need to improve your diplomatic relations with another company, or earn a bit of extra cash, you can complete some basic quests. These typically involve picking up items and delivering them to another part of the map with one of your ships, or escorting an AI ship through potentially dangerous waters. The ship combat is very simplistic; you just click your ships around and order them to attack enemy ships RTS-style, but it serves its purpose and the skirmishes are fun to watch. Less enjoyable are 'puzzle' quests that involve zooming in over a city or island and finding people or animals, which can become quite tedious in larger towns or when searching heavily forested areas. The special items obtained will typically provide bonuses to production rates if equipped in certain buildings, or improvements to your ships which will have a couple of slots for special items, as well as the aforementioned animals and artifacts for your museums and zoos.
Eventually, you will gain the opportunity to send ships on expeditions, the most important of which will let you gain access to an entire new region referred to as The New World, another map of islands that are tropical rather than the Northern European archipelago of the starting Old World location. To continue advancing your main city, you must establish a settlement in the New World for producing certain resources and commodities such as rum and coffee; the production chains and structures you will create in the New World are entirely separate from those in the starting location. You can easily switch between both regions at any time, and can set up trade routes between them, though it takes ships a much longer time to traverse between regions.
If there is one aspect of Anno 1800's many systems that is a bit unintuitive, it would be how the economy and job market works. Income is generated from selling excess resources, and from taxing your population. What I found a bit surprising is that you don't need to worry about unemployment; even if you have a massive surplus of workers, they will generate tax all the same. Any kind of production structure will have a maintenance cost that reduces your income, so there is no reason not to have a huge surplus of workers at any time which struck me as slightly odd. Though you can force your workers to increase productivity of specific resources and commodities at the cost of happiness, you cannot alter tax rates.
Once you get through the eight or so hour story mode and have a handle on how everything works, you will want to venture into the Sandbox mode, which is where the real meat of the game lies. Here you can customize your starting and victory conditions, which might limit your initial resources, reduce traders present on the map, or make it so you don't get refunds when destroying buildings, among many other tweakable options. You can effectively make things as easy or difficult for yourself as you like. Different victory conditions include building late-game structures called monuments, obtaining a certain amount of money, having a certain size population or creating diplomatic alliances with all other companies in a given game. The maps in sandbox mode are randomly generated, which further adds to replay value.
Impressively, all of the sandbox options and more also carry over into the game's multiplayer mode. This allows up to four players to establish separate competing or co-operating trade empires in the same instance. I found the multiplayer worked well, though interactions between players are limited to the same types of interactions that you can have with AI factions in singleplayer, namely trading and hostile actions with ships. Playing with friends allows the host to save the game so you can resume playing at a later time, which is definitely the way to go since you can spend a lot of hours on a single empire. If you so desire there is also a quick match mode that will match you to other random players with pre-set victory conditions and no AI competitors, that works well enough if you are looking for some less predictable competition. Another multiplayer mode is on the way for free that will let players co-operate to build a single empire, but it is not yet available.
Visually, Anno 1800 is very pleasant, with islands and towns looking picturesque from a zoomed-out perspective, and full of detail and life when zoomed in. You will see your towns-people working and going about their day, while wildlife roams around areas you have not yet built up. Occasional rain storms will blow through, while smoke and pollution pours out of factories, temporarily darkening the otherwise cheery atmosphere. The water looks particularly gorgeous and might make you want to go for a swim. The game ran well for the most part, though I did find the framerate start to drop when focusing on densely built-up areas on the highest settings in the later stages of my cities.
The audio side of things is also generally solid, aside from the repetitive and cloying voice lines spouted by advisors when you have more guidance turned on, and workers when you select certain building types. The gentle bustle of a city is audible over urban areas, while the sound of ships cannons and cannon-balls impacting on their targets helps elevate the intensity of battles. The soundtrack is mostly serene and pleasant, accentuating the relaxing nature of the game, ramping up during dramatic moments such as fire outbreaks and battles.
Despite some trepidation on my part going into a complex and well established strategy franchise in a late entry, I found the experience of getting into Anno 1800 very welcoming and enjoyable. Hours melted away as I became engrossed and invested in each successive empire, with the pace of new technologies and structures always providing immediate and distant goals to work towards, even though the story of the campaign mode doesn't quite manage the same. If you have any proclivity towards city builders or strategy games, Anno 1800 comes highly recommended.