Genre: City builder/Strategy
Developer: Sunflowers Interactive
Publisher: EA Games
Release Date: March 24, 2003
Buy '1503 A.D.: The New World': PC
I love games. I love playing games, talking about games, and now, even writing about them, which gives me the potential to give a fellow gamer a little incite into his or her next gaming purchase. That, and maybe meet a few new friends along the way. The only setback to doing something like this is reviewing games like 1503 AD The New World.
Now that’s not to say 1503 AD is a bad game. Quite the contrary actually. This city builder features over 340 different buildings and structures, loads of different resources and items, along with neat graphics that give the game a feeling all its own. Building military units and fighting is largely an option in the game, and in most cases, if you don’t bother with it, then the computer wont either. All in all, 1503 AD is a good game. What has had me pacing the floor over this title is whether or not it’s a great game.
As I mentioned, 1503 AD is a city builder, the second in a series of games by Sunflower studios. The first game, 1603 AD, was a smash over in Europe, but didn’t really catch on over here in the states. While the game possessed a lot of the city builder standards, 1603 AD featured a down played military aspect and instead allowed the player to largely focus on building their empires, producing items, and trade. While 1503 AD does generally continue that same trend, the new game features improved military structures and units, along with the aforementioned additions to production and trade.
A typical game starts you out with one ship, some wood, and few other odds and ends. From there, you are to pick from one of several different islands, build your initial dock, and begin building your city. Each island is capable of producing different resources. Southern islands tend to be made up of jungle style terrain, islands to the immediate east and west tend to be grassland and mountains, and islands to the north are made up of snowy tundra. Again, each island produces different crops and resources. There are several different civilizations modeled in the game, everything from Native Americans, to Mongols, to Eskimos. The different tribes tend to inhabit certain types of islands, and are adept at producing certain goods, while need to trade for others. Once you’ve established your initial warehouse, you can then choose from a huge list of buildings, production chains, and the like. Normally you would start of with foresters huts, necessary for producing wood, which is the most important resource in the game. From there, you have sheep farms, weavers, fisheries, potato farms that produce alcohol, and tons more. The goal here is to build up your stocks of the base commodities, which are food, cloth, and leather. The main thing to know while stockpiling is that you are losing gold. Once you have a decent amount of items in hold, the next step is to build some houses.
Houses are the corner stone of the entire game. The secret is how many to build, and when to build them. I don’t want to give any exact information away, but suffice it to say, you will need A LOT of houses in order to survive in this game. Houses bring citizens, who in turn spend their money on your products. Of course, these citizens have certain demands that must be filled, or they wont be around for long. Houses have four levels of evolution to them, pioneer, settler, citizen, and monarch. Each level requires additional resources be available. For example, to evolve your houses from the pioneer level, your people are going to require alcohol and a chapel. Once they have access to these requirements, their houses evolve. As a house evolves, it can house more people. This is crucial, because the sheer number of houses you need to begin with is going to take up a lot of your room. Houses are the key however, because they only require wood to initially build. They’re a cheap investment, but a necessary one if you want to advance.
The jist of the whole thing however, is that as your houses evolve, more and more people are going to occupy your area. That’s more mouths to feed, more backs to clothe, and more livers to destroy. At the same time, as you add buildings to the production chains for these various items, your operating costs go up, and that’s where this game’s unforgiving economy model comes into play. Essentially, the economy model in 1503 AD is based around four simple numbers, population, operating costs, sales, and purchases. Two numbers reflect money going into your pocket, and the other two reflect money coming out. If you’re operating costs are lower than your income, than what is leftover is your profit. Of course if your operating costs are greater than your income, you go into the red, and you’re losing the difference. It’s a serious balancing act.
