Ah, the 19th century: a time of unbridled expansion, industrial innovation, artistic humanism and political revolution. Or, looked at another way, rampant colonialism, nationalism, racial and economic subjugation and wholesale environmental destruction. Take your pick, name your poison, you be you.
Blue Byte’s Anno 1800 doesn’t explicitly delve into the darker corners of the industrial age. There are no children forced into jobs on the assembly line or serving as canaries in the coal mines and while there is trade and economic expansion aplenty, the issues around colonialism are never made plain. Instead, Anno 1800 — by far the best looking and most engaging of the Anno series of games — focuses on the tasks at hand: building thriving, smokestack-filled cities and a bustling economy.
The first thing you will notice about Anno 1800 is the incredible detail packed into every frame. This is a game that begs you to zoom in close and watch its tiny citizens go about their lives, jobs and moments of leisure. Those citizens are the heart of the game, and increasing their happiness and evolving them from unskilled workers and farmers to artisans is at the center of Anno 1800’s many, interlocking systems. As their sophistication increases, the populous demands more complex rewards and this leads to more involved chains of supply, demand, trade and manufacture.
In its early hours a game of Anno 1800 definitely feels like a city builder, minus some of the infrastructure elements that complicate games like Cities: Skylines. And played on easier difficulties, the game is very forgiving of building placement and makes it easy to demolish a structure, reclaim its resources and place it elsewhere without penalty. Push on to the mid-game and beyond, and Anno 1800 shifts into something closer to a Civ-like experience, where trade, piracy and conquest with other players or AI takes center stage.
All the while, of course, the literal wheels of the city building and population-growing machinery continue to turn. Anno 1800 is a dense collection of systems and subsystems that despite a lengthy tutorial campaign, are often opaque. Supply chains break without explicit reasons and manufacturing fails due to a lack of resources that can be less than obvious. Trade, diplomacy, warfare and manufacturing are a lot for one person to attend to and while many systems whir along unsupervised, Anno 1800 is definitely a game for the detail-oriented. To be fair, this dense complexity and slightly-broken feel are seemingly baked into all the Anno games.
Anno 1800 includes a sandbox mode, multiplayer options and a fully written and acted single player campaign that more-or-less acts as an extended, multi-hour tutorial. Although some may roll eyes at the over-the-top characterizations and knockoff Jane Austen language, the voice acting and writing do a good job of setting the game in a specific time and place. The musical score is likewise quite effective.
Anno 1800 is an incredible looking city builder that is packed with historical detail and graphical richness, supported by a complex and sometimes inscrutable collection of systems underneath the smokestacks and row houses. Getting everything just right is a challenge but playing in the Victorian-era sandbox is a lot of fun and the milieu is well represented in all areas of design and execution. Fans of city builders and economic sims will both find a lot to enjoy about Anno 1800, the best entry in the franchise so far.