If I were to name one single game which impressed me most in the 1990s, it would not be one of those heavily parallax scrolled action titles or one from the emerging 3D shooter genre and neither a laugh-out-loud party like Monkey Island or Eric the Unready. Reaction games, while fun for some time, have never been grabbed my attention for long. Plot-driven games, while potentially amazing first time around, hold the issue of never being repeatable in their experience. Simulations of complex world models, on the other hand, can offer endless variety. They “just” have to avoid being too simplistic or too dry. Enter.
Starting from an impressive castle, equipped with more or less impressive starting resources depending on intended difficulty, it is the player's task to build up a functioning economy from the ground. Ideally before the other rulers active on the map hog all the natural resources. There's a forest? Let's chop some wood. Rocks? Send the quarrymen. What may be found in the mountains? Iron ore? Coal? Maybe even gold? Let's survey and if those prospectors find anything build some mines. Oh, the complete forest is gone now? Let's plant some grain for later harvest.
The underlying economic model hits the sweet spot of complexity and accessibility. Raw materials can be processed in different ways, sometimes in more than one step. Coming from the mill, grain can be used to bake bread or fed to the pigs, which in turn can slaughtered later on to produce food another way. Fishing provides instant food on the other hand, but output is limited. Coal plus gold equals bullion, but coal can also be used to produce iron. Iron can be forged into weapons or tools. And so on.
Meaningis, on the one hand, a game of setting priorities. There is never enough of everything for everything. Taking good decisions and adapting them as the game goes on is key. Which construction site needs a delivery of wood most urgently? Which mine should receive a new helping of food so that the miners actually perform some work? Knowing that even when they win something, it will take several further steps (and therefore time) until the final product can actually be used.
The excellent design decision being that none of this needs to be micromanaged. Instead, the player uses generic menus to set priorities which will then be globally and automatically carried out. Some of these menus may only be semi-intuitive, but once understood, you won't want to miss them!
On the other hand, it is a game of optimizing space. Putting a sawmill close to the forest is common sense to keep transport distances short. Though better keep those trees away from your spacious farms in order to increase the latter's effectiveness. Is it really a good idea to have all materials not needed immediately back to the initial store in the castle or could there be smaller decentralized ones in different places?
What is a suitable place for a large stronghold, considering its protection effect for surrounding key buildings, but also its potential as a training ground for later offensive action? What's the ideal density of such military buildings, taking into account that if each covers a large area, you are vulnerable to attacks, but on the other hand, they take up valuable space (of which you will obviously never have enough) and also, do you really want to spread your forces thin?
The long-term goal of supremacy on the map is organically split into various phases or steps. Get the production of basic materials for construction running. Secure access to promising regions to mine. Kickstart food production. Turn the raw materials into gold (literally or figuratively).
All this decisionmaking is performed on a graphical map. Small settlers are moving around in real time, their sprites and animations easily rivaling the famous Lemmings charm. Though things don't stop there. Wind blows through the treetops, small animals move around… none of this is in any way necessary for the gameplay, but along with the music and sound effects, it makes for an amazing, calming atmosphere.
Meaning on the technical side,is a sensation. There is always so much going on on the screen and it is nevertheless running so smoothly that it is hard to imagine that this is still (virtually) the same computer on which a simple two-coloured bouncing ball dropped jaws in the mid-80s!
One of the few minor issues is probably the interface, as hinted at before. Although a clear intention to let the player control everything with the mouse and usually give commands immediately on the map (and otherwise icon-based, graphical menus instead of walls of text) is visible, for sure some left or right or simultaneous clicks are not exactly intuitive. They work efficiently once taken in, though, so even this turns into a non-issue after some hours.
Also, each game suffers from the long endgame, as common in global strategy games. It may even happen that one player achieves a clear position of dominance, but it may still not be sufficient to officially win, ever. This makes playing random maps, where players can set their own winning condition, much more attractive than the rather forgettable “campaign” (which is nothing but a series of pre-made maps with no link between them anyway).
Keeping perspective on the big picture, however, it is clear thatis a game for the proverbial remote island. Even if the steps will be known after the first few games, their assembly, order and priority will need to be different each time, based on the distribution of opponents, landscape etc. And believe it or not, if you happen to have company on your island, you can even play splitscreen on the same machine. So remember to bring two mice with you!