In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two;
BIGsheep sailed the ocean blue.
He had three ships and left from Copenhagen;
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain-en.
He sailed by night; he sailed by day;
He used the mini-map to find his way.
Commander: Conquest of the Americas (CCOTA) is a strategy game set in the age of discovery. Columbus has only recently happened upon a large, unexplored landmass, and on hearing this news half of Europe strike out to stake their claim on the riches that it hides. Setting sail from home, you command a tiny fleet stocked with no more than those eager to start a new life in a strange land. What they find is as yet a mystery. How their fare, equally so. As commander of the new colonies, however, those questions will constantly weigh heavy on your shoulders.
As your fleet searches for a new place to call home, there’s a vast amount of coastline to choose from. Ranging from the icy Alaskan north to tropical Brazilian beaches, the decision is based as much on the local resources as the local amenities. The warmer south will produce coffee, cocoa and tobacco leaves, whilst the more temperate north possesses animal hides, leather and ore, all of which can be harvested and sent home on a long boat to offset the cost of running such a colony so far from native soil.
The vast proportion of NitroGames’ creation is based around economics. Everything has a price, be it establishing a hospital, bringing in soldiers to protect the population, or constructing a tannery; the new world can be expensive. To aid the cause, fleets can be setup to automatically run trade routes, sailing from port to port, picking up produce before returning home to sell them in the capital city. From personal experience, these need to be put in place early, for without a steady income, the adventure is over before it has even begun.
Once the coffers start to rattle rather heartily with coinage, choices begin opening themselves up. Should one expand their fleet to increase trade, maybe create a few warships to keep the locals in line, or enrich the lives of the colonists with churches and theatres? To hamper matters, however, you have four advisors on hand to inform you what the King thinks of your performance. Failure to keep this quartet happy will mean your time as Commander will be short; they’ll ask missions, forts, fleets and palaces to be built, all whilst maintaining a healthy balance sheet, so a compromise must be struck between requests and financial practicalities. Meanwhile, natives will raid your towns, foreign powers may declare war, and pirates constantly circle. Makes you wish you’d never left home and the dank streets of London.
When laid out, the basic premise of CCOTA is a tried and tested format of battling against a series of challenges with a limited set of resources. Where it falls down, however, is in the execution; primarily that you can go for long stretches of time without being able to do anything. Once a trade route is setup, barring a drastic change in resource gathering, you can just leave it be for many years, during which time you’ll be bombarded with requests from your advisors. The usual solution to their problems involves spending money, and so you just have to sit there, waiting for cash to roll in, hoping that you get enough to fulfil their request before they go off in a strop. Failing to comply then typically exacerbates matters as their next request probably will be grander than the one before, costing more money, which you still don’t have.
In the meantime, there is minimal micromanagement of your colony and your ships, and the only major variable that can be altered is the tax rate. Whilst the fleet’s shipping route is highly customisable, it is symptomatic of the UI as a whole, being functional but lacking intuitive behaviour and making simple jobs such as checking your fleet’s cargo a laborious process.
It’s not all menus and economics, however. Naval warfare plays a reasonable part in proceedings, with the possibility of vast armadas striking at one another just a declaration of war away. As the rival fleets go to war, play switches to a new arena, one that shows the detail of the ships in a much greater scale than the normal trading view.
Battles can be played out in a number of ways, including the traditional high-up RTS tactical view of a general overseeing his army, one where direct control is taken of a single ship, and, for those uninterested in such spectacles, the ability to instantly resolve proceedings. The change of emphasis from trading is almost disconcerting at first, but firing bank after bank of cannons and seeing your opponent’s sail crumble to dust under your firepower is a highly satisfying sight. As with the rest of CCOTA, battles are slow, but the pace here is far better suited to proceedings.
Thankfully, given the length of time to build a sizeable fleet in the main campaign, the developers decided to include a dedicated battle mode for captains to practise in. Just as well, because the thought of what my military advisor would say if I came back with five sunk galleons to my name is not worth contemplating.
Despite the pacing and the lack of micromanagement, CCOTA still proves an engaging affair, showing the strength of the underlying premise. Playing sans advisors is an option, but without them the game meanders far too easily. Unfortunately, though, I feel only the most dedicated of strategy fans will be able to penetrate the depths on offer. The brutal learning curve and long stretches of nothingness will see many fall foul of scurvy and weevils long before America in conquered.