Review: 1849

By Kelsey Rinella 08 May 2014 0
Why did we have a national mania for mining in the most earthquake-prone state in the nation? Wasn't that a trifle ill-advised? You'd think it would pay to just go straight for the gold mine, but a source of iron ore might come in mighty handy if you find yourself in need of a pickaxe.

When I think of the Calfornia gold rush, my mind immediately summons hardy, tobacco-chomping brutes -- "when men were men"-types whose sepia portraits occupy the space in high school history textbooks next to glossary definitions of "rugged individualism".

SomaSim's 1849 doesn't quite share that John Waynian outlook on the past. In this gold rush-era city-builder you have to tend to these tough hombres and their families like one would a clutch of flannel-clad Fabrege eggs. When the going gets tough in your city (read: starvation, fire, rampant unemployment, or inadequate supplies of fancy clothes) then the tough really do get going right out of town.

At least they have their priorities in order: they don't care about clothes until long after there's a nearby saloon.

Because there's no elasticity of prices, managing your town's economy generally comes down to avoiding overspending while still investing enough to develop reliable income streams. That would be pretty easy, just a matter of finding the product with the best return on investment in each scenario, but for the demands of the populace. Sartre may not have been a mid-19th century Californian mayor, but "Hell is other people!" is awfully apt.

This time, I could maybe spare some lumber. All too often, this is the screen which lets you know how close you are to losing the town in ignominious bankruptcy.

The basic problem is that you don't get to be the sort of tyrant we're used to being in most games. People move in or out based on whether they can find what they want in town. You can't just pick up their little tokens and put them where you want, like you can in a worker-placement game, so in order to use the buildings you've had built in your town (and collect enough rent to pay for it all), you usually want to attract a few more people than you can employ. You can do that by opening many lots for new houses, but it's usually preferable to encourage people to improve a few. That means building saloons, schools, and churches, and providing your God-damned beloved citizens whatever worthless crap goods they desire, from basics like food and booze to items higher on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, like newspapers and Gomer Bolstrood furniture. Fail to make or trade for enough, and the fickle citizenry will start moving out, often dropping your rents low enough to cripple your economy.

1849 offers a reasonably long campaign which offers different sets of buildings and resources available in each of the 20 scenarios. These quite dramatically alter the necessary strategy, sometimes in quite subtle ways. There are no in-app purchases* or multiplayer options: it's just a straightforward exercise in not being abandoned by everyone who ever loved you in the wilderness you failed to conquer. A sandbox mode is also available on the PC version, so that may well arrive on the iPad in the future. The presentation isn't especially lovely, but it does the job and gives the game an old west flavor (pretty much the same as smoked beef jerky). More frustrating is that a very great deal of the game consists of noticing that you have the opportunity to do something obvious, like selling gold you've mined and can't use. Because it's a real-time game which can be paused or run at one of two speeds, there's a bit of tension between playing efficiently and avoiding time-consuming micromanagement while paused. Quite frequently, I found myself wishing I could automate the obvious stuff and then fast-forward until something important happened.

You can do better than, "A double dumb-ass on you!", Kirk. Each level offers three different starting positions. The differences between them are quite instructive, both about the systems of the game and your creativity with colorful language.

Though city-building can be a pretty dry genre and there are some minor irritations while playing, 1849 got me invested enough that I really began to resent my reverses. It's genuinely challenging, and is surprisingly effective at cultivating some assumptions through a series of scenarios, then breaking you out of them with a new problem. It's been said that players learn constantly while playing video games, and that may be true, but 1849 seems much more deliberate about that in a way that can be quite fascinating.

n.b. The App Store claims the game offers in-app purchases. I haven't encountered a way to make them, so that seems to be erroneous.

Review: 1849

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