One year ago, even though I suspected that Ubisoft will unveil the first details about a new Anno title at the GC 2008, I couldn’t attend the presentation. Bossman went instead, and before he started writing his preview, I only asked: “Will it be better than Anno 1701?”. Once he told me that there was a high chance of that happening, I tucked this tidbit of info in a corner of my mind, so as to not build up anticipation, and went about my usual business. Meaning Anno 1701 and its add-on, The Sunken Dragon.
Almost infinite replay value, multiplayer, the spirit of the series perfectly preserved, as well as various improvements over its two predecessors. What more could a series fan have wished for? Until I played Anno 1404, I thought the question to be rhetorical, but Related Design and Blue Byte found the answer: more complex economic chains, even lovelier graphics and some gameplay tweaks here and there, for flavor.
Those of you who have played an Anno before know what’s it about. You start off with a ship full of supplies, claim an island as your own and then you start building. And you keep building various structures until you have a phenomenally looking city, backed by a solid economy and the power which your warships grant, as they patrol the high seas. Anno 1404 doesn’t stray from this recipe, but it does bring certain welcomed additions.
If in Anno 1701 we had five social groups (Pioneers, Colonists, Citizens, Merchants and Aristocrats), here we have four (Peasants, Citizens, Patricians and Nobles), plus a more special one (Beggars). The first fundamental difference compared to its predecessor is the Ascension Rights system, which manifests through the inability to have a city filled only with the highest tier social class (Nobles, in this case).
Following a pyramid scheme, the existence of each social class in Anno 1404 depends upon the basis offered by a minimum amount of citizens from the immediate lower tier. In other words, not all Patricians will become Nobles, even if you do tend to all of their social and food needs. This principle is further conditioned by the way in which you arrange the houses. For instance, o Peasant Hut will have a higher chance of turning into a Citizen house if it’s closer to the Market, with the exception being when the Ascension Rights are turned off and you can manually select which houses to upgrade.
Any house can reach a superior level if the following conditions are met: there are a minimum number of lower tier citizens, the tax level is low, there are enough materials for building and maintaining the new structure, and the primary needs of its occupants are satisfied. So you need to use the Ascension Rights carefully and without rushing things, while the simultaneous existence of the four social classes means that you will have a much more realistic city, both structurally, as well as visually.
Another difference from Anno 1701 is represented by the Beggars. These blokes start to appear when the city reaches a certain level of prosperity, and banishing them will turn them into thugs, who can create annoying problems in the long run. However, due to the fact that Beggars are an inferior social class to that of Peasants, you can accept them on your streets (via a special building) and thus allow a bigger part of your Peasants to become Citizens, then Patricians and Nobles, following the pyramid scheme described earlier.
A third difference is that in Anno 1404 resources are consumed constantly, not just when there’s an upgrade for a particular social class. So ensuring an adequate amount of raw materials isn’t just recommended, it’s mandatory, and any major breach of this rule will lead to a city which can’t be properly controlled. In this regard, Anno 1404 is much more difficult than 1701 was, as the economic chains are much more sensible to the various disturbances which can occur.
The tax system also works differently from the one in 1701, in that you’re encouraged, and sometimes even forced, to use it. If the tax slider is on dark-green, the houses will fill up and their residents will be “upgraded” to the next social class. On green, you lose the citizen upgrade, on yellow the houses won’t fill up anymore, while on orange and red people will start leaving your city, which will also happen if one of their needs isn’t satisfied anymore (low cider production for instance).
In Anno 1701, even with the huge maintenance costs for your fleet and military units, you could still keep the tax level on green, with the added price of having to shut-down certain resource gathering/extraction or manufacturing units. Because of the sensibility of the economic chain (more buildings means higher maintenance costs) and the addition of the Ascension Rights, the income/spending balance is a lot more fragile now.
A positive balance with the tax level set on dark-green and fully operational economic buildings means that you’re producing just what you need to get by. Any increase in the productions of goods or resources has to be supported by a higher number of houses, or by trading the surplus. In both cases, having the tax level set on dark-green means that you’ll have lower income. The total amount of gold in your coffers will indeed increase, but in small increments.
Another method, much more rewarding financial-wise and highly recommended on the higher difficulty maps, is maintaining the tax level on yellow (you won’t get any new citizens, but you won’t lose any either). The extra amount of cash obtained this way can then be used to construct new economic units in order to create a surplus of tradable goods. A surplus which will bring hefty amounts of gold, as your trading partners will buy everything you send their way. Using this method, even though the income / expenses balance will be negative, to overall amount of gold (considering exports) will increase in bigger leaps. Extra gold which you’ll absolutely need if you want to employ an aggressive strategy against your opponents.
So if the first method is safer from an economic point of view, but more sensible from military disturbances, the second is the complete opposite, and the key to success it using then in tandem, depending on the map difficulty level.