Anno 1800 Review: Bold new era

I’m really upset that I’ve slept on the Anno series for so long. Developed by The Settlers team Blue Byte, Anno 1800 is a charming, clever, complex civ builder that recalls classics of the genre like Caesar or Pharaoh. There’s an adherence to the concept of balance in Anno, a core tenet of its design that sets it apart from other games of this kind. Where other civ and city builders are about finding advantage and tipping the scales in your favour, Anno 1800 is about identifying and maintaining a balance at all times — a balanced workforce, a balanced trade system, a balanced financial plan, a balanced rate of city expansion, a balanced approach to diplomacy. It’s all very zen and I’m super here for it.

This adherence to balance was what made Anno 1800 click for me. It knows exactly what it’s trying to be, and that’s authenthically itself. Each stage of the game unfolds slowly like a blooming flower. The early game is a peaceful time of growing your city from isolated farmland into a bustling port town. The mid game sees you moving into the industrial age, your city flourishing as artisans move in, and beginning to engage with the leaders of other nations, establishing shipping routes in exchange for needed supplies. It is also the era when you’re most likely to begin securing other lands for expansion. The late game is often where conflict rears its ugly head as you drive out competing nations to secure your place in history.

Anno 1800 features two modes of play — Campaign or Sandbox. Functionally speaking, the Campaign is an extended tutorial that gradually introduces each of the game’s concepts over time. I recommend playing through it if you’ve never touched an Anno title before as it does a sound job of teaching you the fundamentals and letting you play with them before moving onto the next thing. It also features some reasonably strong narrative work, beginning with your character returning to their extremely proper British family following the death of their industrialist patriarch. Your snotty uncle is running the family out of town and is holding your father’s expensive funeral debt over your head, pillaging your supplies as you struggle to build a new city on the island to which you’ve been exiled. This very much sets the stage for the ineractions with other heads of state to come. You’ll need to learn to acquiese to certain demands and when to press your luck on others.

Sandbox Mode is exactly what it sounds like — jump in and play it your way, without objectives, trying to last as long as you can. This was my mode of choice and, what’s more, it’s possible to pick up the thrust of the game in Sandbox without ever learning the ropes in Campaign first, a mark of Anno‘s clear design. What I liked about the late game in Sandbox Mode was that you don’t actually have to crush everyone if you don’t particularly want to. Should you manage your trade routes and diplomatic relations properly, it’s possible to exist, in relative harmony, in perpetuity. That’s a bit of a rarity. I can see myself spending a lot of time in this mode.

Anno 1800 is also a very beautiful game, the art direction perfectly capturing its 19th centurty setting. Everything from individual buildings to the clothes your citizens and workers wear feel very of a place and time. Higher graphics settings allow for a greater number of people to be drawn in your city, allowing it to feel more alive. To look down at areas of greater population density and see it absolutely teeming with people going about their day or throwing a parade because life is so good makes you feel like you’re running a tight ship.

And running a tight ship isn’t terribly difficult, as long as you can keep yourself in check. Anno 1800 breaks its numerous tech trees down by industry. Each industry typically features about four or five buildings. For example, if my workers, sooty from a day working in the iron mines, are crying out for soap then I’ll need to build them a soap factory. To get to a soap factory I will need: a pig farm, a slaughterhouse, a rendering plant, the soap factory itself and a warehouse to store all my materials in. If you have the funds and materials available to construct them, it’s all too easy to throw these buildings up at the same time and find yourself dealing with a worker shortage as your citizens rush to fill the multitude of positions you’ve just opened up. That said, the UI design itself is very simple and very clear, showing the player which buildings are connected and where they fall in the supply chain. This allows you to prioritise and move forward at your own pace.

Anno 1800 isn’t trying to be a deep and knotty chin scratcher like Civilization, and it isn’t trying to be Sim City either. It eschews rigorous city planning in favour of a more common sense approach and a greater sense of fun over crunch. That may not make it the city-builder fan’s cup of tea but it certainly makes it mine. Highly recommended.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Smart design; Great visuals; Just plain great
Lowlights: I can’t build roads diagonally? That’s literally the best I’ve got
Developer: Blue Byte
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: Windows PC
Available: Now

Review conducted on Windows PC using a retail code provided by the publisher.

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David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.

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