The Californian gold rush of the mid-19th century was a precarious time.

Intrepid pioneers of that time rode a fine line between triumph and disaster, with the potential for massive profit on one side and death or financial ruin on the other.

It's a line 1849 walks in a similar fashion, with similarly binary results.

Virgin territory

The most refreshing thing about 1849 is that it isn't what you think it is. From the screenshots and a quick glance at the app description, it sounds like another freemium city-builder designed to rob you of your golden nuggets.

It isn't that at all. Instead, it's a casual (but highly challenging) management game that offers a series of tightly defined construction and economy-balancing challenges with nary a wait timer or a premium currency purchase prompt in sight.

Each isometric stage presents you with the building plot for a new town, and it's up to you to charter its early phase of existence, dragging it up from dusty encampment to thriving centre of commerce.

This happens relatively swiftly. Start building housing plots around your initial depot and settlers will soon move in and build their own properties, adding a steady trickle of rental income to your dwindling finances.

Alternate revenue streams

This won't be enough to sustain you over the long haul, though. Real progress requires the construction of various money-making enterprises, from gold mines to olive oil pressing plants.

Your people also need resources to live, from various types of food to clothing and schools, depending on how upwardly mobile they're feeling at a given time.

The more their needs are seen to, the better their houses become, the higher the rental income, and the more demanding they grow.

Indeed, 1849 as a whole is one big balancing act, which is both its strength and its weakness.

Keeping out of the red

Keeping all of your plates spinning in real time is the name of the game, as you work your way towards completing all three tasks set before you at the beginning of each stage.

You can establish trade routes, complete optional secondary tasks, and maintain the infrastructure around your town (building roads and establishing law and order, for example), but it all amounts to that same steady oscillation between solvency and bankruptcy, growth and decay.

Allow too many houses to be built and you'll find yourself with a town of bored unemployed citizens liable to start looting your businesses. Too few, and you won't have enough rental income or workers to expand.

At its best, striking this balance can be extremely absorbing. But it can also feel stifling, cutting off potential creativity and lessening the scope for free expression.

You're given three starting load-out options at the beginning of each level in 1849, but it often feels like there are only really one or two ways to proceed in order to be a success.

1849 is a welcome addition to the city-building genre thanks to its focus on streamlining and its rejection of tedious freemium tropes. But it needs to cut loose a bit and allow the option of a more sedate and open-ended approach to empire building.