Anno 1800 Review

Anno 1800 is the kind of city builder that lets you build a utopia. You’re not fighting for survival, and nobody is going to starve, you’re creating a pretty city. It’s simple and easy at first, but as your city grows, dozens of new buildings are unlocked and depth ensues. Anno 1800 is unlike other city builders in that your population is divided into classes: Farmers, Workers, Artisans, Engineers, and Investors. These citizens function as tiers, starting with Farmers that upgrade as all of their needs are fulfilled. Each new type of population tier has additional needs, and sustaining them requires increasingly complex resource and production chains. Different structures require different types of population to work them; crop fields need Farmers while a Bakery requires workers.

By the time you reach Artisans, you’ll realize that you can’t appease all their needs from only your starting island. Each island only has limited natural resources and fertility for different kinds of crops. Peppers is a component for the Canned Goods resource chain, but if your island lacks Peppers fertility, you’ll have to import it from other islands. You could buy Peppers from your competitors in the region, but it won’t be cheap. Instead, you’ll want to settle another island that supports Peppers fertility ship the resource back to your main settlement. The new island, however, requires its own infrastructure and maintenance. It’ll need construction materials, housing, food, and supplies for the farmers. The island could be fully sustainable or have resources imported from the main settlement. This second island will also lack some other kind of crop fertility and might require you to import it elsewhere.

Things get even more complicated when your Artisans want Rum, a luxury resource that can only be created in the ‘New World.’ (Americas). You’ll need to send out an expedition and found a new colony far from home, shipping materials back and forwards. Construction materials are just as complicated as resources; Steel is not gathered out of the ground and usable, it requires the mining of Iron and Coal, then turning them into Steel at a furnace, then turning the Steel into Steel Beams for construction at a Steelworks. At its core, Anno 1800 is a game about trade routes and production chains. It supports a slick system for automating trade routes between different islands and regions, which removes the need to move ships and trade stuff manually. (Though you still can and will often want to.)

On top of the emphasis on trade routes and production chains, Anno 1800 is still very much a city builder with impressive depth to its building placement. Efficient placement and density of your city are crucial as you’re playing on limited islands, and houses need to be close enough to buildings like Pubs, Churches, and Fire Brigades. You also need to think about spacing out residential areas from industry or livestock as it’ll lower their happiness. Although people can be seen walking around, they’re not simulated. People don’t need to commute to their work, you place down a mine on the opposite side of the island and it’s immediately occupied. Wagons need to take resources to and from Warehouses, but not from Warehouse to Warehouse. The inconsistency of teleporting resources is weird, and it’s annoying that a Wagon will not deliver Flour to a directly adjacent Bakery, it will only bring it to Warehouses. Overall, city building is fun and challenging, with lots of room to optimize. Placement of Warehouses, in particular, contains much depth. Warehouses are quite large structures, and upgrading them is expensive, so you want to minimize their use. However, Warehouses have limited loading slots that take several seconds to fulfill, so Warehouses can be a bottleneck unless upgraded or are overlapping.  

Gameplay aside, Anno 1800 is gorgeous. The visuals, music, and voice acting are all spectacular. Somehow, it manages to depict the industrial revolution as being happy and upbeat. The many characters in the game are so goofy and fun, such as the flamboyantly British Sir Archibald Blake or the grizzly prison warden Eli Bleaksworth. The tiers of workers each have their funny personalities, too, such as the melodramatic Artisans. People can be seen walking around the streets, dancing at pubs, exchanging goods at the market, or hauling wooden planks. The game is a pleasure to interact with or to zoom in and appreciate for a moment. Top-notch presentation is especially important for city builder games where much of the joy comes from having created something. For some reason, though, the lip-syncing is awful and jarring if you stop and pay attention to it.

