The old West was a time of great adventure, so we’re told. Huntin’. Prospectin’. Robbin’. Unionizin’. Proselytizin’. Daring feats by men and women- some great, some less so – that took a world of mysterious grandeur and sculpted it with blood and grit into that perilous treasure we call civilization. Brave times filled with colorful characters and shifting values, embroiled with all the chaos of creation. Of course there were other parts. Accountin’. Managin’. Sittin’. Waitin’. And it is these more mundane aspects of the old West that 1849 applies itself to.
1849 is a city-building game (in the vein of Sim City for the unfamiliar) and can hardly be blamed for featuring bureaucracy. The player is cast as a tycoon come to strike it rich on the frontier. Through a series of historically-based scenarios (a gold-rush or fire based San Francisco level, for instance) you build up settlements to meet a series of objectives, say acquire 75 residents or sell a certain amount of oil. This is accomplished by placing buildings providing necessary services like a school or sherriff, or productive buildings like farms, or buildings that transmute one resource into another (lumber to boards, iron ore to iron, iron to pickaxes, etc). Resources are either used to upgrade buildings or allow houses to evolve from simple tents up to sprawling mansions, increasing the amount of residents they hold and the rent they draw. Additionally, these resources can be sold to other towns by opening trade routes, and their sale en masse is often a scenario objective.
This all unfolds -the gaining of residents, the opening of trade routes, the creation of more and more expensive buildings- in a slow process of intermittent loss and gain: money goes up when you collect rent on houses, down when you have to pay workers, and trading gives you quick money to leapfrog ahead with. It’s slow, so slow in fact there’s a fast forward button at the bottom of the screen to accelerate the action along, which one feels should have been a clear red light to the designers because this process is also by and large boring. I wish there were a more academic way to put it but it’s a blunt fact. There will be people who relish the experience of establishing a vigorous olive oil trade, or building enough pickaxes to keep Maryville afloat, but the experience is made strictly a numbers game, and 1849 hardly lets you forget it.
There are likable things about this game, such as the cutesy hand-drawn art style somehow reminiscent of 90s JRPGs, or the atmospheric po-dunk counry tunes that hum in the background. It almost feels like building an RPG village except the heroes never show up. Instead, all these endearingly drawn little villagers function as total robots, carbon copies of their fellow professionals, ferrying resources from one building to another. And that’s it. There’s virtually no interaction between these residents, nor even identities for them to speak of. It may seem like I’m asking for 1849 to be something it’s not when I say this, but the game simply lacks humanity. Who are these towns being made for if not those little humans darting to and fro? 1849 feels less like a city-building game and more of a building-placing/spreadsheet game. Never mind that many crucial statistics, such as how many unemployed citizens one has, are either kept hidden or ineptly displayed. The problems here run deeper.
If once my town had been raided by bandits, perhaps to be routed by my upgraded sheriff, or if my workers had held out for higher wages, or if I could even click on my citizens to see a little thought bubble or mood indicator I would be happy. The best games of this genre stand out because they keep us interested beyond the bare-bones mechanics. Rollercoaster Tycoon remains in our hearts not because of our park’s financial successes, but because of the lines of vomiting patrons we created destined for death on an unfinished ride. There’s no such engagement here because nothing beyond the numbers exists to engage us, save for the art and graphics which become rote after a while.
There are people who will love this game, I don’t know who they are but they should become CPAs. Like I said, 1849 is a numbers game. It has a built-in demographic in that regard, but most players will realize it’s more “numbers” than “game” after a couple of hours. The advancement mechanics are tightly balanced, and there is good work evident in several areas, but the game never embraces the best part of its aesthetic. Buildings and numbers alone are not “wild”, nor even particularly interesting. It’s the gap between these mechanics and the experience of playing, stripped-down and repetitive, which causes 1849 to fall short of its potential.