Unfortunately, this balancing act is where things start to get a little edgy with this game. To call the economy model in this game moody is an understatement. The game models issues like initial buying and new product rushes. Say you run low on a particular item, or even run out completely. You make the appropriate changes to the industry, begin to stock the item again, and eventually reintroduce it to your masses. They will then come rushing along; purchase the new item by the ton, and you will be making a lot of money…for a little while. Suddenly, things will taper off, and you will be back running borderline once again. I have seen instances where one minute I am turning a 200, 250 gold profit, and planning major enhancements, and the next minute I’m making 60 gold pieces, and just trying to hold on. The game is seriously moody this way. Another issue that plays into this is that, as your houses evolve, their requirements get more and more sophisticated, and it isn’t long before you’re dealing with buildings that cost money to maintain, but don’t directly produce anything that evens out the cost. Examples are churches and schools. While it’s true these buildings make your people happy, and even bring more people to your city, it’s not going to fully offset your economy. Going back to running out of a specific item or resource, this is an issue all on its own with this game. With just about every game I’ve played, it seems that I’m always running low on one item or another. This can happen quickly too. One minute everything is fine, tons and tons of every necessity in stock, but the next thing you know you’re either seriously low on something or have run out entirely. This creates a major issue, as once your people realize they don’t have access to a particular item, they are going to leave, thereby diminishing your population, which in turn effects your income. My gaming instinct would tell me to build more buildings within that particular industry, but that’s the next issue. You can’t power build a resource or item in this game. It simply doesn’t work that way. The only thing that trying to power build a particular item is going to do is raise your operating costs. Items can only be manufactured just so fast, no matter how many of the appropriate buildings you build. All your going to do is go broke.
Some of you might be wondering why, when one of the aforementioned problems arise, I don’t simply go to the usual spreadsheet style screen, find out what the problem is with a given industry, and make the appropriate adjustments. Well, kind reader, the reason for that is, there isn’t a spreadsheet style screen in this game, of any kind. The more popular city builders over here in the states all feature extremely detailed screens that tell you virtually anything you would want to know about your city. How much of this resource is being used, how much of this item have we produced, and so on. 1503 AD has omitted this. There is no screen that tells you how much beer three hops farms and one brewery are going to produce, or if your economy can withstand another cattle farm in your food industry, or anything of the sort for that matter. Those four numbers I told you about earlier? Population, operating cost, sales, and purchases? That’s all you get. That and a screen full of hungry houses to deal with. You have to know what each industry is capable of in terms of farms and buildings. You will have to be able to ask yourself questions like ‘how many hops farms and breweries does it take to liquor up 600 people?’ and know the answer. That’s just the way the game is. This is a hard issue to live with when you figure all of the various buildings and items this game deals with. The game literally screams for a major information screen or something. As much of an issue that this can be, at the same time, it has an amazing affect on the way you play the game. With an information screen, you’ll know exactly what you can and can’t handle, and that’s the point. This game makes you figure it out for yourself. Most games in this genre employ a system where, if you build two of this building and one of that building, you’ll get this much of this and that many of that. No matter, that’s what’s going to happen. In 1503 AD however, its not that’s simple. There is a certain degree of randomness about the game that might appeal to some, while frustrate others. Another thing I must mention when griping about this omission is that the game does model a lot of individual little things, like different levels of soil fertility. So if you build a farm on soil that’s only 80% fertile, then your not going to get the same output as you would from one built on 100% fertility. My point is that, in order for this game to employ a screen with a total breakdown of your economy, there would be a lot of factors to consider. The game would have to compute all of these various factors, and have to account for them within the information screen. That’s a lot of information. While such a screen would be welcome, it would also most likely be overwhelming at the same time. Still, the lack of an in depth economic screen, along with the economy in general, is what is going to make or break this game for a lot of people.
There are other questionable issues as well. For starters, other forum readers and I have experienced a rather strange situation in which your city just seems to go flat. The game hasn’t crashed, and people still meander about and do their work, but resources and items simply don’t stockpile. This has been mentioned many times on the official forums, but the developers have not commented on it. Myself, I think it’s a save game bug, but that’s just me thinking. There is also a mini occurrence of this same thing with alcohol, where you can have tons of alcohol in stock, but its not making it to the tavern for some reason. Unlike most other products, your tavern landlord goes and gets alcohol, rather than it coming to him, so that little quirk leads me to believe this is a slightly more serious bug, although once again, nothing has been mentioned in the forums about a patch. Lastly, the interface, which was supposed to be improved upon from the first version, isn’t. It’s quite a mess actually, and isn’t at all intuitive. It will have you clicking for days. Even after several months of play, I still haven’t gotten it down yet. The game definitely falls short in the interface category.
