Review : Colonization (subtitled "Create a New Nation")

Well, I rushed out and bought Colonization last Saturday in Game for #34.99,
not waiting for the cheaper mail-order offer, and it's already costing me
some lost sleep.  From first impressions, Sid Meier has produced a strategy
game to live up to the hype surrounding its release.

First off (in a rather lengthy review, sorry!) ... I'm on an AMD 486 DX2/66,
with 8Mb RAM, Orchid Kelvin 2Mb video card and SoundBlaster 16.  The box
says you need MSDOS 3.3+, 16MHz, 1Mb RAM, 5Mb HD, VGA graphics, with AdLib, 
Roland & SoundBlaster supported.   You need about 580k of base memory free.
Inside the box (ha!) it says you should have a 386/33 and MSDOS 5.0+. 

This review inevitably compares the game to Civilization; if you haven't
played Civ, well, shame on you, go and try it now!  In Civ you control a 
civilization from 3000BC right up to the present day (if the game lasts
that long), and much of the game involves keeping your people happy, 
keeping ahead of your rivals in technology, and either wiping out anything
that moves or being the first civilization to win a space race to Alpha
Centurai.  Colonization is rather different.

Colonization puts you in the place of an explorer from one of four European
countries setting off to the Americas in 1500.  You can play as England
(who get more immigrants), Spain (better at attacking natives), France
(better at relations with natives) or the Dutch (who have trade advantages).
The basic idea is that you have until 1800 to declare Independence from
your mother country, and from the moment of that Declaration you have until
1850 to defeat the Royal Expeditionary Force (REF) that your mother country
sends to put your rebellion down.  Thus the game is in two stages; the 
first is to get your economy and defences up to scratch to declare your
independence, the second is to beat the REF.  I like this idea, whereas in
Civ there was really only one goal, in Colonization after domainating the
Americas, you have another war to fight.  You'll get to hate your King;
having to pay him taxes *and* kiss his pinky ring, well, the sooner you
break your ties the better!

That's the idea.  Sounds simple enough.  The game graphics are very similar
to Civ, ie. they're not great, but they work fine.  There are three major
"screens" that you play from.  Around these are a number of frills which
gel the interface rather nicely.  The sound and music is very nice, and
there are a lot of background tunes that can play, though you can turn them
off they add to the atmosphere.  OK, the three screens ...

The "world" map.  The world you play in is either a realistic Americas,
or a randomly generated one (a must for replayablity, you can also tune
climates, land masses, etc).  You can see an area comprising about 15x12
locations.  Any land you haven't visited is blacked out.  Thus when you
make landfall in your only boat in 1500 you need to scout out good places
for colonies as early as you can.  From the world map, a number of other
screens and menus are available, the advisor reports on your (and other)
colonies and stats being particularly useful.  The view window covers 
an area measuring 60x48, with polar ice top and bottom, and routes back
to home off each side (with the east exit obviously faster).

The colony screen.  This shows the state of a colony.  Initially you can
use colonists in any of the nine direct neighbour locations to your actual
colony position.  You can set colonists to work to produce lumber, food,
cotton, ore, silver, tobacco, furs, etc, or you can put them into buildings
in the colony settlement to make things (tools, hammers, coats, cigars,
rum, cloth, etc).  If you don't produce enough food your colony shrinks
in size; it grows if you produce 200 spare tons of food.  You can of course
import food from other colonies in ships or wagon trains.  You get seven
buildings in a colony for free, others you must build;  they can increase
production, provide extra storage, allow you to build ships, provide better
defence, and so on.  Two buildings are important for gameplay; the town hall
is used to "make" liberty bells, which in turn raise rebel sentiment in your
colony and go towards "producing" founding fathers.  The church "makes"
crosses, which increase religious feelings and lure immigrants into freely
leaving Europe for your colonies.  Trouble is, if you concentrate on bells
and crosses, you don't produce enough goods to trade to get cash.

The European dock screen.  Here you can see the market prices for all the
16 goods available in the game: food, cotton, tobacco, horses, muskets,
ore, silver, coats, cloth, trade goods, cigars, rum, furs, lumber, tools
and sugar.  The cost of buying goods is higher than the price you get for
selling them, and prices fluctuate quite realistically on market demands.
For example, later on in the game the price of muskets will rocket.
Goods can be imported/exported to the new world on ships, of which there
are six types, with varying cargo, speed and combat abilities (caravel,
merchantman, galleon, privateer, frigate, man-of-war).  In Europe you can 
buy ships (expensive), pay for skilled colonists, or offer cash to pay for
crossings for colonists waiting in the small immigration pool (an area from
which colonists will choose to pay for their own crossing if you produce 
enough crosses).  It takes a few turns for ships to sail the ocean, and they
don't always arrive quite where you want.

