Based on the date, the galleon on the box cover, and the pirate craze that's taken over pop culture thanks to a certain Captain Jack Sparrow, it's easy to think that 1701 A.D. is about flying the Jolly Roger on the Spanish Main. So you might be crestfallen to hear that this is actually a historical city builder that concentrates on the economic side of developing Caribbean colonies at the dawn of the 18th century. But even though that description sounds a bit blah, this sequel to 1503 A.D.: The New World and 1602 A.D. is more than just an economic simulation. Developer Related Designs has put a little too much emphasis on combat, but has balanced depth with such a great interface and a tremendous ease of play that this is still one of the most lively city builders to hit the PC all year.
Ah, the settlers are euphoric. Time for that massive tax hike!
The key is simplicity. Instead of going crazy with so many features and details that you get lost in micromanagement hell, 1701 A.D. is centered on the straightforward job of keeping colonists happy with necessities and creature comforts. So while you have an involved task ahead of you and must colonize numerous tropical islands, build houses and other town infrastructure, gather and produce resources like wood, fish, alcohol, bricks, gold, and jewels, and even set up island-hopping trade routes, the bottom line is always to make sure that citizens pay their taxes with a smile.
Best of all, you can't get lost in menus and spreadsheets (there aren't any), or ever reach that point where you're scratching your head over why the heck your homes aren't developing or your factories aren't working. There are four great tutorials here, and the basics are laid out so simply that it's easy to see at a glance what's wrong. Also, the game steps in with feedback that sets you on the right path during those rare moments when you can't immediately figure things out. It's been a long time since we've seen a city-building sim so free of finicky bits.
Much of this is made possible by the excellent interface, visuals, and sound. The game sports a clean, attractive look that lets you zip around the maps and zoom in on the 3D tropical paradises to check on your residents. Giving the people what they want is always easy; all you need to do is click on a house to see the face of a homeowner. A quick glance at his expression--laughing and jovial when things are going great, scowling when they're not--tells the whole story about your performance as head honcho, and the adjacent progress bars indicate how desires for specific products are being met. If this isn't good enough, you can also listen in for comments from the peanut gallery, which are always informative, if awfully repetitive. Hear "Our settlement is something to see!" or "What a wonderful day!" a lot, and you know you're on the right track.
You start with addressing essential needs like community, food, cloth, and faith through erecting buildings like town centers, fish farms, sheep farms and weavers' huts, and chapels. Meet these desires and the people will be pleased, which will result in both them and their buildings evolving to new social ranks (you start with pioneers, then move to settlers, then citizens, and so on) that bring with them demands for more luxurious items like education, tobacco, chocolate, and alcohol, and the ability to build new structures and facilities to provide all of these products.
Of course, if this was all that 1701 A.D. was about, the game wouldn't be particularly challenging. Thankfully, there are real obstacles to setting up a colonial empire in both the primary continuous mode of play, which is best described as an open-ended campaign, and the 10 one-off scenarios with specific goals like finding a lost ship or impressing a pirate captain. The most notable wrinkles in both modes of play are the islands themselves. They have limited types of resources, so you have to pick and choose a starting spot to set up, and then branch out elsewhere to access other necessities. Generally, you start off looking for a jack-of-all-trades island with plenty of basics like fish stock, good soil for grain, and maybe a clay pit, then head elsewhere as your colony develops a taste for the finer things, like booze and smokes.