The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom Hands-On - First Look and Economic Buildup

We get our first look at--and our hands on--the next game in the Settlers strategy series.

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Developer Blue Byte has worked on The Settlers for quite some time, but the next game in the series, The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom, will make big changes. The game is being developed with a brand-new 3D engine that allows for highly detailed close-ups on its colorful new landscapes, its long horizons, and its stylized characters and buildings. These recall the exaggerated fairy tale art of the motion picture Shrek and the colorful characters of Team Fortress 2. More importantly, it's being enhanced with a number of new changes and additions that will make the gameplay at once deeper, more varied, and potentially more appealing to a wider audience. This is thanks to the input of consultant Bruce Shelley, a cofounder of the dearly departed Ensemble Studios--creator of the Age of Empires series. We watched a brief demonstration of the game's features and then tried it out for ourselves.

The Settlers 7 will offer enhanced economic and military strategy with a colorful and attractive new graphics engine.
The Settlers 7 will offer enhanced economic and military strategy with a colorful and attractive new graphics engine.

If you're a longtime Settlers fan, you may recall that the previous game in the series had a streamlined economy system that some players found to be a bit on the shallow side. The new game's economy has been retuned to not only return Settlers 7's economic game to the depth of its predecessors, but also to tie it in more closely to either military operations or the game's new strategic track: research. Research takes place at religious structures, where studious monks (powered by such crucial economic resources as books and beer) can develop game-winning techs while your opponents are busy building their economies or armies. However, military victory has been enhanced with the ability to give your armies direct move and attack orders. And should you care to, you can definitely opt to tilt your economy in favor of the gold and food required to quickly commission an army.

Like with other games in the series, The Settlers 7 takes place on the planet we know as Earth and focuses its early action in Europe approximately during the Age of Sail. This is where pikemen and musketeers march side by side into battle and where trade routes to India or Africa are potentially huge moneymakers. However, the story of the single-player campaign starts in the fictitious country of Tandria with the princess Zoe, who has been commissioned by her father, the king, to ride off into an unruly colony and take her place as monarch. The campaign will offer the usual requisite tutorial mission to open and lead into a comprehensive story-based set of missions, though the game will also include stand-alone skirmish maps and a statistic-heavy competitive multiplayer with extensive leaderboards. These will track anything from which players are the most successful in deathmatch to which players have baked the most bread.

More importantly, the game will have in-depth customization tools to create both your own custom castle (with a variety of options to customize towers, pennants, balconies, and other features) and an extremely powerful custom map editor. This will let you tweak available resources, number of players, and victory conditions with a single click. For instance, a certain map might default to a requirement that has players controlling a handful of key territories, and unflagging all key territories but one will automatically turn it into a king-of-the-hill match. And as soon as you've tweaked the map to your liking, you can start a skirmish or multiplayer map with a single click--no need to save the map or do anything else.

We then skipped ahead to a hands-on session with a single-player skirmish map set to standard victory conditions. Winning a basic game of Settlers 7 will be about securing key victory conditions. There will be 20 in all, which include military, economic, and research trees, as well as accruing the most resources as possible. Once you secure enough victory points (in a basic game, you need to lock down six of them), a timer will begin to count down, and the player in the lead will win unless another player can seize away some victory conditions (by accruing more resources or tech) or eliminate that player with a military victory.

With enough beer and books, these jolly monks are bound to develop a guaranteed victory by way of research.
With enough beer and books, these jolly monks are bound to develop a guaranteed victory by way of research.

In our case, we decided to shoot for an economic victory by aggressively building up a strong infrastructure. The key to a good economy lies in quickly seizing as many resource-producing nodes on the map as possible, as well as constructing resource collection and processing buildings (and storehouses) nearby. These are connected smartly by well-maintained roads that can ferry your goods to your processing plants to produce advanced goods, such as higher-grade food and clothing. Finding these key resource nodes is easy because they're marked in the world by floating icons and because the game has a real-time strategic zoom feature vaguely reminiscent of the camera in Supreme Commander.

Placing key structures is simply a matter of opening up a build menu and then placing them in a smart location. Most basic buildings themselves are miniature hubs onto which you can build up to three add-ons--for instance, farms can be developed with grain fields or piggeries. However, many of these add-ons have co-dependencies with each other, different types of resources, and with other structures. For example, grain fields need wells (which produce unlimited water), while piggeries need grain and water. The series' classic base resources of iron ore, gold, stone, and coal are still the foundation of the economy. However, more-advanced structures and techs require different combinations of basic and advanced resources, such as forged tools to support workshops that upgrade your transportation infrastructure or books printed on paper used to support the research of monks.

Smart use of small-scale and large-scale strategy will win you the day in The Settlers 7.
Smart use of small-scale and large-scale strategy will win you the day in The Settlers 7.

Even as an economy-based player, you'll still need to dip your toe into other areas of the game, particularly military development. This is because, like in previous games of the series, nearby territories on the map surrounding your initial holdings will be guarded by armies of neutral forces (or forces controlled by opposing players). And, in order to get at these new territories and their precious resources, you'll need to send troops into that territory to cut down the opposition then occupy it to convert it to your side. The whole process is considerably more interesting than it sounds and seems to require a good mix of micromanagement skills and strategic oversight. This allows you to make sure each of your farms, workshops, and forges is working at peak capacity while you also keep an eye on the bigger picture of how close to victory conditions you or your enemies are and which key resources you either lack or have in surplus.

The Settlers 7 seems like it will offer deep economic strategy and lots of solid improvements to a series that has already carved out a legion of loyal fans over the years. It's scheduled to ship in March.

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