From this you can probably guess the emphasis from Civ has been changed
to one where more strategy is required, in dealing with the local problems
of each colony, in handling relations with the native indians (Arawak,
Aztec, Inca, Tupi, Iroquois, Cherokee, Sioux and Apache), in keeping the
other three European powers at bay, setting up good trade routes (you
can set ships & wagon trains to move along fixed routes loading and unloading
named goods at each destination with a lovely trade run editor) and finally
generating liberty bells and winning the inevitable conflict with the REF.

In Civ it often pays to attack aggressively, keeping town sizes small and
concentrating on producing weapons.   In Colonization you can gain treasure
by killing indian villages off, but you will raise indian alarm, and the
indians have very high combat bonuses and are no pushover to get into a
drawn out conflict with.   Thus it pays to trade with or give gifts to
the local indians, to send missionaries to them, to send colonists to them
to learn skills, and to generally placate them.  In return, they honour you
with gifts and some of their tribe may come and work for you by choice.

Colonist skills are very important, some can be trained in Europe, and then
passed in in colonies with schools, others are only available from indians.
Skilled colonists work much better, eg. an expert lumberjack can create 24
units of wood in a good forest, while an unskilled "vanilla" colonist might
only make 6 per turn (per year, or half year, depending on the game year).
Educating your workforce can pay big dividends, but like many aspects of
the game, it takes time and you have to choose priorities and make your
own compromises.

The other European powers can be a problem.  Conflicts at home may force
events upon you, but fighting requires muskets and horses, and is a heavy
drain on resources.  Combat is very Civ-like, but there are much fewer
combat unit types: soldier, dragoon, veteran soldier, veteran dragoon and
artillery; then later colonial regular, colonial cavalry, Kings regular
and Kings cavalry.   Dragoons/cavalry losing a fight become foot soldiers,
and defeated foot soldiers become raw colonists.   If you defeat enemy
colonists, they join your side.  Unlike Civilization, troops have no effect
on your colony per se;  if absent colonists don't get unhappy ... the only
important colonist feature is their rebel support percentage.  They don't
use food, so you can build very large armies, if you wish.  In combat, it
appears that unlike Civ if you lose defensive fight in the open, you only
lose one unit, not the whole stack, which is good.

Naval power is very important.  You can blockade ports.  Privateers can
work for you, but they run the pirate flag, so can attack shipping with
less fear of reprisals.  A small fleet of privateers can plunder a lot
of valuable goods from merchantmen and galleons.   But they cost a lot,
and losing a frigate worth 5000 in one battle is not good.  Ships can
move goods around a lot faster than wagon trains, but are very vulnerable
to attack (even with the built-in evasion chance).  In combat, ships are
more often damaged than sunk; they then have to run for repairs at a dry
dock (or back to Europe if you have none in your colonies).

The crunch to win the game is the production of liberty bells.  Here is
where Sid has combined both the mechanics for rebel sentiment with a way
to provide an alernative to the tech advanaces in Civ.  The bells raise
your rebel percentage support in a colony - you need 50% support overall
before you can go for independence.  Much higher support is better, and
gives you more bonuses in production, and gives you more troops and more
combat bonuses against the REF.   In a very loose sense, bells relate 
to happiness in Civ.

The bells also act as Civ-style "light bulbs" to produce founding fathers.
There are 25 in the game, in 5 categories, each with a special bonus if
you get that particular father.  When one appears, you must choose the next
one to work on, with only one father from each category available at any 
one time (and apparently at random).  You only work on producing one founding
father at a time, so the choice you make is very important.  The bonuses
you get are kind of between the Civ tech and wonders of the world advances.
They are: Military: Cortes (more treasure from indians), Drake (+50% privateer
strength), Paul Jones (gain a frigate), Revere (unarmed colonists fight),
Washington (faster veterans).  Political: Bolivar (+20% rebel support),
Franklin (always offered peace by Europeans), Jefferson (+50% liberty bell
production), Paine (bell production raised by King's tax rate), Pocahontas
(better indian relations).  Trade: Smith (allows factories), Fugger (helps
King forget about your tax protests), Minuit (lets you buy land cheaper
from indians), Stuyvesant (allows custom houses for easier trading), De Witt
(allows trading with Europeans and gives info on rivals).  Religious: De
Brebouf (better missionaries), Brewster (better immigrants), Las Casas
(coverts indians to colonists), Penn (+50% cross production), Sepulveda
(more indians come to work for you).  Exploration:  Coronado (reveals all
colonies), Hudson (+100% fur production), La Salle (free stockades), 
Magellan (faster ships, fast route from west to home), De Soto (all units
see like scouts).

