Less is more in this Anno entry as Blue Byte turns back the clock.
Once I got over how ugly my budding villages were going to look if I wanted them to be efficient and profitable, Anno 1800 sunk its teeth into me. The hours flew by as I ignored its many automated suggestions that I should step away from the computer for a break. This seventh iteration of the long-running village-management series goes back to its origins, trading in the futuristic setting of the last two entries for the more traditional sails, Schnapps, and sugar cane. The change of setting doesn’t instantly make it better by itself, but it is refreshing and supports a fun real-time strategy game.
The complex and satisfying routine in Anno 1800 is built upon the creation and collection of various resources that you need to keep the inhabitants of your island colony happy. It’s a constantly evolving puzzle that plays out on three levels: Production lines, trade routes, and town layouts. Every level of technological advancement requires more ingredients, more educated workers, and more sophisticated facilities. The puzzle becomes even more complex when you add in that many of the pieces can’t be found or crafted on your starter island; that’s where trade routes come into play. Expansion is an option, but trade is a crucial mechanic for survival.
I’m guilty of getting really cute with my village layouts early on, giving my growing collection of laborers the luxury of space and symmetrical layouts that modern architects and civil engineers would be proud of. And yet, as I learned the value every bit of space has and just how important it is to build as many dwellings as possible to attract the employees I would need to man all of the many production lines I required to advance, I gradually turned into a greedy and cruel colonial power, squeezing every ounce of productivity out of claustrophobic mazes of buildings that turned into literal fire hazards. It’s a little unsettling that it was only once I embraced this cold-hearted efficiency that I started to experience the joy of rapid advancement and expansion, which feels like a dark reflection of the time period that Anno 1800’s setting is loosely based on.
I’m guilty of getting really cute with my village layouts early on.
I found myself positively hypnotized by the routine of dropping in a farm, plant, store, or other facility and running a road that connects all the way back to the harbor, which serves as every island’s hub. Along that road and the many that will be laid down after it I would place warehouses, complimentary factories, and more, all coming together to give me the tools to move up to the next rung of the economic ladder and produce goods that I can offer in trade to one or more of the AI players scattered around the map. Anno 1800 ultimately tests your vision for your budding city, and the act of breaking ground on multiple new projects while keeping your income in the green is a very different test of skill from something like getting a killstreak in a first-person shooter, but one that’s equally rewarding.
Beyond trade, your AI competitors react realistically and have a variety of personalities. Some aggressively expand with no concern for who their journey impacts, while others reach out to you when seeking out new land to break ground on. On the flipside, you can expect different types of reactions to your own movements as well. Trade can make or break your efforts, so diplomacy is key. The options to offer monetary gifts or flattery aren’t guaranteed to elicit a positive response, however, which adds to the feeling that the AI isn’t just a reactive force for you to manipulate.
For series newcomers, this isn’t an easy game even on its lowest difficulty setting, but learning from mistakes is part of the fun. Trial and error informed my layouts, trade routes, and expansion timing in each playthrough, which would propel me further and further past moments where I’d previously stalled. The higher difficulties test your understanding by giving you less money to burn and fewer refunds for tearing down areas you’ve previously built up. At its hardest, you must step into Anno 1800’s matches with a quick eye for what fits where and be thinking thousands of buildings and resources ahead before you put down your first house.
Complimenting my extreme focus on the minute details were the graphics. Anno 1800 is stunning to look at when completely zoomed out and holds up to heavy scrutiny when zoomed in as well. Flora and fauna are high quality and varied enough to not seem like the developers just used a wide brush to paint on the islands. Building textures and designs are good, too, especially the dwellings for your laborers. The production buildings don’t vary in design much, but the houses that you layout in stretches aren’t all back-to-back carbon copies.
The graphical feast that is Anno 1800 is served in a handful of ways.
There is one noticeable graphical miss regarding the water. Zoomed out, when looking at large undisturbed bodies, the water is beautiful. It glistens, gives off accurate rippling reflections, and is simply a treat to watch. When a ship passes through it or the water crashes up on the shore, though, the trick that the developers used to simulate a wake or disturbance in the water stands out in a not-so-great way. It looks like a static transparent layer that is always there, but begins to appear when water encounters another object. Against the realistic-looking water that seems to flow, its static nature stands out.
The graphical feast that is Anno 1800 is served in a handful of ways. You can play the single-player campaign or flex your management skills in a single-player or multiplayer sandbox match. Sandbox and all its custom options will be the focal point for many, but the single-player campaign was a surprisingly interesting filter that fit snug over Anno 1800’s gameplay.
The campaign begins with you stepping into the shoes of an estranged sibling who must return to the Old World when your father is accused of treason. What follows is a tale of secret societies, murder, intrigue, and redemption that unfolds over roughly 20 hours of gameplay (which, once finished, immediately switches you into Sandbox mode). It’s not an especially novel story, but it’s more than interesting enough to carry Anno 1800 forward. The world doesn’t stop spinning when these story missions come about, though, so I had to be mindful of the ongoing needs of my colony when jumping around to address them. I had to be especially conscious of the need to multitask when the second map opened up, which is where the Expeditions – a completely new addition to the Anno series – come into play.
Once Expeditions become available, you’re able to take a look at the morale of the ships you’ve made, store some supplies on the vessel you want to send away, and start a journey. It’s an event that happens off screen in between the two maps in Anno 1800, the European Old World and the South American New World. As time passes, you have to make decisions for the crew that play out like a text adventure. Should the crew attempt to sneak away from a pursuing ship or take it on for a fight? A variety of scenarios like this add to the mid-to-late game, which is already growing in complexity alongside your city, and it felt more like a welcome distraction than an overwhelming additional.
Once the two maps opened up, I gained a new appreciation for the way Anno 1800’s music changed up its instruments and melodies as I instantly switched between the two. The tunes in the Old World are fitting, somber backdrops that are amplified by occasional rain showers; The New World, on the other hand, gives off the energy of a perpetual summer filled with warm weather and fun.
If you choose for the campaign to include tutorials as part of your progress, Anno 1800 delivers an above average but incomplete job. Very basic layouts are explained over various quests and even basic elements of the UI, but the process unravels when it comes to the expansion and trade that you will need to do to survive. The diplomacy menu and trade route menu aren’t even addressed in these quests, so you have to open them up and work out the details on your own. One key misstep in my experience came when I learned that the island I started on wasn’t able to cultivate a specific resource. Eventually, I learned that the trade route map shows you what your island is capable of growing when you hover over it.
Sandbox plays out just like the campaign, including the lengthy expeditions that separate the two maps, but without the story quests and special events that color your interactions with the AI players. There’s not much to say about it beyond the fact that multiplayer gives you an opportunity to either flex your building speed against a few friends or work together to fill each others’ warehouses with goods that may not be available on your native islands. Being able to communicate in real time with one of the other inhabitants of your Anno 1800 game also leads to moments like my coordinated effort with a friend to attack an aggressive colonist with our individual fleet of ships. It ended in disaster, but it added another layer to Anno 1800’s very limited focus on battle.