Review: 1849

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Fostering a rough-and-tumble western town sounds like a good time to me, but alternatives to the traditional city-builder don’t always go as planned. The balance between expansion and resources is a delicate one, and straying too far from the middle can be disastrous. 1849 has the right look of a builder and starts off well enough, but you’ll soon find it doesn’t go much further than that.

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As the name and the stylings might imply, 1849 is set around the time of the gold rush in the western U.S. wherein thousands of scruffy types made their way to California to grub for gold. Your job is to build settlements for them across several different scenarios, sometimes focusing on trade or a specific resource, other times going for a certain population level. You provide plots for migrants to set up homes on, and those plots upgrade automatically based on the resources you provide. They need food, firewood, booze, hides, and so on if you want to move much past a shantytown.

If you’ve got it in your head already that you’re going to be building your very own Deadwood or watching drunken cow-punchers brawl at your saloons, let me stop you right there. 1849 is a very basic city-builder that hinges entirely on the flow of goods through your settlements. You build wheat farms to make wheat, bakeries to turn wheat into bread, and so on. The only action you’ll see is some hot & heavy wheelbarrow pushing through your crowded streets. All resources flow through your warehouse at the center of town, so don’t get too creative with your layouts because you want all your production buildings as close to the center as possible.

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That’s not the only limitation the game has for you, either. Your income is based on rent from your residential plots. All of your production buildings cost you money in wages to operate, so you’re looking for the perfect balance between residents and wages. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist. You’ll need twice as many residents as can work at your buildings to turn any sort of profit, and unemployed settlers become criminals who steal from your buildings and disrupt production. If you have too many residents the criminals will strangle your cash flow, and if you have too few you can’t afford to run your buildings. This means no matter what, your town is going to be lopsided towards unemployment and criminals are going to be forever nibbling at your bottom line.

There’s trading to do between cities but it is the laziest possible implementation of such a system. Each scenario has a short list of things you can buy and things you can sell. To start trading one resource you pay a huge up-front fee, and then after that you can exchange goods for money instantly. I assume this is how you supplant your income without spawning criminals but there’s no automation to it, you just have to remember to push the “give money” button every few minutes. It’s also easy for your city to stagnate under this system if you don’t open a key route at the right time, because your balance of residents can get out of hand and keep you from saving up the money to open the route needed to prosper.

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You’ll find no end of little aggravations like this in 1849. Once fire brigades are introduced you MUST build them immediately or every single one of your houses will inevitably burst into flames. There are no tools to track production rates of resources so it’s trial-and-error figuring out how many farms and bakeries are needed for a given population. The maps are also depressingly small, preventing you from building a sprawling frontier city. Not that you would be able to anyway, since there’s a very limited number of buildings that all look very similar. The sound design is adequate but the graphics are a blurry mish-mash that will offend your eyes unless you’re playing as far zoomed out as possible. It’s not the worst way to spend an hour or two but you’re not going to find any of the freedom or growth that is the cornerstone of the genre. And that’s doubly ironic for a game about westward expansion.

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