Martin Wallace is one of the most recognised board game designers today, and having designed Brass (Roxley) and Age of Steam (Warfrog/Eagle-Gryphon) it is not surprising he was asked to develop a board game adaptation of the widely popular Ubisoft PC game Anno 1800.
Regarding the IP, I have not played its current iteration on which the game is based, only the original Anno 1602 released back in the now distant year 1998, when we were still worried about the millennium bug that was going to crash all computers in the year 2000! You do not need to be familiar with the source material to understand or enjoy the game, and for that reason I've focused on gameplay without any comparisons to Ubisoft's Anno 1800 video game. Curiously enough, it's been reported that the designer never played the PC game either! (www.wargamer.com/anno-1800/board-game-designer-interview)
Published by Kosmos, Anno 1800 presents itself in a standard box size, with a very industrial 19th Century feel cover, with an expanding industrial city in the background and a large steam sailing ship in the forefront. When set up, the game consists of a central board with all the industry tiles, shipyards and ships we can build and expand throughout the game, plus four different decks to draw from, objective cards that add additional actions or end-game scoring opportunities and additional boards to expand each player's initial island board. On set up the game does not look very interesting. Quite the opposite: it looks quite dry and dull. The components, tho' practical, do not do anything to make the game feel more inviting. Card illustrations from Fiore GmbH are nice, with some repetition if you look carefully to the different characters in the cards. Component-wise, the main complaint is that the 5-value money tokens are the same size as the 1-value ones, making it all too easy to take the wrong one when performing an action.
Gameplay is quite straightforward and fluid. Everyone takes one of nine available actions until someone plays the last card from their hand and triggers the game end. All the actions are simple and fast to resolve; they allow players to expand their infrastructure, acquire or upgrade workers, or just expand into the old and new world, with new trading opportunities and extra space to build more industries.
At its core Anno 1800 is all about efficiency. We're relying on resource conversion through the smart use of workers to produce resources that are consumed immediately to grow or boost our infrastructure through an intricate and not always clear development tree that relies on our capacity to produce more and more advanced goods. The generation and conversion of resources is at the core of the game, through which it is possible to play population cards that come in three different types with varying requirements and points reward that make up most of the players score. Balancing the workforce and knowing what industry to develop is key, with five different types, from the farmer to the investor that does not produce anything on its own but is essential to develop the more advanced industry tiles...
However, the most compelling aspect of Anno 1800 is the trade concept. Instead of investing in buildings and spending a worker, it is possible to trade with another player who has already acquired that industry using trade tokens generated by your fleet: the player trading gets the resources they need and players they trade with gain a gold from the supply for each different resource. Everyone wins, which sets it apart from most dry euro games that play a lot like multiplayer solitaire. By forcing players to pay attention to what other players are building, it adds a lot of interaction to what might otherwise seem like a bland game. The need to keep an eye out is also important because there are only two copies of each industry tile. This means it will be impossible to build everything a player thinks he needs, especially at higher player counts. Clever use of trading throughout the game can make the difference between winning or losing...
While Anno 1800 might present itself as just another dry euro game, the gameplay proves to be a very rewarding experience thanks to the interaction, the way end-game scoring cards tend to make each game unique, and how players feed from each other - leaching certain resources from other players to pursue their own agenda.
Tho' the end-game trigger is not particularly original, it adds to the decision making throughout the game: every player needs to keep an eye on how many cards each player has. And while getting loads of cards in the beginning provides more options, later in the game it is usually better to avoid them - especially if the 'Pyrphorian' objective card is in play, imposing minus 2 victory points per card in hand during scoring!
If I had to make a choice then I'd still rate Martin Wallace's Brass: Birmingham (Roxley) as the better game: also highly interactive with a limited number of simple actions, yet more thematic and with stunning production quality. The theme does not come across as strongly in Anno 1800 but this is a very solid game that I can heartedly recommended to anyone who enjoys an economic, resource conversion and strong interaction.
(Review by Rui Marques)