The West Indies at the turn of the 18th century: Europe is at full sails during the golden age of exploration, and this fictionalized account of Caribbean colonization absolutely sings with a chorus of promise and prosperity. While often attempted, rare is the period piece video game that captures the gleaming possibilities of the New World with such energy and spirit as 1701 A.D.
Shy away from the overly-specific temporal namesake at your own risk; this third submission in the A.D. series (see 1602 A.D. and 1503 A.D. -- in that order -- to witness its progression) is made all the more beautiful by the simplicity of its face-value design. That design puts a smiley face on the otherwise hostile facade that dooms many 4X titles the moment your ship hits the beach. Take your average eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate sim-builder, and you'll feel the uphill battle commence before you even plant your flag in the sand. But here, in the welcoming arms of a 1701 A.D. learninglandscape, your settlers' jovial expressions are there to match your own. Developing the natural and mineral resources of unexplored islands has rarely been this cleanly executed (or this fun).
Swiping your mouse over different structures triggers a VH1 Popup balloon of pertinent information, without descending into the murky depths of charts & graphs land. And while this leaves room for a little bit of fudging when it comes to hard and fast numbers, you get to thankfully leave all the fourth grade math behind when gauging just how many fish it takes to feed your God-fearing populace. Next to your food icon in the city-wide warehouse is a green up-arrow: Hooray, food is in surplus! A red down-arrow: Oh no, it might be time to open up a hunting lodge or a cattle ranch to fill everyone's belly.
It's too well done for other city-sim designers not to stand up and notice -- at least those that don't vacillate over the need for endless miniaturized Excel spreadsheets to glean the most out of their gaming experience.
But that's also where the charismatic nature of 1701 A.D. will get you every time. Because the research tree that's so youthful and charming at first, matures into a branching behemoth of supply & demand management. Those branches are always neatly pruned and easy to gather fruit from, but they gradually multiply into the challenging resource crunch requisite of a satisfying city builder.
But -- Hernando Cortes be praised -- the learning curve (which is more like a learning curb in some similarly-themed titles) is made wholly digestible by the in-game ANNOpedia, which is as trouble-free and functional as any finely-crafted Civilopedia, a la Civilization. (The "ANNO" prefix comes from the game's original German title, Anno 1701 … as in Anno Domini.)
While it would be another strong supplement to integrate a storyline campaign into 1701 A.D., Related Designs left well enough alone and set their sights on creating a stellar sandbox ("continuous campaign") to frolic through. A short stack of single episode adventures also come highly recommended, as they will expose you to relevant focal points that you can accomplish, but might have overlooked or shrunk away from in a standard round of play. These individual modules are peppered with a little more storytelling verve, but don't ultimately serve any grand narrative, and they don't unlock any further benefits beyond their built-in learning experience. Nevertheless, the benefits of unveiling the "Curse of the Monkey God" or escaping a fate parallel to Pompeii in "Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire" are self-evident by their pulpy action headlines.
1701 A.D. also, when called for, removes the one-thing-wrong-after-another syndrome that can drive this genre into the grinder. At its best, it's all about seeing to the economic success and general morale of your colonists: Attending to their sense of community, their spiritual development, and their educational quotient. All of which are unwrapped in an escalating list of wants and needs. Surely it seems ludicrous that your evolved, merchant-class citizens would grow riotous if their supply of chocolate bon bons run out, but those are the "needs" you must attend to, gov'nuh, if you wish to raise your particular Caribbean isle out of the dregs and into the purview of the Queen. The Queen is your patient and rarely condescending benefactor, willing to bail you out of the red should your abilities as a CPA be otherwise questionable.
Each lusciously animated island is yours for the taking … unless one of your rivals lay down their claim first. Other foreign cultures dabble across the map (the Aztecs, the Chinese, etc.) but they reside in preformed islands too small and too resource-barren to warrant your attention. Formulating trade agreements with these foreign cultures works to your benefit, of course, as trade routes and trust go hand in hand, opening up greater venues of luxury trade goods. At the easier level, just being a good neighbor is enough to keep the peace. But testing out the waters with harder level opponents brings in the games shadier side. Suffice it to say that subterfuge, coupled with a rival's army-navy team, has a way of ruining your Little House on the Prairie way of life.
This isn't the Total War series of games, so don't travel back to 1701 A.D. if you're dying for a wartime simulator. Save that for the aforementioned Total War games or other combat-centric RTSes like Warhammer 40,000 or Company of Heroes. Here, combat is a simple exchange of gun and cannon fire, tactics are point-and-click, and politics are no more involved than the shake of a hand or the throwing down of a gauntlet. This lack of fuss contributes valiantly to 1701 A.D.'s artful dodging of any single-minded Murphy's Law qualities.
It should be no secret, this formula could be transplanted into any genre or any time period and meet with laudable success. It may not be one for the history books, but its one that will -- in its own whimsical way -- transport you to the momentous heights and grandiose ambitions that comprised the 18th century Americas.