Anno 1800 has lots of excellent side mechanics that add up to deliver an incredible game. A great example is the tourism mechanic, where islands are granted attractiveness ratings based on factors such as nature, pollution, museums, and zoos. Maximizing attractiveness for tourism incentivizes having a pretty island lacking in livestock and industrial structures, but those are important. Removing livestock and industry makes an island reliant on imports, which causes even more strain on trading. These kinds of trade-offs create lots of interesting decisions to weigh up and can be handled very differently on other playthroughs. Your empire also has a newspaper press that periodically reports to your citizens on the state of affairs. Of course, the truth is often unflattering, and you have the option to replace it with different kinds of propaganda that might increase happiness or reduce citizen resource consumption. Propaganda can grant significant bonuses, but some of your competitors will disapprove of your use of it, and too much propaganda can push citizens into unrest. Crop and animal fields are a  great mechanic too. Instead of just placing a pre-built field, you freely draw X squares of land to become the grain field around a little structure. Manually drawing the crop placement allows for quirky layouts for filling in gaps or maximizing efficiency with other production structures and Warehouses.

There’s no land combat in Anno 1800 as all about navies. Naval combat ties in well to the trading aspect of the game as pirates and competitors can destroy your trade ships and cripple your economy. There are different types of ships with different roles, some are entirely for freight while others are combat ships. You can use combat ships to trade but they’re more expensive and with less cargo space. Ships, if suitably equipped, can also be sent off on long expeditions to unlock new areas, hunt pirates, or obtain artifacts. There’s not much to the combat; you have to make sure ships are angled correctly and you can get abilities to use but you’re mostly just watching the ships shoot at each other. One, on the one hand, it’s a shame there isn’t a bit more depth to the battles, but on the other hand, the game already demands so much of you.

Anno 1800 has so much stuff to do, between building and maintaining multiple islands accross multiple continents, trade routes, and NPC quests. What is strange is that the pause prevents you from performing actions, and there’s no slowing down the game speed, only fast-forwarding. No gameplay pause is a weird disincentive as it makes expanding to my fifth island off-putting as I’m not going to have the attention to manage it on top of everything else. It makes me feel bad when I neglect a town for a while and see I maxed out wood storage and wasted productivity. Not being able to pause means it’s impossible to manage all of your stuff, and it’s frustrating when your ships get caught by enemies when you’re busy elsewhere. By the time you get the combat notification it’s often too late to respond, and your ship full of precious cargo is destroyed. When playing on expert this happens all the time since there’s so many enemies in the sea.

There’s so much to love about Anno 1800, and it does so much right, but it certainly has its flaws. I think the large scale of Anno 1800 is self-defeating as when my cities become too gigantic I stop viewing them as cities as they turn into an Excel spreadsheet. You lose that sense of authorship when your city is just a giant blob of stuff, and it just turns into input and output of resources and fulfilling needs. It also becomes tough to find specific buildings, clicking about until you find the thing you’re looking for. Playing on Expert difficulty (or via custom game rules) lowers the size of the islands, which becomes a hard limit on the size of your cities, which I think makes it more manageable.

In particular, I found the fire and sickness mechanics annoying. They often happen on a different island that you’re not paying attention too, so you only get a notification after it’s already big and takes ages to put down. Fires and disease outbreaks don’t create any interesting gameplay, just make sure you have a Fire Station or Hospital nearby and it’ll eventually be taken care of. The annoying part is while the incidents are active, the amazing happy music is replaced by gloomy music every time you pan the camera over it. When you zoom out the music goes back to normal, so it can be jarring when it cuts in and out, changing different music tracks depending on where your camera is. Fires and sickness might be an interesting mechanic if they were actually caused by something, such as having industrial stuff near a forest. But they’re not, they just appear randomly sometimes and play annoying music for 5 minutes. There’s also a Police Station which quells riots, but your people only riot if they’re unhappy, which is your fault. The rioting is a much better mechanic because it happens for a reason and can be avoided through the player’s actions.

