Last year's Dawn of Discovery was a complex but tremendously absorbing game of exploration, city-building, and resource management. Now, a new expansion called Venice seeks to entice you to return to the high seas of the early 1400s. Before you set sail with visions of canals and gondolas filling your head, you should know that this isn't quite the full-featured Venetian experience you might be hoping for. Still, while most of the additions are relatively minor, Dawn of Discovery fans will appreciate the ways in which Venice fleshes out the game's competitive aspect and will enjoy the opportunity, finally, to test their skills against human opponents.
The title for this expansion is a bit misleading. You won't be building any Venetian cities yourself, and with the exception of a few entirely new building types, the appearance of the cities you create is unchanged from the core game. Venetian trading ports are now present, but they're always maintained by the AI character of Giacomo Garibaldi, and although the architecture that makes up these ports is beautiful, the changes are purely cosmetic and aren't even onscreen that often. The new ship types available from Garibaldi are useful, but the Venetian element is just a bit of seasoning in the overall mix of the game, not the prominent element you might go in expecting.
Instead, the most significant features in this package are the competitive and cooperative multiplayer options that were conspicuously absent from the original game. Multiplayer games support up to eight players and are as deeply customizable as their single-player counterparts, allowing you to establish victory conditions that include population size, completing quests for AI characters, or being the only surviving player. Dawn of Discovery doesn't lend itself to quick and convenient action, but multiplayer competition can be richly rewarding if you're willing to put some time into it. Depending on how you set them up, multiplayer sessions of Dawn of Discovery can last up to ten hours or more, so it's just as well there's an option to save games in progress. If you know others with the game and can coordinate times to play, you're more likely to have a good experience than if you're hopping into the lobby and hoping to play with strangers. And the cooperative option is different from typical team-based play. Rather than team members each controlling their own ships, cities, and resources, each member of a team has full control of all the team's assets. This requires excellent communication and coordination to ensure that everyone is working toward the same goals. If you enjoy that kind of close collaboration, it can be great fun.
Along with the implementation of multiplayer, Venice enhances the competitive element of Dawn of Discovery by introducing sabotage and city politics. A new building type called the base of operations lets you send spies to hide among the populace of a competitor's city. Once your spies are there, you can direct them to commit acts that disrupt the economy of your rival, such as arson or sending out false prophets who compel people to stop paying taxes. And the introduction of city councils gives you a chance to take over a rival's town by buying off the majority of council seats and purchasing the key to the city. The original Dawn of Discovery didn't offer you many ways to try to make life difficult for your opponents short of launching a military assault, so the opportunity to covertly muck up the works for your rivals or buy your way to power is most welcome. And if for any reason you want to play without city councils or the threat of a rival sending a belly dancer to your city's marketplace, these elements can be turned off.
There's no new single-player campaign in Venice, but there are 15 new scenarios that run the gamut from breezy ship-racing competitions to society-building challenges under the most grueling conditions. These scenarios are diverse, and most of them are quite good, capturing an intoxicating spirit of high seas adventure. But while they serve to introduce the expansion's new gameplay elements, they don't do a good job of familiarizing you with them. For instance, when you're told in an early scenario to use spies to commit specific acts of sabotage, it's not clear which enemy houses you need to infiltrate to make specific acts of sabotage available to you, nor is it stated in the flimsy manual for this expansion. You're often left to just fumble around with things to determine how they work, and given how tremendously complex and daunting this game can be even when you're deeply familiar with it, the fact that it doesn't take steps to clearly explain how these new elements work is frustrating. Of course, a steep learning curve is nothing new to Dawn of Discovery, but it's disappointing that this unnecessary and unpleasant challenge hasn't been refined a bit.
With the exception of those moments you spend trading in a Venetian port (or just admiring the architecture in one), Venice is visually indistinguishable from the core game. Dawn of Discovery is still breathtaking in its evocation of an idealized historical setting, and the Venetian elements feel right at home in this gorgeous, bustling world. Similarly, the new music introduced here is a perfect addition to the score, as rousing and sweeping in scope as the compositions included in the original game.
Venice is more a modest collection of enhancements than a full-featured expansion. But while the emphasis on Venice in the title and marketing for this package may be disingenuous, the world of Dawn of Discovery is as captivating as ever. Those who have sunk countless hours into the core game and who relish the thought of spending many more facing off against human opponents will certainly find their $20 well spent.