The game offers several modes of play, including sandbox, scenario, and campaign. The campaign included with this game is a real doozy, and has a tendency to use the aforementioned foreboding economy against you. Yet it was this same campaign that got me into this game. After several restarts, no smarter than I was before, I got mad, threw some empty pizza boxes around, spilled Pepsi everywhere, and sought refuge within the games forums. There, I encountered a strange little world simply teaming with people that…loved this game! And they all told me pretty much the same thing I’m going to tell all of you who might be considering this game down the road, do not start with the campaign! Don’t do it! Accept my insanity as a sign from above! Start with sandbox and get the hang of the game. I would tell you to grab the free Metropol scenario the developers created for the game, but I’ve downloaded it twice and I can’t get it to work. Do anything. Go outside and play hopscotch, but do not try and learn this game from the campaign. Damn those Europeans! Ahem, but seriously, after I played through a few scenarios, and with sandbox for awhile, I started getting the hang of this thing a little more. The game is quite intriguing, and if it gets a bite in you, you’re going to be hooked for awhile. As far as the economy issues and lack of any in game status screens, as one player in the forums put it, ‘it simply changes the way you play the game.’ That’s very true. One other neat aspect with this game is that there are several occurrences where, as your city advances, and is able to produce more diverse items, it is sometimes necessary to completely rebuild your island. In the real world, every city or town has had to do this at some point in its history, and it’s kind of neat to see it in this game. I found myself considering all of my cities redesign options while waiting in line at the grocery store or the Taco Bell drive through. As you advance, the older ways of doing things are replaced by much more efficient methods, and this requires you to completely reshape how things work. It’s also cool because you’ll get sick of the way everything looks after awhile anyway, and you’ll look forward to changing it.
From a military standpoint, the game has a neat little twist to it. Aside from the campaign mode, military units, and conquest in general, only comes about if you the player so choose it to. If you don’t build it, then the computer won’t. Once the computer realizes your building walls and such, they will do the same. As far as the campaign goes, that’s the second reason I would tell you to practice first. You’re going to get hit with the need for a military almost immediately, and as tough as the economy is in this game, it’s twice as bad when you factor in the heavy expenses and maintenance fees a militia brings to the table. Also, do know that when the game mentions anything to do with war or combat, get ready, because it takes a lot of units to destroy the enemy. There are some tricks of the trade, but war is a tough proposition here, which is just as well, because it gets tedious real quick.
Graphics wise, the game looks really good. There is good use of color throughout the maps and buildings, and everything has an appropriate animation and sound accompanying it. People bustle about your streets, wait in line at your product stalls, and generally mill about. Workers push carts around, walk from farms to factories, and look very busy. The game really looks alive. The in game sounds are well done, but the music is of the nerve grating variety, and brought back memories of a root canal I had a few years back. I was digging for the mute button in record time. All in all however, the game is presented very well. There are several levels of zoom, and the game has the quality where you can just sit back and watch your bustling city operate, marveling at everything, and swearing you’ve seen something new every time, even though its simply an illusionary brain effect, the likes of which these game developers know all too much about.
1503 AD is a really fun, surprisingly deep game. It has a lot of those little things going on that hearken back to the older days of computer gaming. Different, subtle little ways that certain things happen. And that’s a good thing. I can’t really call this game a niche product, because it’s a hardcore city builder in every sense of the word. A great game does a lot of things, one of which is to bring something new and innovative to the genre it’s representing. 1503 AD does a lot of things right, but falls a little short in some of the more obvious places. The games official site does mention an expansion pack, although it’s not known exactly what might be in it. A good expansion pack can sometimes make a good game even better, so that may be something to consider here. While some may have a hard time with the current $40 price tag, this game screams bargain bin, and would be a major steal that way, especially if you can get it bundled with a future expansion or add-on. Sunflower and EA also offer an excellent demo of this game, and I highly recommend it. If your familiar with the standard city builder type games, and want to try an interesting alternative, this might be the game for you. Those new to the genre or have only a casual interest might want to stick to something a little less imposing.
Score : 8.4/10