The good old days
I remember many a sunrise after a long night of playing The Settlers. The game was in a league on its own when it came out back in 1992, mixing Real-Time Strategy with production chains that had never been done before. I have played every Settlers game since and witnessed its decline from being one of the best strategy franchises out there to the insignificant blip on the radar that was Settlers 6. I had all but written the game off until the first footage of Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom gave me hope of a true revival of the series. That revival, I am happy to report, did indeed arrive and in many ways BlueByte took the game back to its roots, adding many modern day features to make the game live up to today's expectations.
The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom is a Real-Time Strategy game with a strong focus on building and optimizing a flourishing economy. Most players will start with the Campaign Mode, a lengthy and well-designed string of maps on which you are asked to achieve specific goals. An in-game character guides you through each of the missions, offering advice and furthering the storyline. The campaign mode is not there just for your entertainment. It acts as a tutorial and is packed full of information that is served up in small dosages so that you don't drown in all the information. Half-way playing through the Campaign mode, I was already stunned at the level of depth that the game offers. No matter whether you are conducting research, make war on neighboring sectors, engage in trade or strengthen your economy, the attention to detail can be felt everywhere.
Yet while the campaign offers you a great way to get acquainted with the various gameplay elements that make up the game, you will no doubt spend most of your time on the game's Skirmish or Multiplayer maps. Here, you will be given a tiny plot of land, a handful of buildings and a few servants ready to do your bidding. Your task? Expand your territory and win the game either by gathering enough Victory points or by defeating everyone else on the map. Both, of course, are easier said than done.
The Victory points are a bit of a mixed bag. You can win points in many different ways, ranging from owning particular territories to gaining the upper hand in trade or research. Victory points can also be won by completing a quest. These are given out by NPCs on the map and usually involve showing your military strength, sending aid or charming the NPC by giving him or her large quantities of certain goods. Some points are gained indefinitely but others can be taken away when another player does better than you. The number of points required to win vary from map to map but you are usually looking to gather three to six points. The run for victory points certainly spices up the gameplay and creates a real sense of urgency. Unfortunately it also means that you will sometimes have lost your game before you even got your economy going. I have seen games lasting thirty minutes with one player gathering 6 points and no one in a position to do anything about it. Game over. The opposite may also be true. During one game I finally had some semblance of an economy going and I was desperately trying not to pass the 6 points required to win so that I could continue playing.
A more satisfying way to win a game of Settlers 7 is to conquer the home sectors of your competitors. Between theirs and yours, a slew of neutral sectors lay waiting to be taken over by your troops, or of course the armies of your foes. Each sector is protected by a small army and acts as a buffer zone, prohibiting players from attempting a 'tank-rush' maneuver. The most straightforward way to take over a sector is by sending your army to pick a fight but there are other, more subtle ways as well. If you have enough clerics, you can send them to convert a sector to your cause. Unfortunately this means that the troops stationed there will leave but it does keep your army away from harm. Another way is to simply bribe the defenders to leave their posts. Whatever you chose, you will often have to ramp up your defenses right away as your neighbors are not sitting still either. Like you, they may well be plowing their way through the map's sectors on their way to the ultimate clash.
Settlers back on the right path again. Lots of replay value.
Frustrating DRM and server issues.