Settlers III is not a game that will leap out at players as the most fascinating thing they have ever played. In fact, looking at the online help book can be quite daunting. But once you start to understand how to build your settlements into thriving colonies, Settlers can become quite addictive.
The premise in this latest installment of the Settlers series finds your tiny hamlet on a vast unexplored world. This is not unlike the hundreds of other resource gathering and conquest games out there, but the beauty of Settlers is in the details.
Settlers III has the most complex economy building system I’ve ever seen in a real-time strategy game. The game is won or lost in the build-up phase, with not a whole lot of emphasis on the actual combat that takes place between the tribes.
Some buildings only require the presence of one resource, such as the woodcutter’s shack or stonecutter’s hut, which need only trees or stone. But most require complex supply chains to work properly. Even the woodcutter requires a forester to be housed close by to maintain wood production, and a sawmill to turn the cut wood into useful boards for building more structures.
Eventually, you are going to want to mine some of the surrounding hills to get coal, iron ore or gold. But doing so is no simple task. First you have to create a supply chain to get food to the miners. For instance, the iron ore miners work much more efficiently if you feed them pork. But to make pork you first have to build a grain farm, then a pig farm, a waterworks and finally a slaughterhouse. And all these buildings take materials to build, so you really have to control your growth or critical buildings may be held up because boards or stone are being delivered elsewhere. Besides that, you have to have enough residential buildings for your people or they stop working. And yes, new residential buildings also tax your resources.
Even once you mine the minerals, which first have to be painfully scouted using prospectors, you then have to build a smelter to turn the iron ore into iron, which requires coal to operate as well. Then, finally, you can build a toolmaker or a weaponsmith and really start to expand.
Your military is pitifully weak at the beginning of the game, unless they are fighting inside their own borders, which are clearly marked by colored stakes around the edge of your territory. If you march them outside your borders at the start of the game, they may only fight at 40 percent strength. But thankfully, this means that anyone attacking you will suffer the same handicap. In this manner, the game is essentially rush-proof in the early stages. To make your army more powerful, you have to mine gold to increase their morale away from home, and you have to make weapons to increase their numbers. Extra settlers will arm themselves with weapons and automatically become soldiers, but both that and the moral building process takes quite a long time to accomplish.
To expand your territory, you build guard towers along the perimeter of your land. These take a lot of stone that could be used for other things, and also require one of your limited army to staff the building. So you need to expand slowly or risk stretching yourself too thin. When you build and staff a tower, your colored border markers expand around to the sight-line of the tower, unless you hit the border of another player, in which case you take territory up to their already established line.
What combat the game does have is fairly strategic, if only because of game mechanics. If you are able to conquer an enemy tower, every enemy building within the protection radius of that tower is destroyed unless a backup tower is present. In multiplayer games, this leads to a lot of fake attacks followed up by a blitzkrieg on a critical tower, such as one protecting a player’s mines or grain fields. It’s surprising how quickly a player will fall if you can make just a small cut in their supply chain, leaving them scrambling to repair damage while you continue to build strength.
The one complaint I do have with the game is the computerized opponents. They don’t seem appropriately programmed for the game. For instance, in one game an entire computer army, every man they had, came rushing into my territory in the first few minutes of the game. Since nobody had yet mined any gold, they were weak being outside of their territory and I was strong being inside mine. I easily killed them all. Then, since their homeland was basically empty of forces except for a small tower or two, I just walked over and defeated them. Even though my troops were weak, they had spent their entire military on an obviously doomed campaign.
In another instance, a computer opponent had gotten their production geared up way before I did. They attacked and were able to take over a tower near the edge of my territory. I had nobody to further defend against them and they had lots of troops. But instead of charging in, they just sat there for over half an hour, giving me more than enough time to build up a new army and crush them.
If you like the process of building up your empire, there is no better, more detailed game than Settlers III. Think of it as Knights and Merchants with stellar graphics. Players who prefer purely combat-oriented games are more apt to stick with Myth or StarCraft. So depending on how and why you play real time strategy games, Settlers III can either be the best or the worst game you will play. It gets 4 out of 5 GiN gems, because it does an excellent job of offering a nice twist of pace to an over-taxed genre.