Martin Wallace’s Anno 1800 is an odd duck. It shouldn’t work. I’m not yet convinced it does. It’s the sort of thing one would make when attempting to satirize eurogames in a bad sitcom. It’s the game people who still use “nerd” as a pejorative think nerds play. No one unaccustomed to the sort of hieroglyphic madness we’ve learned to accept and enjoy will have any clue of what they’re looking at. I counted over seventy unique symbols in this game. Seventy! Amazingly, it’s comprehensible and kind of compelling, if only because all of Wallace’s design decisions are so incredibly ill-advised.
I’ve never played any of the Anno PC games, but I understand they’re exploration/building/management games in the Civ/Sim City spectrum. If the board game is any indication, they’re not striking any new ground, or, if they are, it’s in the details that didn’t make it over to the analog port. Anno 1800 feels like a board game that was, in its first draft, ten hours long before Wallace started stripping away features and simplifying mechanisms until he could get it down to a couple of hours. Then, realizing that essentially all that remained was the tech tree (the massive, sprawling tech tree), he said “good enough” and shipped it out. I could be wrong. Maybe he designed it straight up this way. If so, I don’t know if that’s genius or laziness.
I assume something like this tech tree exists in the digital game, because something this laughably over-encumbered wouldn’t make it through any other way. The main board is covered in tiles for all sorts of 19th century tech and resources, from pigs to penny farthings. Setting it all up is annoying, but once you’re committed to the game it starts to make sense. The way everything is organized on the board is carefully crafted, flowing from one area to the next based on when you’re likely to want that particular tech. More than once I’ve seen a particular symbol on one of my goal cards only to look over where I think that tech should be on the board to find it right there where I expected it to be. Still, much of the game is spent looking at and decoding symbols, trying to figure out exactly where you are in this labyrinth, charting where you ought to invest next.
It’s a logistical game, one with more decoding than normal, disguising the fact that the logistics aren’t as nuanced as its visuals might suggest. The goal is to get the most points, gained through playing cards, though, hilariously, you get more cards as you build your economic engine, to the point where the cards that give you the ability to trash other cards (which, may I remind you, are how you score) become valuable, if not strategically, then as a release valve for all the information that’s being thrown at you. Anno has one of my favorite game mechanisms—when players control when the game ends—but makes it a rudimentary decision. Are you winning? Then end the game. If you’re not, don’t end it. I suppose getting yourself into the position to be able to end it is an accomplishment, but either way if you’re outpacing your opponents in points, it doesn’t really matter.
Anno is all about technological development, and it’s heartening to see it recognize how significant trade is to that development. Each player begins with only a handful of worker cubes by which they’re able to pay for production and development. Managing these cubes before you spend a turn to reset them all is the primary logistical challenge. Resetting, of course, is a necessary but wasted action, and in a game about keeping up the pace with your point-scoring, you want to keep those wasted actions down to a minimum. You’re going to fall behind if you try to develop every tech you need to play all your cards, so you need to keep an eye on what your opponents are working towards and plan to pay them for the privilege of using their own research to advance your goals.
Anno 1800’s setting places it square in the middle of the early development of economics as a distinct academic discipline. Remember that the full title of Smith’s opus is “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, and the causes, he found, were in the division of labor and trade, rather than mercantilist hoarding and protectionism. Ricardo, a couple decades later, further articulated why trade is so important with his concept of comparative advantage. You can see all of this at play in Anno 1800. Trade is simply good. Sure you give your opponent some coin, but you save the time in both directions: you can spend the workers you would have spent developing that tech elsewhere, and you slow down the rate at which you need to reset those workers.
It’s a shame, then, that colonization is treated as a complete afterthought; an action that’s surprisingly cheap, but nothing more than flipping over a tile and seeing which resources you get access to. It, along with city planning and expansion, feel like something that used to be more robust, in that hypothetical 10-hour version of the game. Instead of excising them completely they’re neutered down to nothingness. It’d risk being offensive, in the same way so many board games that have colonialism are, if it weren’t so slight. It’s not that reducing the new world to a vending machine for coffee and cotton isn’t worthy of a bit of side-eye, it’s just that there are bigger fish to fry.
Anno 1800 is cluttered. It starts with dozens upon dozens of symbols in front of you and somehow gets more cluttered from there, with cards all over the place, marking abilities spent or held in reserve. Once you get a couple of games in you’ll start to realize how simple it is at its core. The clutter is necessary to sustain it as a challenge. It’s a navigational race; whoever can see through the chaos and chart the cleanest path to scoring wins. As you play more that navigation shifts, mercifully, towards reading and predicting the paths of others, taking advantage of what you don’t have to research to jump ahead.
It’s cluttered, but I kind of like it. Maybe I’m a sucker for games that have me suss out obtuse resource-conversion relationships. Maybe I love tech trees more than I think. It might be that Anno 1800 is so brazen in its bad decisions that you laugh them off quickly before discovering its subtle elegance. I think new designers often think that if you follow all of the rules, crafting something permeated with conventional design wisdom, you can’t err. That’s how boring, forgettable games are made. Sometimes you’ve got to do something ill-advised to break a design out of monotony. Anno 1800 is extremely ill-advised.
Review copy provided by publisher.