The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom
As SimCity’s success demonstrated years ago, tuning a system to create efficient outcomes is its own reward. The Settlers 7 taps into this basic well of entertainment with its economy simulation, but that’s nothing we haven’t seen before. This game goes the extra mile with an impressive diversity of map types and victory conditions, board game-like competition with other rulers, and multiple vectors for expanding your power and influence.
The simplest production chain sees woodcutters chopping trees into logs, which are refined into planks at a sawmill and finally used by constructors to put up buildings. Dozens of parallel and criss-crossing tracks exist – gold turns into coins and jewelry, while grain is milled into flour and baked into bread. As you construct each production building, you have to make several continual decisions, like where your wood goes when you need it for paper, planks, and charcoal. Optimal efficiency requires tailoring your building placement to the contours of the map, ensuring that your blacksmith doesn’t have to waste time walking to hell and back to get the iron bars he needs. Managing this simple yet interesting economy is the bulk of the game, as it has to support your overall strategy and survive shifting conditions like forests being depleted or mines running dry.
All those materials need to be put to good use in order to secure victory. Conquest (or defense) demands blacksmiths, mints, and wheelwrights to equip your military. Clerics can research technology and proselytize neutral sectors into joining your empire, and require beer, books, and jewelry. Traders can open new off-map trade routes that can turn surplus goods into needed supplies or money, and demand fine jackets and jewelry to work for you. Planning and executing your grand strategy using some combination of these three elements is great fun, and victory generally goes to the player who best tailors his or her plan to the situation. Agility is important as well – being able to switch your focus and cover a stone deficit through traders when your neighbor rudely conquers your quarries, for instance, is key.
Each map has its own flavor. One may have dense forest cover, but little in the way of mines. Farmable land might be in short supply on another, while fish and game are plentiful. The lay of the land determines how effective various sectors of your economy are likely to be, but quests and victory conditions are more explicitly unique to each map. Winning is based on victory points rather than wiping out your enemies. These are awarded for excellence in each aspect of the game, where a point belongs to the player with the most money, the most workers, the most soldiers, etc. Special conditions like completing a quest for an NPC or researching a specific expensive technology can grant points as well. The first player to a set limit wins. It’s a great system that smartly emphasizes the wide spread of gameplay in Settlers 7, and generally rewards the most well-rounded player.
Settlers’ few problems are irritating, but hardly deal-breakers. A lack of feedback in the interface makes it hard to manage large, multi-province production chains. It’s easy to not notice that there’s a problem with your iron smelters until you suddenly run out of swords and have to frantically search your empire for the broken link. Getting that industry back on track can take a lot of time, and missing a small detail can easily derail your entire strategy. Also, the story in the single-player campaign is execrable, but a healthy skirmish mode and good online support make up for it.
Ubisoft has built in community tools to keep the game healthy in the long term if enough people get on the Settlers 7 wagon, with a map editor and seamless online matchmaking. I’m hoping that people get into it, because I plan on keeping this one in my regular rotation for some time.