In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
After that came Colonization.
Surprisingly, considering my love for all things created by Sid Meier, I'm coming to Colonization as a novice. Fortunate then that I have Tristan – a seasoned pioneer, with plenty of childhood experience in the original game – looking over my shoulder, and encouraging me to make the most of his swanky new TV.
But my inexperience isn't a big problem starting out. The remake of Colonization has been built on Civilization IV, so the basic controls will be familiar to anyone with prior Civ experience. And even those coming to this out of the dark ages should be able to get their bearings in about the time it'd take them to get their chainmail off.
The game is set entirely in the 'New World', and begins with your first boatload of settlers, not yet in sight of land. The Americas seem a little arbitrarily cut off from the rest of the planet, but that's part of Colonization's charm, and indicative of the narrower focus than in Civ – something which allows for a much deeper look at the period. And, once you get used to your ships navigating to Europe-zone at the edges of the map, then disappearing and bringing up the Europe menu-screen, it's actually a useful gameplay tool. It keeps life simple – as it should be for a settler in a new land.
Early on, the emphasis on exploration and the stream of meetings with various Native American tribes make Colonization feel almost like a role-playing game. There's a fair amount of treasure-hunting to be done (logistical issues with larger hauls make this a little more interesting than just point-click-kaching). But the real money in the early game is in barter with the natives. Keep your ear to the ground, send you ship to Europe for whatever goodies the locals desire, and then proceed to rip them off as extensively as you can.
The first couple of settlements come reasonably quickly. The majority of units in Colonization are fairly interchangeable – your Master Distiller may have particular skills in turning sugar into a fire-water, but that doesn't render him unable to work in the fields – and anyone can found a city, build its infrastructue, or defend it against aggressors (provided they have the right tools for the job). This ties in rather nicely with Colonization's slight (and not unreasonable) preoccupation with democracy and freedom: you're founding a nation of immigrant everymen with valuable individual skills, but also a universal ambition and work-ethic.
The initial exploratory phase then starts to give way to the building of your economy. At first, this is no more than simple resource exploitation, combined with a buy-low-and-sell-high travel-and-trade game: your merchant vessels sail to Europe full of cotton/tobacco/silver, and trade for muskets/blankets/trinkets which they sell to the Indians, before filling up on raw materials and setting sail for another round trip. You can quickly find yourself with a virtual conveyer belt of transport ships, one pulling into port as another leaves. Restrictions on storage of goods make it important (and quite challenging) to keep on top of your trade needs.
As the trade and building phase of the game goes on, the return trip from the Old World becomes less and less about hauling resources back to sell to the Incans next door, and more about boosting your population. There will always be a stream of 'free' immigrants, but impatience and specific requirements for your colony mean you will general find yourself 'buying' new people out of the catalogue. Comparisons to the mail-order bride business are, I guess, inevitable.
Trade heats up further, of course, once you start to grow your population, and develop a secondary economy – because sugar and tobacco are valuable, but the real money is in rum and cigars. (Oh, the decadence!) Getting to this more advanced economy is a blessing and a curse. You make a heap more money, but you will also find your specialised settlements need to trade between one another. Pretty soon, you'll be wondering about the possibility of outsourcing your whole supply chain, as you repeatedly send wagons with food to one end of the colony that is starving, while still attempting to keep all the raw materials coming into your factory towns. At first it's a challenge, but after a while it just feels like a chore.
What is particularly interesting about Colonization, as against the Civ games, is the relationships between the different factions. There isn't, for example, the same emphasis on war. With the Indian tribes, it is usually most effective to just buy up their land and gradually force them into little pockets where they don't bother you. The insidious invasion is far less risky, and generally far more effective, than resorting to violence. There's a saying I remember, from a less politically correct age: 'The only good Indian is one who has been marginalised by the cultural imperialism and unsustainable expansion of so-called western civilization'.
As for your rival colonies, they seem to be far less important (in single player games, at least) than dealings with the natives, and the always-tense relationship between colony and homeland. Essentially: the King is a dick. When he's not raising your taxes, he is just flat-out demanding money off you. And can your pioneer citizens even vote for MPs? Not bloody likely! You can fight these tax-hikes incrementally, resulting in trade embargos on specific resources, but eventually the whole thing needs to come to a head.
It's easy enough to stroll through most of the game in a peaceful fashion. The management of trade, etc, make this a far more rewarding experience than you might expect from a non-military path. However, your real goal is to get your people to back a revolution – and a successful one at that. Transition into the final phase of the game is achieved by building 'rebel sentiment', through the construction of presses, etc (a bunch of stuff that just smacks of liberty and independence).
Once you've declared your independence, you face the full wrath of your motherland. And this is really where Colonization makes its mark. While it doesn't have the scope and the different gameplay options of Civ IV, it does have an impressive Boss battle. So the replayability in Colonization comes from failure – the war of independence being a kind of final test of your new country. If you don't succeed, the challenge is there to start again and build a better colony, one that will be ready to face its parent in armed conflict. This is the dynamic that makes the game a real challenge – a real quest as against the sandbox of Civilization.
It is also what gets the game out of the mire of micromanagement – a definite downside of the pioneer experience – and over the treacherous passes of its sometimes clunky and often less than obvious interface. (Sure, it's great to have the buildings look vaguely realistic – except that it's hard to tell one from the other. I would have gladly accepted some cheesy cartoons or low-res symbolic graphics if it made the game easier to play.) That you have a singular and overriding goal (Freedom with a capital F) is what keeps Colonization alive, and what makes it a worthwhile investment, not just for those looking to relive the good times they had back in '94, but for anyone on the look-out for a strategy game to seriously sink their teeth into. It might not have Civ's replay (read: dangerously addictive) quality, but it's a tough nut to crack, and well worth its expansion price-tag.