Naval Strategy Done Right: Anno 1404

By Charles Ellis 03 Aug 2017 4

Anno 1404 is a city building and colonization game published by Ubisoft in 2009. These days, it’s a bit sad and lonely - the series' successors have headed into the future, its own servers appear to have switched off (and Ubisoft’s infamous old DRM rears its ugly head) and unless you can set up a LAN party, you’re out of luck when it comes to multiplayer. Nonetheless, for the historically minded (like this writer), it remains an excellent city builder with a variety of playstyles available.

Let’s take a moment to mention that Anno 1404’s naval combat is actually pretty poor. It basically boils down to bigger ships being stronger than smaller ships, with the odd (expensive) power up added in; there’s no real way to beat a strong enemy in a direct engagement except to bring more, stronger ships. This is no Company of Heroes on the high seas, that's for sure. But we’re not here to discuss Anno 1404’s combat per se. Instead, we’re going to look at naval strategy in the game. Whilst many other strategy titles have good naval mechanics, they often lack the strategic element that this hybrid experience does surprisingly well.

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Anno 1404 centers on a somewhat underrepresented period and location. The 14th and 15th century might be famous for Europe’s colonization of America, but another key development was the growing interaction between East and West in conjunction with the growth of trade around the Horn of Africa and the spice islands of the East Indies. Remember, the whole point for Columbus was to find an alternative route East that did not require a long journey around Africa. Instead of focusing on the conquest of America, Anno focuses on that growing interaction, with the player beginning on European-looking islands filled with verdant forests and being forced to colonize other Sahara-like islands, all the while overseen by a grand vizier straight out of Disney’s Aladdin.

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Notice the term “islands”? To progress - to have any kind of functioning city that isn’t stuck in the dark ages - you must make use of the sea. Not only do you need to produce a variety of specialised resources, but they must also be transported to where you need them to be used. It is impossible for a single island to produce everything you will need; not if you wish to progress to more effective units and more lucrative buildings. Your survival thus rests in keeping your sea routes open.

Let’s pause for a moment. If we consider naval combat in other games, most - without naming names - treat naval strategy as peripheral. A map might not even have water in it (despite waterways being key in many conflicts). Ships are, at worst, used only to transport units and to defend those units from attack. At best, they will be treated as simply providing the player with a way to get extra cash (and provide enemies the ability to cut off those sources of income) in addition to transporting units and similar.

The nature of logistics and supply trains in strategy games is a subject for another article, but suffice to say that with no need to transport material over long distances, naval strategy finds itself playing second fiddle to the often intricate and extremely tactical depictions of land battle. A rock-paper-scissors balancing system is usually the best that naval combat gets.

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By contrast, Anno’s emphasis on the player keeping their sea routes protected, lest they suffer catastrophic reversals, places its naval combat at a level far above its rivals. At the beginning of hostilities, a player has a variety of options available to them. Do they choose the Copenhagen option, launching an all-out assault on the enemy’s port to knock out their fleet when war has barely been declared, thus winning a decisive advantage from the outset? Do they wait for the perfect moment to attack the enemy fleet when they are at their weakest and destroy them in a decisive battle? Or do they attack their enemy’s trade, ruining the enemy’s economy, causing riots in their cities and emptying their coffers?

These concepts aren’t new. They’re old - very old. The Copenhagen option is borrowed from a genuine strategy adopted in 1806 when Britain, fresh from Trafalgar, was concerned that Denmark might ally itself with France and put its impressive navy at Napoleon’s disposal. So Britain attacked first, took Copenhagen’s fleet intact, and suddenly Denmark wasn’t a threat. The decisive battle options was what Britain tried (and failed) to do in World War I, and attacks on enemy trade was what Germany sought to do (through U-boats) in both World Wars.

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The interaction between the need to carry resources, trade and the sealanes they must traverse gives naval combat meaning in the greater game. Instead of simply knocking out a few docks and fishing boats and transporting units to do the real fighting, naval combat can be some of the decisive moments of the game, where the fate of everything you have built hangs in the balance. Some games do this, but few do it as well as Anno 1404.

Despite it's strengths in promoting meaningful operational decisions, Anno 1404 isn't in any way a wargame. Poor unit variety and tactical options simplify combat into a gigantic pile on, but the strategic options available to the player are ones to be emulated and applauded. Naval strategy, the ugly - or non-existent - duckling of many a strategy game, becomes the star in Anno, with a wide variety of choices and options available. Even though it's a city builder first and foremost, Anno 1404 is able to give ships in games a real point; one that so many other games miss out.

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