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July 2019

The Settlers

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: Fall 2019

About Andreas Salmen

I'm sure this is all just a misunderstanding.


PC Preview - 'The Settlers'

by Andreas Salmen on Sept. 3, 2018 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

25 years after the debut of The Settlers, the build-up strategy series returns to PC, under the leadership of Volker Wertich, the inventor of the series.

Gamescom 2018 brought a few new reveals and announcements, one of which was an exciting one for fans of strategy and city-building games who aren't already satisfied with the upcoming release of Anno 1800. As the missing number or subtitle might suggest, The Settlers is a reboot of the franchise. After 25 years and many sequels, developer Blue Byte wants to go back to its roots of countless miniature settlers doing their thing in a confined space, while you're trying to organize a city between overlapping minions on their way to the wood chopper.

Lead Game Designer Christian Hageldorn walked us through an early pre-alpha build of the game to showcase its design philosophies and early concepts. In essence: It's a reboot, the original creator Volker Wertich is involved, and the design catchphrase is, "What you see is what you get."

We start our demo as we would start a new game: seizing a beach and starting a new settlement. One thing is immediately apparent: Ubisoft's own Snow Drop engine has found its way into nearly every title, as details and visual fidelity in The Settlers are a remarkable step up for a series that was originally best enjoyed from afar. This was done for both strategic and visual reasons.

Our settlers start carrying resources on land while we build out the basic infrastructure with a berry picker, residences, a wood chopper, and a keep to the north to both defend and extend our borders. The "what you see is what you get" approach is at heart of everything. Coming from games like Anno, we are used to looking at basic statistic screens, such as food production and usage, all of which are reduced or currently nonexistent in this version of The Settlers. The game aims at giving players visual feedback. Your minions carry a freshly caught fish to the market, another settler may buy that fish and carry it, visibly, home to cook it and present it to a craftsman after work who came home to replenish his energy after chopping wood all day.

The Settlers wants to visualize everything that happens to make it both more apparent and intuitive to control and follow without burying yourself in a stack of menus. Time will tell if that concept will hold up or change, especially once we reached a sizeable community of hundreds of settlers all trampling each other. It is remarkably simple and interconnected to be able to visually attribute your food production to the energy and performance of other settlers and vice versa. The whole game is based on these principles. If we need new craftsman or military, our residents will walk into the training academies, visibly train, and then walk away as new craftsmen or soldiers.

As we build roads to enable our settlers to quickly travel between points of the city, we create more buildings, and more settlers appear. The Settlers uses the usual color coding for distinction, like blue for craftsman and a pre-chosen player color for your military. As we grow, we may decide to shift our workforce. We need new weapons, and the weaponsmith is swamped, but building a new weaponsmith is overkill and would take too long. We can assign any settler in the world to a short-term assignment, so they'll do our bidding exactly once and then return to their usual tasks, which is helpful for less permanent demands and allows hem to shift focus for a period of time.

As our settlement grows and we create more settlers, we need to advance by adding more resources, such as building a copper mine that, in turn, enables us to upgrade other buildings, such as the wood chopper. Our wood chopper is now able to add a second worker, thus diversifying the product range to include soft wood and hard wood. A handy slider lets us decide which of two we want to prioritize. While we make rapid progress with our new settlement, we move on to a later part of the demo — two hours later, to be exact.

In the middle of it all, our town hall has been built out — again, a distinct visible representation of how far we've come. There are 3,000 settlers on-screen, but we've become smarter in organizing them. Instead of everyone carrying a single resource, donkey carts now roam the streets to carry everything. Our settlers have also figured out how to be more effective in their cooking endeavours and can create more energy out of less food. We are now inhibiting half of the island on which we were originally stranded. Our expansion hasn't gone without notice, though, and a military attack is imminent.

Military encounters in The Settlers are straightforward affairs. If you defend your own city, archers will automatically man your city walls to rain down arrows while your ground troops will take the fight to the enemy. We stand victorious and prepare for a counterattack. As we take the fight to our opponent city, things become more interesting. There are two ground troops at play: Berserkers seize up the walls, and normal units tear them down. Our general is present, and his presence brings additional skills to battle, such as the opportunity for your army to shield itself from incoming arrows above their heads.

This marked the action-filled conclusion of our gameplay demo, with the city walls of our enemy crumbling under the weight of our settlers. We also got a glimpse of a new mechanic that isn't playable yet:  the arena. The Settlers will have different paths for victory and taking over opposing settlements; one of the paths is challenging and consequently beating a foreign leader in a one-on-one arena battle. This wasn't a fleshed-out concept yet, but it's one of several things that may end a game. It's also possible to cause rebellions in other settlements that then, on their own, "displace" their former leader.

While our demo was an interesting look into the principles of game design for the reboot, The Settlers seem to be at a rather early stage, so some gameplay elements are still missing. A lot can still change at this point, but we're interested to see is whether Blue Byte can balance the approach to simplify game design through visual cues while maintaining the series' depth and playability for veterans and newcomers alike.

The Settlers is set to release in Fall 2019 for PC.

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