Anno 1800 Review - Accessible, But Deep, City Building
Anno 1800 is the latest city-builder game in Ubisoft's long-running Anno series. Developed by Blue Byte, it is set in the year 1800, and largely centers around the twin themes of exploration and industrialization. You play as a displaced son or daughter of a recently deceased industrialist looking to rebuild your family empire after it was taken over by your uncle.
The game does come with a sandbox mode, and that is normally what my focus would be on in a city-builder, but I have to say, I did enjoy the campaign. It was a fluid and natural way to introduce me to all the ins and outs of the game's systems, and the characters did a good job of actually making it feel like 1800. I was pleasantly surprised, as I didn't expect all that much from it. The best part though is that the game automatically updates to sandbox mode when you finish the campaign. I don't want to cover any spoilers, but it did deliver a nice twist in the tale that I wasn't expecting. It is basically a long-form tutorial, but it is done very well.
One of the things I really liked about Anno 1800 is that it readily solved a lot of the issues I have with other city-builders. Storehouses are all interconnected, if you have something delivered to one, it can be picked up in any other storehouse. Your populace automatically ends up where it needs to be, once you have the right number of people. In the early game, tax-paying citizens are as much of a resource as wood or wool, and you spend a lot of time working to keep them happy. It is entirely possible to mess up your first city until you realize that you want to build as many residential buildings as you can manage. It is, in many ways, as much about balancing needs than resources. You can happily build multiple businesses, farms or factories in the early game and know that they will still be useful later because your population will nearly always be in a state of expansion. Whatever you end up producing in excess can then be sold by your trade fleet. The happiness of your population provides a very gentle buffer between you and the possibility of failure.
There is also an odd sense of social mobility in the game. Homes that you originally build for farmers can be upgraded to house workers, and then artisans, and so on through all the worker types. You will, however, need to replace your farmer's homes with new ones. Balancing the needs of your population is the key to a strong start in Anno 1800, but by doing so, you also generate items that can be traded for a new stream of income. These new workers also open up new items that you can build, so you will need to create new farms and factories to do so.
Exploration is also important. Exploring the map and finding new islands, and factions, is vital, as they can have quests or resources that you need. You can choose to expand beyond your initial starting island, or just trade with others for what you need. You can also engage in sea battles with rival factions, once you have a shipyard that can produce the vessels you need.
It is a game of careful balance and planning, but you also need to be able to react quickly to events as they unfold. Sink too many resources into a project, and you might just leave yourself with a tense wait if you need to build something in a hurry. It is also reasonably easy to have a city go all kinds of wrong if you are not paying attention, and people who are new to city building might need a few restarts before they get to grips with what exactly Anno 1800 wants you to do to succeed. It can seem a little intimidating when the people of your fair city are rioting in the streets, but it also normally isn't that hard to solve the issues if you just stick with it.
New to this iteration of Anno is the Blueprint system. This allows you to plan and place buildings without building them, allowing for a neater city for those who lack forward thinking, like me. It is a nice system, as in most city builders I always end up regretting early placement decisions. Depending on the difficulty you are playing at, you can also move buildings for a cost, with it being free on Normal. This combined with some reasonably shallow balancing that needs to be done seems to be trying to set Anno 1800 up as an accessible game for people who don't have too much experience with deeper city-builders, at least in the early hours. Things do get more complex as the game progresses, however. As you attract different types of late-game workers and expand across multiple islands, you will rapidly learn the need to specialize. Focusing on production processes that use local resources, then ferrying the things that an island doesn't have in from your other locations is a vital part of the game.
This concept expands even further in the form of expeditions. You can send ships to explore the new world, starting new colonies which then feed luxury items to your already established islands, once again allowing for more growth and progression. While you are exploring and controlling these colonies, your holdings in the Old World are still ticking over, generating gold and generally in need of care and attention. You will also need to send expeditions in search of various animals for your late game zoo. The zoo is basically the ultimate achievement in Anno 1800, and packing it with exotic creatures is the ultimate display of your wealth and reach.
Anno 1800's real complication comes from trying to keep track of multiple islands and their needs. You may need to ferry goods from one to the other or set up trade routes that best cover the gaps between what you need and what you produce. Numerous factions need to be watched, all while keeping a close eye that your populace has enough of the things they need to not riot in the streets. You will need to decide how you want to deal with your competitors and can opt for either buyout of their shares, or just roll up on them with a fearsome navy and see how they like being blockaded. Add on to that the need to maintain a navy, your Old World and New World holdings, and establish trade deals with your fellow industrialists and Anno 1800 builds up a nice level of complication and depth that is quite engaging, especially when compared to the much simpler early hours.
One area that Anno 1800 really shines is how it presents the cities. The graphics are extremely good, the buildings are all richly detailed and have their own animations. The townsfolk drink at the pub, walk in the parks or gather at street corners to watch bare-knuckle fights. It really does feel like a living, breathing place, and if you zoom in and watch for a while, you will be surprised by the details Blue Byte have added.
With Campaign, Sandbox and Multiplayer modes there is also plenty to do here, and the gentle introduction and eventual deeper gameplay should appeal to those new to the genre and those who have played quite a few city-builders. I found the game ran very well for me, with no framerate issues even when the screen got very busy. There might be a little slowdown when loading into a long-running game, but that would pass after a few seconds.
I did have two mains problems, however. The first was a high likelihood of the game hanging when I was shutting it down. Generally, when this occurred, I would have to restart the PC, as it was that annoying type of crash where the program will not allow anything else to display on the screen. I also had one hard crash while playing that cost me the game that was active at the time. I cannot fathom why, but I simply could not restart the game from that save file, and all my progress was lost. It is perhaps a testament to how much I enjoyed my time with Anno 1800 that this didn't really annoy me, I simply opened up a new Sandbox map and started a new city. I am going to go out on a limb and guess that the latter issue is rare, as issues with save files always are, and that the former can be resolved with a patch.
All in all, I really did have a great time with Anno 1800. It is incredibly easy just to get lost in it for hours, and I know it is a game I will keep coming back to because I simply want to get better at it. Decision making feels natural and rewarding, and in this way, it provides a comfortable but challenging experience that should keep you entertained for quite a while.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using an Anno 1800 game code provided by Ubisoft.