Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization Review

Colonization is a more focused and linear Civilization experience that nevertheless offers the depth and rewards of the classic strategy series.

Civilization IV is a grand strategy game in which you build an empire that spans every epoch of human society. Civilization IV: Colonization takes a much narrower approach, challenging you to found a city in the New World, grow it into an economically viable colony, and then forge a new nation by declaring independence and defeating the king's armies. However, don't mistake lack of breadth for lack of depth. Though each game of Colonization plays out in a relatively linear fashion, there are myriad facets of your colonial development and military tactics that can be tweaked and refined. As you hone your strategy, you'll discover new ways to make your colony even stronger, which in turn lets you hone your strategy even more. This positive feedback loop, along with sharp visuals and a rousing score, makes Colonization a rewarding, addictive endeavor.

Ships and wagon trains are the veins through which your economic lifeblood flows.
Ships and wagon trains are the veins through which your economic lifeblood flows.

You are the scion of either the Dutch, English, French, or Spanish empire, and at the beginning of the game you choose which of the eight governors will lead your colony. Each has slightly different bonuses that draw on each civilization's colonial-era strengths: Dutch bonuses emphasize trade, whereas Spanish bonuses augment your military strength. Though these boosts cater to a number of different strategies, a few of them are much weaker than others (like attack bonuses vs. natives) because of the inviability of certain strategies (more on this later). After your selection, you are given control of a small boat loaded with a couple of units and plopped down in the middle of the ocean. Westward ho!

You quickly make landfall and face another important decision: Where do you found your first town? Each tile yields raw materials important to your survival and prosperity, but some regions are more productive than others. There are blue circles highlighting spots that are good candidates for settlement, which, while certainly helpful, takes much of the challenge out of site selection. Your first town must be coastal so you can trade with Europe, but later settlements can extend your colony inland to target valuable resources or occupy more defensible positions. Native settlements dot the landscape and often occupy prime real estate. Setting up shop too close to them isn't very diplomatic, especially if you don't have the gold to buy the land from them, but you can generally get up in their business without immediate repercussions. Though city placement is easier than in other Civilization games, you find more than enough challenge going forward.

In the early going you will also send out scouts to explore and map the new world. The scattered ancient ruins and burial grounds can yield sizable treasures, but you may incur the wrath of the locals if you seek these treasures out. Visiting native villages is not nearly as risky, and will often earn you a gift of gold or unit experience. The chief will also tell you what goods his tribe is interested in buying, and will tell you of that village's particular expertise. If you send one of your units to live among the natives, it will emerge a few turns later as an expert harvester and will generate significantly more of a particular resource when assigned to work an appropriate tile. These experts are a boon to your economy, and the fact that local tribes will train them for free is one of the many reasons that warring against natives is an unappealing option.

The city screen allows you to easily manages all aspects of your settlement's production.
The city screen allows you to easily manages all aspects of your settlement's production.

After laying your foundation, you begin to grow your colony's economy. Generating and processing commodities will be your primary concern for most of the game, and that will be eclipsed only by your revolutionary war. There are three basic categories of goods that your colony will create: resources to grow and strengthen your towns (food, lumber, ore, tools, guns), raw materials that are the foundation of trade (furs, tobacco, sugar, cotton), and refined goods that fetch high prices on the European market (coats, cigars, rum, cloth). What you produce in a given city depends on how you put your colonists to work. On the city screen, you can easily drag your citizens to a map of the city's workable tiles to harvest raw materials, or place them in one of your city's buildings to refine goods. The visual interface is initially busy, but ultimately feels clean and intuitive. It's essential to balance your asset production to meet your need for colonial improvement and European gold, but it's nigh impossible to do so within each city. Therefore, as you maximize the output of your individual settlements, you must be mindful of how each piece fits into the whole.

Once you get a few settlements up and running, the need to link them together becomes paramount. Whether you're transporting raw materials from the fledgling wilderness towns to the more populated and productive coastal ports, or sending tools to the interior to bolster construction, you'll need to construct wagon-train units to get them there. As your production volume increases, you'll want to access the governor menu in the city screen to help automate trade and streamline production. You can emphasize or deemphasize production of certain materials, and determine what goods the city imports and exports. Figuring out the optimal patterns for transport is a stimulating challenge, one that requires both micro- and macroscopic strategy.

