Civilization IV is a grand strategy game in which you build an empire that spans every epoch of human society. Civilization IV: Colonization takes a much narrower approach, challenging you to found a city in the New World, grow it into an economically viable colony, and then forge a new nation by declaring independence and defeating the king's armies. However, don't mistake lack of breadth for lack of depth. Though each game of Colonization plays out in a relatively linear fashion, there are myriad facets of your colonial development and military tactics that can be tweaked and refined. As you hone your strategy, you'll discover new ways to make your colony even stronger, which in turn lets you hone your strategy even more. This positive feedback loop, along with sharp visuals and a rousing score, makes Colonization a rewarding, addictive endeavor.
Ships and wagon trains are the veins through which your economic lifeblood flows.
You are the scion of either the Dutch, English, French, or Spanish empire, and at the beginning of the game you choose which of the eight governors will lead your colony. Each has slightly different bonuses that draw on each civilization's colonial-era strengths: Dutch bonuses emphasize trade, whereas Spanish bonuses augment your military strength. Though these boosts cater to a number of different strategies, a few of them are much weaker than others (like attack bonuses vs. natives) because of the inviability of certain strategies (more on this later). After your selection, you are given control of a small boat loaded with a couple of units and plopped down in the middle of the ocean. Westward ho!
You quickly make landfall and face another important decision: Where do you found your first town? Each tile yields raw materials important to your survival and prosperity, but some regions are more productive than others. There are blue circles highlighting spots that are good candidates for settlement, which, while certainly helpful, takes much of the challenge out of site selection. Your first town must be coastal so you can trade with Europe, but later settlements can extend your colony inland to target valuable resources or occupy more defensible positions. Native settlements dot the landscape and often occupy prime real estate. Setting up shop too close to them isn't very diplomatic, especially if you don't have the gold to buy the land from them, but you can generally get up in their business without immediate repercussions. Though city placement is easier than in other Civilization games, you find more than enough challenge going forward.
In the early going you will also send out scouts to explore and map the new world. The scattered ancient ruins and burial grounds can yield sizable treasures, but you may incur the wrath of the locals if you seek these treasures out. Visiting native villages is not nearly as risky, and will often earn you a gift of gold or unit experience. The chief will also tell you what goods his tribe is interested in buying, and will tell you of that village's particular expertise. If you send one of your units to live among the natives, it will emerge a few turns later as an expert harvester and will generate significantly more of a particular resource when assigned to work an appropriate tile. These experts are a boon to your economy, and the fact that local tribes will train them for free is one of the many reasons that warring against natives is an unappealing option.
The city screen allows you to easily manages all aspects of your settlement's production.
After laying your foundation, you begin to grow your colony's economy. Generating and processing commodities will be your primary concern for most of the game, and that will be eclipsed only by your revolutionary war. There are three basic categories of goods that your colony will create: resources to grow and strengthen your towns (food, lumber, ore, tools, guns), raw materials that are the foundation of trade (furs, tobacco, sugar, cotton), and refined goods that fetch high prices on the European market (coats, cigars, rum, cloth). What you produce in a given city depends on how you put your colonists to work. On the city screen, you can easily drag your citizens to a map of the city's workable tiles to harvest raw materials, or place them in one of your city's buildings to refine goods. The visual interface is initially busy, but ultimately feels clean and intuitive. It's essential to balance your asset production to meet your need for colonial improvement and European gold, but it's nigh impossible to do so within each city. Therefore, as you maximize the output of your individual settlements, you must be mindful of how each piece fits into the whole.
Once you get a few settlements up and running, the need to link them together becomes paramount. Whether you're transporting raw materials from the fledgling wilderness towns to the more populated and productive coastal ports, or sending tools to the interior to bolster construction, you'll need to construct wagon-train units to get them there. As your production volume increases, you'll want to access the governor menu in the city screen to help automate trade and streamline production. You can emphasize or deemphasize production of certain materials, and determine what goods the city imports and exports. Figuring out the optimal patterns for transport is a stimulating challenge, one that requires both micro- and macroscopic strategy.