As a child of the 90s, I cut my teeth on city builders and management games, with the majority of my earliest exposure to video games credited to legendary titles such as Roller Coaster Tycoon and Theme Hospital. Historically, these sorts of games are at home on PC due to the sheer scope of their gameplay; typically relying on copious amounts of menus and sub-menus. For what felt like decades, many city builders skipped a console release altogether, largely because translating the gameplay to a controller was such a heavy lift, while getting it right was an even heavier lift. However, in the last 10 years or so, we console simpletons have enjoyed quite the city builder renaissance, with a few standouts emerging along the way. Enter Anno 1800, one of the most intricate, most addictive, most satisfying city builders that I have had the pleasure of playing on console. Does it get everything right all the time? Definitely not. But is it one of the best city builders on console? Definitely.
At the risk of sounding like a gatekeeper, let me be clear up front: if you are considering playing Anno 1800 as your first foray into the genre, please tread carefully. I might even recommend you start with a number of other titles that are more friendly towards beginners. That’s not to say that Anno 1800 doesn’t explain itself well (because it certainly does), it’s just that there is a lot to explain – like, A LOT. Even for a genre-hardened veteran like myself, I strongly suggest starting with Anno’s campaign mode, which, again, does a great job of introducing you to the game’s myriad systems, menus, and resources. The game disguises tutorials as quests in the campaign, which is executed extraordinarily well and took me about 18 hours to complete. At no point did I feel like the game forgot to teach me a process that I needed to progress, and for a game with this much going on, that feels like quite an accomplishment.
If you’d rather jump right into things with no training wheels, you can hop into sandbox mode or multiplayer mode from the start, but unless you’re a city-building savant, I don’t recommend doing so for all of the aforementioned reasons. On the multiplayer front, Anno appears to be DOA (at least on PS5), as I was never able to find a game in matchmaking, so you’ll be relying on friends or not playing multiplayer altogether at the moment. To be fair, I’m not sure that genre enthusiasts even care all that much about online multiplayer. Sandbox mode strips away the story elements from the campaign and lets you focus on building your empire as you see fit, ultimately striving to meet one of several win conditions, such as building X amount of monuments, or having a population of X number of people.
For a city builder, Anno 1800’s story is actually quite interesting, which is something you don’t see a lot of in the genre; it was cool to see the developers stretch their storytelling legs a bit. The campaign opens with the discovery of your father’s death, which prompts you to return home where you learn that your uncle has usurped the family enterprise. He forces you out of town, and consequently to build your own empire on an uncharted island. Your settlement begins as merely a trading post, but things progress swiftly, and you’ll soon be the proprietor of dozens (if not hundreds) of buildings. With growth comes growing pains, however. I accidentally broke the game because I waited too long to build roads to my first houses, which caused the houses to collapse, which caused me to use all of my wood timbers to renovate them, which left me with precisely zero of one of the game’s most critical resources required to build anything at all. In 15 minutes I had broken the game and was forced to restart. It was a rookie mistake, to be sure, but if this self-proclaimed veteran can do it, anyone can do it.
Once the game got out of its way (or perhaps me out of its way), it was extremely difficult to put down. Proper city builders have this addicting, almost hypnotic gameplay loop that lulls you into a sort of autopilot mode as you construct building after building. And there are lots of buildings in Anno 1800. These buildings are a part of “production chains” and they include sheep farms, lumberjack huts, fire stations, and shipyards, to name just a few. Need those precious wood timbers I mentioned earlier? You’ll need to build a lumberjack hut in a properly wooded area, build a sawmill to process the logs, and then make sure you have a warehouse nearby to store the goods. As your population grows, more advanced buildings become available to you, and before you know it you’ll be building an armada of steamboats!
To keep your empire growing, you’ll have to give the people what they want. Citizens have basic needs and luxury needs which are provided by the various buildings. For instance, after a hard day’s work, farmers want to unwind at pubs, which require a schnapps factory to provide spirits. Every building requires resources, and every resource requires a building to produce it. Meanwhile, you have to monitor your production levels to make sure you don’t have too many or too little of each type of worker. Each building also needs a different type of worker to keep things going. Crops need farmers, the window factory needs artisans, and so on. I told you this game was intricate.
Once your empire gets rolling and the resources start flowing, you’ll come face-to-face with another central facet of Anno 1800: economic management. Yes, cash is king, even in the virtual world, and it is imperative to ensure that you have more of it coming in than going out. That’s a bit easier said than done, which comes as a huge shock, no doubt. If you dip too far into debt, the game can end, so managing produced resources by selling off excess for profit is key. Outside of constructing buildings, I spent the second-highest amount of time manipulating my buy and sell thresholds to make sure I both stayed in the black, but also kept enough of each resource on-hand as to not slow down production. Again, everything is tied so closely together that it all requires your attention – some more frequently than others. So who are you selling to exactly? Well, you’re not alone in the Industrial Revolution world of Anno 1800 as there are multiple rivals you’ll be competing or allying with. You’ll engage in trade, diplomacy, or potentially even naval battle with these folks, and it’s really up to you on how you choose to engage with them.
Over the years, the big knock on city builders making the move from PC to console is the adaptation of the control scheme, as it can be tough to translate the freedom of a mouse and keyboard to a controller. In Anno 1800’s case, Ubisoft makes a valiant effort, but with so many moving parts it can be unwieldy at times. It does become more manageable as you put more time in, and thankfully the developer utilizes as many radial menus as possible, which do work quite well on controller. I would say the effectiveness of the controls seesaws between cumbersome to perfectly fine, depending on what you’re doing. If you’re a fan of the genre on console, you’ve likely already come to terms with this control scheme conundrum. In some respect, it simply is what it is.
Occasionally in Anno 1800 everything happens all at once – your workers riot, buildings catch fire, a key resource gets exhausted, and a rival attacks your ships. For us digital city builders, persevering through those times is satisfying on a level similar to finally defeating a tough boss in a Soulsbourne game. It’s sublime. It’s an endorphin rush. It’s the magic of city builders. Thankfully, Anno 1800 harnesses that magic to great effect, culminating in an intoxicating experience that is the hallmark of any great entry in the genre. So intoxicating, in fact, that it reminds you to take a coffee break after an hours-long play session – emphasis on hours.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Hello! I'm Jason, the newest member of Gaming Nexus. My favorite genres of games are strategy, management, city-builders, sports games, RPGs, and shooters, but I don't limit myself to those. My favorite game of all-time is Red Dead Redemption 2 and I have somehow played it for nearly 1,000 hours. I also co-host a weekly PlayStation news podcast called The Dual Sense Podcast, so I stay pretty well versed in that ecosystem. Before that, I co-hosted a basketball podcast.View Profile