To automate the flow of goods around your colony, you simply set the appropriate imports and exports, and then assign a wagon train to cover that trade route. Managing these assignments can become confusing because the domestic-advisor screen does not provide an intuitive map of your routes. This becomes more frustrating when you take a wagon train off of a route for a one-time shipment, and then have to reassign it, hoping that you don't miss a pickup or drop-off. You can name your wagon unit to help keep things straight, but it is disappointing that the interface is lacking. Nevertheless, establishing a vibrant trade network and seeing it work like a well-oiled machine is immensely satisfying, and the fact that Colonization makes you feel proud of your glorified number crunching is greatly to its credit.

An economy is only as strong as its workers, and managing your units is another opportunity for refined strategy. Unlike in other Civilization games, you don't actively construct most of your units. Aside from the constructible wagon train and cannon, the only way your colony will generate a worker is if you have a large food surplus. As such, you'll rely on Europe to provide much of your workforce, either through free immigrants or purchased experts. Experts, as previously noted, are superproductive, and whereas native villages will train only raw-material experts, Europe offers not only raw- but also refined-goods specialists (for example, master blacksmiths, tobacconists, and weavers). Much of your gold will go toward purchasing these valuable workers, though you can also increase the emigration of free laborers by assigning your settlement workers to the church building. Some free immigrants will have no particular specialty, and some (such as indentured servants) will actually produce slightly less than a normal colonist. Sending these chaps to school, either in your colony or in a native settlement, will help make them more productive members of society. Educating workers locally takes a while, but the rebel sentiment it bestows on your units will benefit you in the long run. Balancing your ratio of cheap European experts to time-consuming homegrown experts is yet another one of Colonization's pervasive strategic nuances.

The Redcoats are coming! The Redcoats are coming!
The Redcoats are coming! The Redcoats are coming!

Your entire workforce, from experts to petty criminals, can be mobilized for war if you have enough guns, so as your rebel sentiment grows, so should your arms stockpile. Rebel sentiment (as well as the cultural borders of your settlements) is influenced by liberty bells, which can be generated by assigning workers to your town hall. Colony-born units get production and combat bonuses based on how rebellious your colony is, so it's important to ramp this up as your prepare for independence. Any war you fight before the revolution is likely to cost more than it is worth. Natives do have treasure stockpiles, but the benefits of their expert-worker training and spontaneous gifts are too good to give up, especially in light of their formidable combat strength. Fighting other colonies can yield resources and gold, but they are often too far away to make fighting worth it. The lack of incentive to engage in other conflicts narrows an already linear game, and it would have been fun to have a reason to mix it up. Multiplayer matches spice things up a bit, given that human colonies are feistier than AI colonies, but even if you wipe out your opponents, you still have to take on the empire.

When you nail up your declaration of independence in the town square, you'll already be hours deep in the game. Your focus on frantic economic activity will have shifted to militaristic concerns as you prepare to reap the whirlwind. The king's forces will always outnumber you, and they are generally more powerful than your minutemen. Wave after wave of units will land on your shores, ready to get their subjugation on. Combat is a simple matter of moving your unit onto another unit's tile and watching the encounter play out. It's essential to be aware of terrain bonuses and unit upgrades when you plan your attacks, but Colonization helps you out by calculating the odds of the battle before you fight it. In this lopsided conflict, you'll find yourself naturally resorting to guerrilla tactics, striking out at imperial forces and then retreating to the safety of your inland settlements. When you realize these are tactics that were actually used in the American Revolutionary War (the age and conflict that this game was modeled on), you'll find that each victory is infused with an invigorating jolt of revolutionary zeal.

Civilization IV: Colonization is greatly enhanced by its ability to transport you to a specific moment in history. The lush visuals make the land a joy to work, and the mix of indigenous, American, and European music sets the perfect tone. When you are marshaling your troops to send them against the might of a European empire and Aaron Copland's stirring version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" begins to play, you'll be swept up in the spirit of the monumental conflict you've spent years preparing for. Preparation and execution are both intricately wrought here, stretched over a campaigns that generally last at least ten hours each. Despite being demanding and time-consuming, Colonization is a great game that benefits from its keen focus, bargain price ($29.99!), and nuanced strategy.

The Good

  • Makes producing and trading commodities fun
  • You'll plumb new strategic depths on each playthrough
  • Sweeps you up in revolutionary spirit
  • Stirring musical score

The Bad

  • Narrow focus makes each playthrough feel familiar
  • Diverging from standard course is possible, not practical
  • Trade route interface is not user-friendly

About the Author

Chris enjoys aiming down virtual sights, traipsing through fantastical lands, and striving to be grossly incandescent.