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AD 1701

My brother-in-law Stan, knowing I enjoy games, often invites me down to see his latest, usually prefaced by words to the effect of “I think you’ll really like this one.” Usually he’s wrong. Stan is into shooters and I’m not, so I rarely appreciate even the coolest selection of explosions. Conversely, Stan isn’t into empire building and management sims, so he doesn’t always appreciate the differences between a wonderful title and one that merely goes through the motions. So, while he’s slowly caught on that I don’t (usually) like shooters and do (usually) like spreadsheet games, “I think you’ll really like this one” means precisely zero.

So I owe him something of an apology for dismissing his estimation of A.D. 1701, which, now that I’ve taken the trouble of borrowing it, is proving one of the most enjoyable titles I’ve tried in a long time—after Civ4:BTS, maybe in the best in a decade. Not that 1701 is a game everyone should try, just that it addresses my particular tastes admirably well. Everything I loved about the city-builder series (Caesar, Pharaoh, Zeus, Emperor) is here. You must found a colony and cause it to thrive by providing its citizens with an ever-expanding list of goods and services. Each new set of goods and services you offer causes your citizens spontaneously to improve their houses, raising tax revenues and opening new building options, most of which consist of what you’ll need for the next set of improvements.

Providing all these goods requires a network of shipping lanes (and, to a lesser extent, roads) linking raw materials to factories to consumers, and with every expansion you’ll need to keep an eye on your treasury. Military conflict is likely at the hardest difficulty levels, but the military portion of the game is shallow, and war exists in the game primarily as a crude sort of time limit, forcing you to develop at a reasonable pace instead of just puttering about. Similarly, there’s a bit of diplomacy: you’ll need to woo the colonial third world for access to exotica, and you’ll want to stay in the good graces of the queen by paying periodic tribute (at least until you can win your independence on the battlefield, though you can win simply by paying enough tribute), and you can try to butter up the pirates, but making friends is also almost automatically a byproduct of trade and profit. Winning is all about setting up an efficient trade network. And I love setting up efficient trade networks.

1701 has a distinctly German feel. The graphics and theme are of the romanticized late-Renaissance style favored by so many German board games, and the tone is incredibly, comedically pacifist for a game that includes troops and fleets and colonial expansion. Wars of aggression are permitted but unrewarding. In stark contrast to the colonial conquests of history, you’re expected to build a profitable mutual respect with the non-Europeans.. Your European rivals are all apple-cheeked smiles by default; only one will initiate a war, and all will seek peace at first opportunity. You might need to fight, to protect your trade network from pirates or the militant Igor, but the game rewards peaceful co-existence, and the most aggressive behavior you’ll want to employ is snatching up key islands before your neighbors do, starving them of vital goods.

(That early land grab is the most tense and vicious part of the game. You haven’t enough wood and tools to build all the territory-marking markets and ports you’ll want, nor the ships to haul them there, and the expense of maintaining such as you do build can get steep. You can be pretty sure of getting what you absolutely need, but stringing together the specific islands you’d prefer is harder, and monopolizing a vital good harder still. Your opponents’ stupidity actually makes the job more difficult: lacking any sense of geometry or geography, they’ll engage in a kind of kamikaze attack, cheerfully building on useless scraps of coastline in ways that disrupt your game vis-a-vis the other opponents, even though doing so is a catastrophic waste. Battles later in the game between forces you can equip and replace are a walk in the park measured against the land grab.)

The interface is generally pretty good—once you understand it. That’s a bigger hurdle than it should be. Criminally poor documentation makes the first game or two a matter of stumbling about, playing catch-up with yourself as you try to figure out why, for example, the tobacco industry you built half an hour ago when you needed it is still broken well after you’ve built a shipwright dependent on a tobacco-consuming population. Chances are you’ve missed a tiny little button somewhere. “Ohhh! That slider bar means how many goods to reserve for my own use! I thought it was how many to sell!” “Hey: this tiny little button down in the corner lets you upgrade a market!” “I didn’t know you could simply shut buildings down. Man, that’s way better than destroying them to save on expenses.” But again, once you do understand it, the interface is pretty good, allowing you to micromanage the current challenge until it’s set up to your satisfaction, then allowing you to automate and forget it. Trade routes can be automated, taxes set easily to an optimum, limited mineral deposits can (with research and some expense) be deepened to become permanent. The designers screwed up big time, however, by not providing an “undo” button: it’s awfully easy to misplace by one square a building on a gridless slope and disrupt a tight little road system, especially if the building’s footprint is obscured by trees. 1701 leaves you with the option of living with your mistake or demolishing the building and starting again. It’s bad enough to lose the materials that went into the building; being forced to haul in a new set from a distant island is hair-pulling frustration, especially if a rival takes the opportunity to move into that same space you were trying to claim when you misplaced the building. Maybe I’m just missing another undocumented or under-documented function, but an instruction booklet and in-game encyclopedia that don’t even explain the mechanics of conquering territory is appallingly bad documentation by any standard.

Notwithstanding, the game is a very pleasant exercise in building a thriving hamlet—with only sixty to a hundred houses, “city” is a misnomer, and “independent kingdom” even moreso. It improves upon the city-builder series by offering play on a random map, with customized features and goals, in addition to several structured scenarios. (Indeed, the random map is the presumed form of play, with the scenarios offering tutorial advice.) The randomized map isn’t perfect; every map has enough goods for everyone but the most laggard colonizers, and changing the islands’ size and fertility, or asking the player to build fire departments to deal with fires barely alters the game at all. Transport is by ship, not road, so it hardly matters whether your beer comes from an island six inches to the east-northeast and your chocolate from an island four inches west, or vice versa, nor whether your beer lies more north-northwestish. Starting on a northern or southern climate hardly matters either; any island will support the earliest goods, and you’ll quickly need mid-game items from both climates. Pirate attacks don’t seem to be any more frequent near the pirate base either. So shuffling the uniformly square islands a little bit around the map isn’t going to provide the same kind of replay value that, say, a choice of archipelago or continent might, or the existence of a single cacao-bearing island. On the other hand, demanding radically different strategies for radically different set-ups isn’t what building games are about, in any case. The appeal is in getting everything set up just…right. And, since the tiniest map differences can alter “just right” a lot, the barely randomized maps may be enough for anyone interested in playing 1701 twice to play many times.

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