I’ve been playing The Settlers 2: Tenth Anniversary edition (via GoG.com) a good bit lately, and it’s been a nice reminder to what gaming was ‘back in the day’, mostly in a good way.
I won’t explain the basics of Settlers, but ultimately the core challenge comes down to managing traffic congestion; avoiding having any spot get too busy so as to cause a bottleneck. This is rather simplistic in the game as the only travel options are roads, and roads only have one auto-upgrade to a stone path that doubles the rate at which goods move from one point to the other. Everything else, from when to build something, finding resources, organizing buildings into logical groups, the entire military aspect; all of that ultimately boils down to how well the busiest part of your road network performs.
Yet that simplicity still leads to a lot of interesting decisions, and ultimately a fairly challenging game. Because each map is different, you can’t repeat the same building layout, so while general themes work (smithy near mines), you never get too comfortable and unexpected issues arise all the time. This however is only noticeable when the map challenges you, which is another critical factor in my current enjoyment; the game isn’t easy.
A challenging game basically forces you to improve, and one way to improve is to really understand the various game systems you are playing with. Without that challenge, you could fully complete a game and not pick up on some of the depth, and if that depth is critical to the overall ‘vision’ of the game, you won’t enjoy things nearly as much as you might/should.
On the other hand, having to fully restart a map in Settlers is a bit brutal, as a restart easily wipes away an hour or more of progress, and playing the same map again means you already know where a lot of resources are located and when you will encounter the enemy. It’s not hard to imagine that a lot of gamers today would simply walk away from the game after the first failure, and leave with a negative view of the game. While this problem isn’t beyond solving using more modern design techniques (random maps, scaling difficulty, etc), the core issue of challenge vs frustration is interesting.
Ultimately I am pleasantly surprised to see how well the game’s core design has held up. More modern city builders have far more features, options, and tech-driven bells and whistles, yet few if any amount to the number of interesting player decisions and critical thinking that The Settlers requires from you. Certainly recommended, just make sure not to rage-quit when things get a little tough!