Version tested: PC
There's an apt flourishing of joy at the start of a Settlers 7 map. All the sprawling empty space and untapped resources stretch lazily into the distance, the landscape rendered in gorgeous, cartoony perfection. Virgin territory, pleasant olde worlde music and the simple rules of the game lead you on to dizzy, stupid dreams.
'That's where I'll put my grain farms,' you think to yourself. 'I'll put a street of bakeries just nearby, for easy access, and the sawmills can go next to the storehouse! This settlement will be perfect! No, not at all like all the other ones.'
20 minutes and 500 addicted clicks later, you're staring at a terrible mess. Your terrible mess. See if you can figure out what to do in the following example:
There's an army on your doorstep, so you need coins to raise an army of your own. Like, right now. You currently have no coin because your coin mints have stopped working, because they have no coal. You ran out of coal ages ago, and in desperation threw up a dirty little coking industry where you'd originally planned to put your tailoring district just so you could make new coal out of your over-abundance of wood. Except your coking plants need tools before they can start working. Checking your toolmaker, you find that he's stopped working because he... has no coal.
This is the beauty of Settlers 7. While most city-builders reveal their difficulty with that slow, depressing realisation that your grand design isn't good enough, or with the sinking feeling that you've been doing something wrong all along (perhaps without even knowing what), the rules of Settlers 7 are too simple for that.
To highlight what I mean, a sheep farm takes 1 water and produces 1 wool every so often. You can watch your little shepherd shearing it and carrying it to the storehouse, if you're feeling indulgent. A weaver will then turn that 1 wool into 1 cloth. A tailor turns 1 cloth and 1 food into 1 clothes, and a trader can swap 3 clothes for 6 gold. It's all simple stuff.
And yet despite these basic, almost wholly automated systems, you're constantly fixing really satisfying problems. Almost the entire game lies in accidentally creating and identifying all these little knots in your production line that play like one big interconnected puzzle. It's a new take on the 4X game: less Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate, more Expand, Exploit, Exterminate, Except wait, balls, you're out of iron. Where on Earth did it go?
It's great fun and ungodly compelling, especially once the single-player campaign gets up to speed and begins presenting you with opponents who actually fight back.
Winning in Settlers 7 is down to a new system called Victory Points. You can still peel your opponent's regions from him one-by-one using an army and win via eradication, but an alternative has been provided for players who don't enjoy a slow, painful defeat that renders the last 10 minutes of the match pointless. Victory Points give players a grab-bag of shared objectives - have the most coins, the highest prestige level, a certain region and so on - and victory is awarded to the player who reaches a set number of Points first.
Dry as this might sound, it's fun and hugely tense. Sliders that show everyone's place on each of the Points mean you can race your opponents to certain targets, hit them where they're weak or even plan abrupt victories by snatching two or three points within a minute of one another.
Say your opponent has four of the five points required to win, and they're about to hit the 20-man mark that unlocks the Biggest Army Victory Point. You check the other points they hold; one of them's for the highest population, and you're only lagging behind by 5. Without thinking you throw up the plans for three foresters and three pig farms, and your mad little settlers fling them up just as your opponent finishes his army, thereby taking away one of his Points. Suddenly it's 4-4, and the whole game's balanced on a razor blade. What do you do? What do you protect? Can your new pigs help?
For a game with such a chipper tone and so many friendly introductory missions, it's an awesome surprise how demanding and sharp Settlers 7 can be with the flick of a difficulty setting. This is wonderful design. On Easy, you've got a relaxing, moreish world-builder. On hard, you get a fierce strategy game that's damp with adrenaline. On normal, something in between. Settlers 7's online functionality is similarly diverse; competitive multiplayer is present, but so's a "helper" function that allows confused beginners to pull veteran players into their game as voluntary advisors.
The only time the game itself sags is during the rare moments when you end up sat on your hands, waiting for something to happen. As your model villages spread across the map, the tangle of production lines becomes increasingly hard to follow, and subtle flaws that the game doesn't prepare you for will occasionally bring your entire economy crunching to a halt like a spanner left in a pair of gears.
New constructions might take an age to be built because your wood and stone has been automatically dropped off in some inconvenient, distant storehouse. Likewise, an unexpected dearth of water can take forever to be fixed - you have to place new wells, wait for them to be built, wait for extra water to be carried to a storehouse, and then finally you watch the water trickle down through your whole economy, so to speak. That there are subtleties to management is obviously a good thing, but subtleties should be there to reward advanced players, not punish everyone else.
More waiting occurs in single-player once you have a map secured and end up drumming your fingers for five minutes as your settlers amass or dispatch the resources needed for some plot-related objective. While this is rarer, it's still more than enough time to sit and reflect on how Blue Byte Software's decision to make your settlers run everywhere instead of walking was either very lucky or very smart. The sight of a settler slowly pottering along with some game-winning brick or haunch of meat might have been too much to bear.
But this is only a minor issue. Settlers 7's biggest flaw right now is actually nothing to do with the game itself, but when you can play it. At the time of writing the game's servers are still being brought down every weekend by a weight of traffic that leaves you unable to even play Settlers 7's single-player for hours at a time.
Unbelievably, I'm not referring to Ubisoft's DRM servers here, which seem to have stabilised since their ill-fated launch and gave me no trouble. There is, in fact, a second set of servers unique to Settlers 7 which keep track of your profile, campaign progression, stats and other vital services like achievements you can post directly onto your Facebook account, and these are the servers which are sporadically getting brought tumbling down. At the time of writing this still hasn't been fixed.
That said, this is far too polished and clever a game to let a stupid problem like this stop me from recommending it. If you're looking for a more sporty, addictive alternative to Anno 1404, or a just worthy continuation of the Settlers series, you've absolutely found it.
8 / 10