by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
City builders come in all shapes and forms, but I do believe that 1849 is the first with a Wild West theme. It’s an interesting change of pace from your average medieval or modern city builder and it smartly keeps the game firmly on a separate path from current genre leaders such as the Tropico and Anno series. It works out relatively well but it’s not without flaws. Perhaps developer Somasim should have thrown a few more beans into the beanpot for a more meaty experience?
Your first order of business is to work your way past 1849’s simplistic graphics. The unexciting and low fidelity graphics are a bit of a let-down and generally lack polish. Buildings cannot rotate, the viewing angle cannot be changed, the animations look like they were made a decade ago... Right from the start it is clear that 1849 needs to deliver on gameplay, even if the cute, cartoon-like aesthetics make up for some of the lack in visual splendour.
True to its genre, 1849 starts players off with a plot of land, some cash on hand and a few settlers to jumpstart an economy. Playing a sandbox game, you get to pick a place somewhere in California whereas the campaign mode takes you along set locations in the Golden State. Whether you pick a location with plains, foothill or mountains, you will get a flat piece of land regardless. Differences between maps are found in the size, the amount and availability of metals, and the possibility of creating trade routes to established nearby cities where your goods can be sold and supplies bought.
Trade is perhaps the game’s most important aspect that would-be mayors will have to tackle. To open a trade route, one needs to spend some money. Once connected to another city, goods can go back and forth. This means that the town that can provide you with pickaxes may well be the same town to buy the gold and silver your mine uses to get them out of the ground.
As you can imagine, buying pickaxes isn’t cheap, soaking up most of the profit on that gold. You can remedy that by setting up your own pickaxe production line by plonking down an iron mine, a smelter and a blacksmith but there are some risks involved. Metal deposits run out and there really is no accurate way of telling when. The cost of the production line in the example above is rather steep and as such not a viable or sustainable way to run your town - or even to kickstart it. The limited supply of metals negates the need to upgrade any of the business involved simply because speeding up production means the resources will run out faster and turning all related buildings obsolete. Having resources run out so quickly and suddenly is an odd design choice that can even make the game fall flat on its face. What happens to a town that only connects to towns that will buy metals? It has no future whatsoever. Realistic, perhaps, but hardly fun.
In 1849’s defense, most maps will offer trade routes for metals as well as other products, in which case building a sustainable economy is perfectly possible, if not a little one sided due to the limited number of routes each town can purchase. Apart from trading, finding the right balance between the needs of the settlement and the need to grow is a satisfying challenge that has you sell stocked products, buy supplies and temporarily close facilities when income is too low to keep them open. All the while, you need to keep an eye on crime rates and fire hazards, building fire brigades and sheriff’s offices to keep things from being stolen or burning down.
Another thing to keep an eye on is your population’s needs. Small settlements can make due with simple housing, but the sheer amount of shacks required to house a population necessary to run a real town is staggering. Supplying your population with lumber, food, drink, luxury goods, education and religion will motivate them to upgrade their houses and thus expand their capacity and making them more efficient.
The game’s audio has a habit of assailing the senses. Panning stations have a loudly audible rasping sound and both the smelter and blacksmith push out a high-pitched ‘ploink’ as if someone is using a single fingernail to pull a single, high note out of a violin. When they all go in tandem, the result is absolutely maddening and there is no way to shut them off other than to close the buildings down or switching them off from the main menu. The latter solution requires you to leave the game. Fortunately the musical score consists of a handful of forgettable Western tunes so turning off - all - the sound won’t make you miss much. Other problematic aspects include a saving system that allows you to save only the game you’re currently playing and the game’s insistence on making the player buy and sell everything manually all the time.
Despite its unique Western setting, 1849 is a run of the mill city builder that might have been made 10 years ago and probably wouldn’t have had much longevity back then either. It’s not a bad game though. If you start a town that has trade routes for sustainable goods then there is enough to sink your teeth in for a few days, but not much beyond that.
Unique city builder with a Western Theme.
Lack of depth and some poor design choices keep the game down.