So, most of the Civ elements are present in Colonization, but there's
enough of a change, and enough new elements to provide a challenge to
the avid Civ player (like me :).  The emphasis has been moved somewhat
from combat to trade, there's much more to building a working colony
than there is to a town in Civ ... the Civ "shields" are replaced with
a much more detailed system, but it works very well.   The only drawback
is that if you're more into pillage and destruction you may not like
this extra detail.  However, it's much more satisfying now when you
create a solid foundation of settlements.

It's not all rosy.  Colonization does suffer from the same "end game"
problem that Civ does ... after a while you have a LOT of units to look
after, but with the trading and supply problems setting up trade runs
(with the trade run editor) can be fun and challenging (I sense a dash of
something here for railrood tycooners, but I've never played that game :)
Having to move goods around keeps you on your toes, more so than Civ where
the later stages (for me) would seem a little duller ... and here again
in Civ you'd *know* you were going to win after a certain point - in 
Colonization even with a good economy you still have to prepare for the
fight with the REF.  Overall, juggling with a lot of units doesn't bother
me, it's fun, but to some people it might tire, but if you don't tire of
Civ you'll be OK :) 

The only real element that is missing is improved diplomatic relations;
I was kind of hoping for something more Master-Of-Orion (MOO)-like, but
it's pretty Civ-like, with either black or white war or peace.  The
indian relations are more coloured (literally) as you can see their
level of alarm with varying colours of exclamation marks on each indian
village (and alarm at other European powers).   So it's an improvement,
and a nice touch - perhaps I'm just wanting too much :)

Other little things niggled me, but might not niggle others.  You can't
for example bombard towns from the sea any more, although coastal towns
with artillery can shoot at your ships!   On some occasions a slip of
the mouse on a pull down menu would send my units on "goto" orders to
some far off unwanted location (lucky you can cancel orders).  A minor 
point is English ships sailing from London, where more likely they sailed 
from Plymouth.  As I've said, the graphics are not great - it would be neat
to see the colonists actually working (ie. animated, as in Settlers/Serf 
City) but I guess gameplay takes precedence; just an opportunity missed.
Nothing big is amiss, and no obvious bugs (yet), so I can't quibble.

Whether or not the "AI" cheats at harder levels is beyond me yet, as I'm 
a coward on the easy level!  According to the manual, at harder levels,
the opposition are more cunning and aggressive.  Hurrah! ;-)

The manual is quite well written, and big .. 125+ pages of smallish print.
The one gripe I have with it is the index at the back includes things like
"pressing a button" but not "frigates" - so it's quite hard to look up
anything in particular that is puzzling you.  At one point a new colonist
arrived in a colony, and my production dropped across the board there.
Only after a long time did I discover that having 10 more loyalists than
rebels in a colony will penalise production.  It's not a bad manual in
the same way that say the BlueByte manuals are bad - it's a good read but
clumsy to look up from.

The plus points of the game must include a huge variety of different
tactics and strategies open for you to try out, combined with the random
world option and thus apparent replayability as offered by Civ.  It is
one of those games that keeps you up into the small hours.  You can't
put your finger on exactly what makes Civ so good, and I have this feeling
Colonization will be the same.  If a successful formula were that easy,
there'd be a lot of good strategy games out there - sadly there aren't :(
It's hard to make a "sequel" as compelling as the original, but I think 
Sid Meier has just about done it here.  Any minor complaints are just that.
I like it!   The true test of a great game is time; we can't judge that
for another few months, but if it holds its appeal for half as long as Civ 
already has, then it'll go down as a classic.

I'd recommend Colonization to any strategy buff; if you don't have Civ, 
you might preferto try that first (and you can now get it as a budget CD
buy along with Railroad Tycoon).  

Now, where did that Aztec treasure train go?  Send out the dragoons!

Tim Chown, 27 Sep 94

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