The tiered population system is excellent in many ways, but upgrading them into each other has problems. You start by building a Farmer house, which increases in population up to 10 as all its needs become met. When the Farmhouse population maxes out, it can be upgraded into a Worker house, which also increases the population capacity from 10 to 20. Tying needs to population size is weird and frustrating when your Work Clothes supply drops from 100% to 99% satisfied, so then every single house you have drops to 9/10 or 19/20, which completely locks you out of upgrades. You can also get doom spirals where the slightest drop in Clothes can cause you to lose hundreds of workers, then knocking out even more needed resource production like Fish. I think it’d be much better if you could simply build Worker and Artisan houses without needing to upgrade them from Farmers Residences. It’s weird and unintuitive that supplies drops down to 99% so then suddenly hundreds of citizens instantly teleport off the island?

In some ways, the UI is very slick. In other ways, it’s not. Most city builders suffer from overwhelming new players with too many buildings and buttons. Build menus typically are categorized by tabs such as production, logistics, supply, and storage. Anno 1800 takes a different approach, separating buildings by the tier of population they belong to. New population tabs only appear after being unlocked, and buildings within each tab unlock after population milestones. Through this system, you’re not confused about what you should be building and where to find it. Buildings are grouped behind an icon that represents the end product of its supply chain. This makes it so much easier as you see your people need Bread, so you press the Bread icon in the build menu. Selecting the Bread menu shows the Grain Farm, Mill and Bakery, as well as showing you a diagram of how they relate to each other. This system is elegant as it saves you reading tooltips trying to work out and remember all of the things you need, and there’s no flicking through multiple categories of build panels trying to find the relevant icons. In some other ways, the game’s UI can be a letdown. I almost had completed the campaign by the time I realized I could upgrade my Warehouses because the upgrade button was hidden in plain sight next to several other non-interactable icons.

Another gripe was the tutorial woefully underexplained the game. There are tutorial elements in the campaign, but they’re too basic and leave so much out for you to work out on your own. Some mechanics, like the Diplomacy screen, I only discovered when I was reading something on Reddit. The campaign definitely should have served more of a tutorial than it did. Aside from that, the campaign is pretty good and goes for about 15 hours. Despite the tutorial lacking, the campaign is a nice way of introducing you to the game with more direction. Jumping into sandbox games like City Builders can take a while to get hooked on.

After I finished the campaign, I tried out some sandbox matches. The maps are procedurally generated, with different AI personalities and game rules to grant plenty of replay value. I love how the difficulty in Anno 1800 doesn’t just artificially make the AI tougher (Like give them extra resources), it changes the way the player interacts with the gameplay mechanics. On higher difficulties, the competitors will be harder to please, crop fertility is rarer, islands are smaller, and buildings can’t be moved or refunded. Ultimately, it means you’re much more reliant on trading, both internally (across your own islands) and externally (among NPC’s). Though I found playing on Expert made the pirates overly obnoxious, which didn’t feel fun or fair. Fortunately, there’s custom game rules to lower pirate count and leave all the other settings hard. There’s also multiplayer, but I never bothered with it.

In summary, Anno 1800 is an extremely detailed city builder about supply chains, trading, and efficient building placement. It deprives you of all the resources you need to force you to expand onto different islands and trade resources from other competitors. It combines many elegant systems such as press, tourism, quests and expeditions to generate depth and interesting decisions. Its presentation is gorgeous in all ways, especially the personality and voice acting of the characters. Unfortunately, it continually demands too much of your attention with no way to slow down time or give commands through pause. The specialization of labor between tiers of population is a great mechanic but is tied to a confusing and often frustrating upgrade path. It offers a nice campaign, albeit with a lackluster tutorial, and lots of replay value through sandbox missions. Its interface is much more approachable than most city builders through separating build menus by population type and grouping supply chains under the end product. Anno 1800, though not without its flaws, is the best city builder of its kind.

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