"You've been playing for two hours without a break. Don't you want to stretch your legs for a bit?"
Mums will approve of the way this classy settle-and-trade strategy game watches for signs of chronic addiction then dispenses subtle health warnings via in-game characters. Me, I'd usually condemn this kind of presumptuous nannying, but in Anno 1701's case I think it's actually a sensible precaution. This is dangerously absorbing entertainment - DVT in a DVD case.
Here's how Related Designs keeps you superglued to your seat. First they supply a cute little galleon and a big randomly-generated map veiled in fog. You guide the ship around the map until you find an island that looks suitable for settlement. Using the contents of your sloshing hold, you erect a coastal warehouse, along with some fishermen's cottages and woodsmen's huts. A few minutes later there are enough gathered materials to construct a settlement centre and a huddle of thatched hovels. The latter structures quickly fill with pioneers - the lowliest of the game's five social classes. Eventually these villagers begin to grumble about the lack of churches and cosy clothes so you plonk down a chapel, a couple of sheep farms and a weaver's house.
Spool on maybe twenty minutes. You've swollen your pioneer population by erecting more housing; you've kept them happy by meeting their modest needs. Now, spontaneously, a few of the rude log homes morph into sturdy brick properties. Pioneers turn into settlers - the next class on the ladder. This change unlocks new building types like mines, foundries, and brickworks. It also dumps new interesting challenges into your lap. The settlers want schools for their sprogs, and baccy and beer for themselves. Glancing at the fertility icons at the top of the screen (different for every island) you realise that your chosen homeland has the perfect soil and climate for hop and cocoa cultivation, but there isn't a cat in hell's chance of ever starting a viable tobacco plantation. What's to be done?
You try buying golden virginia from the trader that periodically ties up at the warehouse. This silences the moaners for a while but eats up piles of precious cash. Slowly it dawns on you that you're going to have to expand. Into the barnacled belly of the bobbing Black Pig (you can name your own ships) go tools, bricks, and timber. A few minutes later these goods are being transformed into a warehouse and a tobacco farm on the nearby island of St. Bruno (you can name your own islands too). With the help of the overview map, Black Pig is soon toiling back and forth with cargos of aromatic tobacco leaves. Snout shortage solved!
Weeping and whaling
Now let's skip forward an hour - hang it all, let's skip forward two hours. The game world has changed dramatically. The brave Black Pig is resting on the seabed after a run-in with some buccaneers (boohoo). In her place are a busy fleet of cannon-crammed warships (one of which is Black Pig II) and roomy trade vessels. Most of these are in constant motion ploughing to-and-fro on automated voyages between friendly islands. There, for example, is the Rainbow Warrior returning from Humpback Haven with a hold full of whale oil (the citizen class in your thriving capital need it for their lamps) There's the good ship Bumble (plus escort) heading out to Oxrock - a port belonging to an AI trading partner - with a load of delicious honey. On her way back she will stop off at three separate ports to pick up marble slabs, ivory, and cannons.
You survey the pleasing cobweb of trade routes for a few moments and then click back to your capital. Despite having been ravaged by both fire and hurricanes in the last hour, it's looking remarkably impressive. There are now four types of dwellings on show, plus garrisons, theatres, universities, and all manner of trade and industrial buildings. In the central square a visiting minstrel troupe is raising the spirits of an enthusiastic crowd. Down by the docks troops gather in readiness for an imminent invasion (Francois Bataille's vast sugar-cane plantations on the neighbouring island have proved too tempting). Nearby a doctor does his rounds on a primitive pedal-less bicycle.
Enough idle sightseeing. That last shipment of confectionery from Peppermint Bay should have pushed your merchant's contentment levels up, meaning you can nudge their tax slider a little higher without fear of complaints. Before you go off to war you'd planned to add a couple of cannon towers to your harbour, and research traitors at your school-for-skulduggery - the lodge house. Oh yes, you also meant shift iron production from Skull Island to Cabatu, complete that salvage mission you accepted from that Free Trader chappy, and... and... Before you know it...
"You've been playing solidly now for four hours. If you don't take a break soon all the blood in your body will pool in your feet causing your shoes to explode."
Okay, that message I did make up; hopefully you get the point though. Anno 1701's fishhooks have big spiny barbs on them. The incredibly rich economics, the colourful world and varied opposition combine to produce the most engrossing and atmospheric historical management title I've played in years. That mutually supporting islands feature is that very rare thing in games design - a fresh, clever, well-executed idea. None of the trio of Rome-based city-builders we've recently had to endure boasted anything half as inspired.
None of them looked or sounded this attractive either. Whether you're peering down through scudding clouds at a sprawling port, or close to the ground on an uninhabited island watching limpid waves lap and crabs caper, the view tends to be pleasing. Other strategy titles have done lava-vomiting volcanoes slightly better, but no one can compete with RD's awesome twisters. Watching one of these swirling pillars of pandemonium weave across the ocean, picking up sharks and barques as it goes, is always impressive. When they turn brown on making landfall and start ripping-up buildings, trees, and farms you just have to stop and spectate.
Bring lots of limes
What about replayability then? The quartet of tutorials and ten standalone missions might just see you through a long weekend, but there are eons of entertainment in the configurable 'continuous play' mode. Map styles, AI opponent personalities, starting and victory conditions... almost everything can be manually adjusted to ensure a distinctive game. Unfortunately I can't tell you much about the four-person multi-player at present; at the time of writing the servers are as deserted as pirate temperance rallies. Given the richness of though single-player, the time-consuming nature of settlement development, and the relatively primitive military element, I'd be surprised if they ever got that busy.
Predictably, warfare is one of Anno 1701's least impressive components. Limited unit choices, crowded battlefields, and relatively crude AI mean victories usually say more about your army size than your tactical flair. At sea things are little better, simplistic damage models meaning the tub with most guns and the longest health bar generally prevails. If RD had only poached a few choice naval notions from the likes of Sid Meier's Pirates! and Imperial Glory (ideas like wind direction, ramming, boarding and ship capture for instance) their creation would have been a sure-fire 8 rather than just a strong 7.
Minor interface issues also gnaw away at the score. Road building is unnecessarily fiddly as is troop embarkation from cluttered ports. If there is a way to place two structures of the same kind without reselecting the building type between each placement then I couldn't find it. Considering the number of houses required for an average city this is an aggravating oversight.
Well, I think I'm about done with the grumbling and the enthusing. What you've got here is a deep, distinctive game that should satisfy all but the most slaughter-obsessed strategy gamers, and cause deep vein blood clots the size of turtle eggs in all but the most fidgety and small-bladdered. What more could you possibly ask for?