Playing games like The Settlers reminds us how pleasant it is living in the 21st century today. We don't have to help build our own town (someone else has kindly done that for us), barbarians don't regularly darken our borders threatening to steal all the women and we don't have to go to work down a coal mine.
All of which are situations you find yourself in during most of the levels in this game. It's never just a simple case of turning up at a bit of empty land and building some huts for your people. Instead, the neighbours are constantly threatening to invade via land or sea, and keeping your town creation safe from them is as important as building it in the first place.
Traditionally a PC game, which was also recently (and in our opinion, unsuccessfully) adapted to the DS, The Settlers is a real-time strategy game that has you building up settlements from scratch, then managing them to provide optimum resources for your people.
It all looks quite nice on mobile phone, and the mini-missions and objectives provide short-term goals to work towards. But it's also quite tough going managing a town full of buildings when the buildings aren't clearly labelled and you're constantly scrolling back and forth between them.
A short tutorial provides a crash-course in town management, but the initial few levels are very much a baffling process of trial and error. Before you can place certain buildings, like the butcher's, for instance, you need to have other buildings in place (in this case, a cow field). This seems logical enough, you might think. But later, it all gets a bit less obvious.
The facilities you build provide certain wares, and there are plenty of them. The most integral is food, which your people need, followed by defences, and finally materials, which are mostly needed for more building. Meanwhile, the different areas you're plonked in at the start of each level contain various resources. So, if you're on the coast, you can build a fishery. If there's a forest, a lumberjack, and if there's coal, you can build a mine and a foundry.
If these wares aren't needed for more building or making weaponry, you can trade the surplus with neighbouring towns. This basic system all works fine, and there are even mini-games you can choose to play at any time to boost the production of a facility – win the mini-game and production is increased. The mini-games break up the structure a bit but they're quite uninspiring, consisting of a range of maths sums, matching pairs of pictures and remembering sequences.
Where it all starts to go wrong is with the interface. It's never immediately clear which building is which and, until you click on it, there's no way of knowing. In the heat of the moment, when barbarians are running across a bridge and baying for your blood, it's hardly ideal to have lost your barracks. Likewise, the icons used for each type of material are so small and indistinct, it's too easy to get your coal and lead, or meat and leather mixed up. Nobody wants that.
Finally, we encountered a few occasions when we had all the criteria to buy a building but the game still wouldn't let us place it. Maybe we were going wrong somewhere, but it's never clear whether buildings are producing or have ground to a halt. And in the timed missions, wasting seconds trying to work out why you can't upgrade your guard towers isn't what you need.
As well as all this, winning each level seems to depend purely on whether you've built exactly what the game wants you to. And the trouble is you're not necessarily aware of all the criteria involved. So while a few of the earlier examples are definitely likeable, later missions get tough fast and it's no fun having ten minutes of building completely undone again and again because, even though everything seems to be going swimmingly and your town is doing well, you haven't put in an extra guard tower or upgraded something and so you fail.
The 21st century might be easy to live in but, judging by this, some of the games it produces aren't quite as pleasant. While The Settlers is very nearly a decent mobile strategy game, it's just not well enough adapted to the format to be enjoyable.