Review: Anno 1503

I had the opportunity to play Anno 1503 last night at a monthly game day event I attend.

Anno 1503 - a Klaus Teuber game - is a game of exploration and resource management not unlike his two of his other games, Settlers and Entdecker. Infact, this game really feels like a merge these two Teubepredecessorsrs. It is a fairly light game with very straightforward decisions and plays mostly solitare with a common die roll for resource gathering.

While the look of the game is not terrible, it is truly uninspired. I've been told Anno 1503 originates from an obsure computer game and, indeed, the graphics look just like that. I can only hope that the graphics were simply lifted from it's digital sibling, for to go to so much effort to create new art that looks so computery would have been a shame. What you get are player mats of an island settlement with the isometricaly positioned icons of highly detailed buildings set amongst a pattern of trees and landscape - exactly like you would see in a computer game. The buildings are pretty small, about the scale that you might see on screen. The overall effect has no spirit or life to it. It should be noted that such computer game graphics work in that medium because of the limitations of the programmiinherentant in computer games. Buildings are drawn in an orderly isometric manner so that they can tile nicely together in any configuration and sit with similarly tiled landscaped zones. Colors of building remain drab while brighter foliage contrasts. The effect here seems natural within a programmatic restraints. This is particularly so, as buildings begin to accumulate together. Now, in the static environment of a gameboard, such graphics fall flat - it lacks a "human" touch that boardgames inherantly demand through their physical nature. In addition to the mats, one can find a common board, which is simply a grid of ocean and island spaces. The overall production of components is fine - no complaints here.

Players use ships to explore and uncover island tiles which can be picked up and added to their individual settlements (which are player mats). Here, each player builds buildings which are progressively converted to higher level buidlings through purchases. Purchasing is done through resources just like Settlers. There are 6 total resources (wood, tools, brick, paper, spices and tobacco). Also like Settlers, dice rolling is key to obtaining those goods. A die role at the beginning of a player's turn determines what resources are collected by each player. A key on each player's mat indicates what resource each die roll yields and is different for each player. In this way, "everyone wins" with every die roll other than 6 and will receive, for the most part, a different good. When 6s are rolled, another die is rolled where there is a 2/3 chance of "bad stuff" happening - otherwise all rolls pay off.

Players try to fullfill 3 of 5 of the final goals of the game. These goles include upgrading a certain number of buildings to the highest level (they are numbered 1-4), purchasing a certain number of total buildings, obtaining a certain number of each of the two island types and accumulating a certain amount of money. The first person to get 3 of the 5 goals wins..

A typical turn consists of the resource die roll and subsequent collection of everyone's resource gain, possibly followed by a building upgrade purchase or trade with the bank money and resources. Unlike Settlers, no trading is allowed between players, making for a very solitary feeling game. Instead, resources may be purchased at a standard cost of 6 dollars per item, regardless of the resource. Or resources may be sold to the bank for either 1 dollar for brick, tool or wood, 2 dollars for a paper, 3 dollars for spice and 4 dollars for tobacco. In this way, selling to the bank is straightforward except for the following twist: One must have one building which corresponds to the good to sell for each good. As mentioned, buildings are progressively upgraded from level 1-4, each one which pictures one or more resources. If you don't have that type of building, you cannot sell that good. Purchasing more buildings or upgrading is done ala Settlers with specific combinations of resources needed. Incidently, ships may be purchased in the same way at this time for a limit of two on the board per player at a given time. Finally, players move their ship(s) along the common map where, if they are next to an island tile, they may spend a movement point to secretly examine the tile and decide whether to keep or return face down to the board. Island tiles either give players money or more resource/purchase opportunities. If the tile is chosen, the ship that was used here is returned to the stock pile. Thus the need to purchase more ships. The decisions are straightforward and all the turns are pretty much the same moving at a brisk pace, so down time is not much of an issue.

One more thing about the building tiles. Each player mat positions the buildings generally in a horizontal line. After the fourth building is purchased, a player gets a free bonus building. Each subsequent building purchased after the fourth adds another free bonus building to a limit of four such buildings. These bonus buildings provide protection from some of the bad things that happen when the number 6 is rolled, increase ship movement, increase money from certain types of goods sold as well as other such things. The catch here is that there are not enough of each type of the bonus buildings to go around, so other players can beat you to a particular type. No big deal though as everything is good and is needed.

Now, about the island tiles. As mentioned, there are three basic types. There is one type which increases the chance rolling one of the 6 resources. Another one - called "Trade Agreement" reduces the cost to purchase a resource by one dollar per tile obtained. And finally another type which is a treasure chest. Depending on the chest, one can get cash or a free building upgrade. When a player picks a non-treasure chest type of tile, they put it next to their player mat. If it's a resource type of island, the tile is set above the resource key (that I previously mentioned) corresponding to one of the five pictured dies (roll numbers 1-5). When that roll comes up during resource production, a player has the choice of picking this new resource or the standard one listed on his board. Thus, the more of these tiles one gets, the more choices they have to obtain the desired resource each turn. The Trade Agreement island tiles are put to the right of a player's mat. For each one acquired, the player receives a discount of 1 dollar per resource purchased from the bank, for a maximum discount of 3 dollars.

In the game that I played and others that the group I'm in has played, the endgame tends to be very tight. So much so, that it is not uncommon for two or more people to be in range of winning within the same turn. Now, this bothers me a bit. While I like a tight game, such simultaneous progression and proximity to victory suggests to me that perhaps the moves I am making are not so vital, so long as they're not blunders. After all, everyone recieves the same amount of resources throughout the game - the only difference being the type of resources. So long as players are not making any serious mistakes, it seems as if a neck to neck finish is inevitable. More plays might reveal otherwise, but this is my sense. That said, for a Settlers-like experience, I did not experience the painful die roll inequities that Settlers suffers from. Players who like Settlers are most likely going to really like this game as it satisfies that resource collection and building itch. Those players that don't like Settlers, might still like this game as well, as the primary complaint of many - including myself - stems from die roll problems which is not a problem here. As for myself, I find that I am lukewarm to the game. I prefer it to Settlers -which I will only play if others really want to - but would not bring Anno 1503 out on my own. The game is pleasant enough, but perhaps a tad bit boring with decisions that feel, in the end, less critical than I would like. I'd recommend giving it a try before purchase.

- Mike