And what's to be done about the food shortages in Claudevandam? Grub can be brought in by wagon train, but that won't solve the underlying problem. The reason folk are going hungry is the Spanish cancer to the south. The spreading borders of San Salvador have recently deprived my youngest town of three of its most fertile terrain squares. I see three possible solutions: I can ramp up my Liberty Bell generation (a resource that swells borders and hastens independence), I can abandon the place to the wolves and the deer, or - and this is the one I'm instinctively drawn to - I can storm across the border with a shock-force of dragoons, cannons, and infantry, reducing San Salvador to a heap of glowing embers. It's about time my troops got some battle experience. As someone - possibly Sun Tzu - once said "You can't make a Spanish omelette without killing conquistadors".
And that's just a snapshot. Every turn there's another clutch of engrossing dilemmas waiting to be resolved. If I could just achieve X, then Y and Z would be within my grasp. Just one more settler here, a new building there, an extra Founding Father (recruitable personalities that function a bit like Civ's Wonders) in my Continental Congress... The complexity is perfectly pitched. You can always see solutions, it's finding the money and the men to implement them that's the problem.
Just dealing with the Indians is a game in itself. Colonization's roaming aborigines are far more interesting than Civ's bellicose barbs. Tribes like the Sioux, Apaches and Tupi will fight beside you, trade with you, give you gifts, teach your settlers valuable skills, and provide you with manpower, if you treat them decently. Treating them decently means paying them for settlement plots, and massacring them culturally rather than physically. There's a moral choice here, but it's only, 'Do you want to be a bastard, or an utter bastard?'
Perhaps the most fascinating relationship within Civ IV: Colonization is the one between player and mother country. In most games about colonialism, distant homelands are straightforward markets and recruiting grounds. Here they fulfil those functions but there's also a darker side. Your monarch regards colonies as personal piggy banks and plunders them accordingly. The larger you grow, the more cash he'll try to squeeze out of you in import duties and 'voluntary' contributions. You start out resenting the blue-blooded bloodsucker and end-up despising him. Slowly but steadily independence turns from a dry, abstract victory condition into a burning emotional need. Sid & co. make you actively crave freedom. It's genius.
Where Civ relies on luck and alchemy to produce exciting game endings, Civ IV: Colonization shamelessly stacks the deck to ensure bloodbaths. Soon after declaring independence - something that requires the generation of a lot of Liberty Bells - an angry expeditionary force will hit your beaches like a pack of irrate... sea... err... otters. Irrate sea otters with muskets. Suddenly the loathsome king is right there in front of you in the shape of cavalry, cannons and infantry. It's another incredibly inspired touch, delicately harnessing history to inject drama and tension right at the close.
One quality Civ IV: Colonization does share with its step-sibling is its ludicrous replayability. Numerous difficulty levels, tons of game options, a random map generator, and the sheer wealth of tactics available mean this isn't one of those purchases you're going to weary of in a week or two. I played solidly for a couple of days before grinding out my first narrow victory. If the games hadn't been so thoroughly absorbing, this lack of success might have been disheartening. Perhaps Firaxis should have a provided a selection of smaller scenarios with easier goals to help people find their feet and build confidence. A few historically-inspired shorts - wipe out the Incas, rid the Caribbean of pirates, build a transcontinental road, that sort of thing - would have been most welcome.
That's about as vicious as the criticism is going to get in this review. Apart from mild annoyance at some automation hiccups (occasionally pioneers, ships, and wagon trains, seem to forget what they're supposed to be doing) and slight disappointment at the unit art (more could have been done to distinguish the four civs) I've been horribly content these last few days.
Could Firaxis have included a few more playable factions - the Brazil-bagsying Portuguese for instance? Yes. Could the devs have added some extra fibre to the combat - more stats, some representation of supply, a tactical mini-game a la Conquest of the New World or Imperialism II? They could. They could have done a lot of things, but deep changes would have risked disrupting Colonization's amazing chemistry, its exquisite equilibrium.
Cherished heirlooms need a bit of dusting and restoration now and again. What they don't need is to be 'expanded', 'improved', or 're-imagined'. Civilization IV: Colonization is great because Colonization was great. It sweeps you along in the same birchbark-canoe-on-a-raging-river manner. It keeps you away from mattress and mates just as effectively. If only more remakes were this sensitive.