As we stare at the metropolis of Kaysershaven – created by Anno Online’s fictional character Lord Northburgh, who guides you through the game’s tutorial – we can’t help but feel overwhelmed. His city is a thriving, well-planned sprawl of stone buildings, bustling marketplaces, and grand churches. Our settlement, on the other hand, is a dirty smattering of houses nestled between a forest and a stretch of coastline. We feel like simple country folk, and – even though he’s just a collection of sprites sat in our browser – we swear Northburgh is looking at us with distain.
Such is life at the start of Anno Online, a free-to-play city-builder that you can play inside your browser. We’ve been nurturing our fledgling empire for a few hours now, and the complexity is quite staggering. Not only do you have to carefully plan where you place buildings to make sure they’re all making the most of available resources, but you also have to ensure they’re part of an efficient supply chain. Place a residence too far from a church, for example, and settlers will refuse to move in because you’re not satisfying their spiritual well-being. As you dig deeper into the game, new residents become more and more picky – the price of a more civilized society.
As with other empire-creation sims, resources like stone and timber are your life-blood. No wood means no houses, and your city begins to stagnate. No wool means no fine clothing, and your spinners sit idle while they wait for sheep to be sheared. Don’t own enough distribution warehouses? Stock sits idle at source, waiting to be transported to the places it’s actually needed. It can be tough to work out whether or not your city has the right balance of buildings because many structures look very similar. It’s only when you zoom in and check out the impressive detail that you get a sense for how well planned your settlement really is.
Keeping on top of supply chains can be tricky, especially if you’re dipping in and out of the game during evening play and lunch-breaks at work, and carefully managing stock levels can feel like a chore unless you’re micro-management-minded. So, to take away some of the grind, Ubisoft let you buy extra stuff… for in-game gems. Which cost real-world cash.
Given that Anno Online is free-to-play, it’s tough to complain about spending money on making your life easier and your city better. As with most free strategy titles you can - technically – play for months without spending a dime. However, even after a couple of hours you’ll find yourself waiting for long chunks of time while your resources stockpile.
The game hit closed Beta yesterday, so we’ve only had a few days to build up our sad little village. Still, a glimpse at the smug Lord Northburgh’s city lets us know that there are months of play in Anno Online. Later in the game you can trade with other players, and create ships that actually sail to their cities bearing your custom coat of arms. You’ll even be able to form guilds, and work on colossal, rare projects together – epic wonders of the online world. For now, though, our attention is mainly focused on making sure our goats are producing enough milk to feed our simple straggle of peasants.