Amongst the outtakes from the film This is Spinal Tap is a scene in which band members David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnell, about to embark on a American tour, compare their undertaking with the colonisation of the New World.
Tufnell says, "it's like in 1601 when the Dutch went over and strangled the Indians…" "No, no," St Hubbins says, "the Spanish strangled the Indians and, and –" "– The Dutch," Tufnell decisively interjects, "strangled the Spanish."
Just as there are versions of history much more accurate that the one invented by the members of Spinal Tap, there are several iterations that do a much more serious job of recreating the period than mobile game Anno 1701. A jolly cross between a boardgame and a real-time strategy title, you're aim is to build a fledgling empire in the newly discovered American continent.
You begin with the option of four characters, each endowed with a different sum of cash and a few commodities. Once you've made your choice, Anno 1701 places you in a small archipelago of islands colonised by competing groups. The object of the game is to buy enough promotions up the ladder of moneyed society to become an aristocrat, or to occupy all of the islands before your allowance of moves is spent.
Occupation depends largely on building and maintaining a military presence powerful enough to fend off invaders, and to enable you to conquer the other islands in your neighbourhood. To make an army you need money of course, and so you'll spend half of your time trading with other colonies and the other half using the proceeds to wage a terrible war on them.
Unfortunately, while there's a range of commodities to trade, these have no utility beyond their fixed numerical value. You can't use timber for both trading and building a certain type of unit, for instance, a restriction that shaves a layer of depth from Anno 1701's gameplay.
Further underlining the sense of restriction, the number of unit types you can build is limited to just two – cannon and ship. The same goes for buildings; you can make a fort and a production facility, nothing else.
To be promoted, meanwhile, you need to accumulate a specified amount of each commodity, which entails that you trade. As we said earlier, trade and war are your two routes to success, and much of the gameplay takes place somewhere along the line between the two.
But is aggressive, capitalist trade and war so very different? The answer, in Anno 1701, is both yes and no.
This is because to engage in any of the four available activities – trading, building, attacking, and defending – involves making a choice between basing your success on throwing gold at an activity, or your finesse at one of four mini-games that simulates your subjects carrying out that activity themselves. That is, you can throw money at projects like war and construction, or you can do them yourself for a cut price by playing the mini-game.
These four mini-games are sufficiently different from one another that you will tailor your ascendancy around your skill at different types of game. If you like puzzlers, you'll be able to build structures very cheaply; if you're dire at shoot-'em-ups, you'll have to pay a premium in hard earned to defend and attack more efficiently than you yourself could. (Thoughtfully, an arcade mode is included in which you can practise each of these mini-games). It's a novel approach.
The period between starting a game of Anno 1701 and the final move coming around is brief, but thanks to the variety of ways the game can play out, the replay value is fair. However, while the unusual blend of action and strategy undoubtedly enriches the game, the miserly number of building types and actions is simply too small to sustain interest for very long.
It's a shame, because in many respects Anno 1701 is terrific. The music swells heroically, the graphics sparkle, and the opposing colonists sustain enough military pressure to burden every one of the decisions you make with a weight of significance. In fact, it's a genuinely novel and challenging experience – until the claustrophobia of Anno 1701's tiny universe sets in.