A great start to a great series, The Settlers (published by SSI in the USA as Serf City) is a fun micromanagement game based on a tried-and-true 4X idea, but executed in an innovative way. Similar to Populous, The Settlers lets you control little computer people and lead them to victory over rivals. You do this by giving one of 21 possible occupations to each of your serfs and building 24 types of buildings.
One of the best things about the game, and one of the first things you will notice, is the great cartoony animations. You will spend a lot more time looking at the various serfs as they go about their business than concentrating on your strategies ;) They are bigger than Populous people, which makes them more detailed, especially in SVGA mode. The second best thing in my opinion is the wonderful interplay of various elements combining into a fun and reasonably realistic economic model that is far from boring. As William Criswell said in his (too harsh) review of the game for Game Bytes, "...Probably the best way to describe the gameplay is to walk through one of the production systems. Keep in mind that what I describe happening is animated and actually happens in real Serf City time, i.e., buildings are constructed by a serf, not just appearing when ready. A good point to start with is the lumberjack. Your serfs need wood to construct new buildings and tools and it is your lumberjacks' job to provide it. The lumberjack roams the countryside until he finds a suitable tree. He then proceeds to chop it down, removes the limbs and carries it back to his hut. At the hut a transporter serf picks up the log and takes it to the sawmill where another serf cuts the log into lumber. The lumber is picked up by another transporter who depending on the current demand for wood takes it either to a construction site or to the toolmaker. Or it might be stored in the castle or a warehouse. Other systems involve mining, food production, gold production, tool-making and weapon-making. All the systems are interdependent in some way and keeping all of them flowing smoothly is the heart of the game and proves to be very addictive and challenging.
Although you are given various methods of controlling supply and demand of merchandise it is only to a certain degree. Contrary to what the game manual states, you are not omnipotent. For example, if you decide that for the moment you have plenty of wood you can not instruct you lumberjacks to cease cutting down trees. If you want them to immediately stop the only choice you have is to demolish their huts which sends them back to the castle to wait for reemployment. Of course, this means you have to rebuild the huts when their services are needed again. This is definitely not an efficient or easy way of controlling the supply, though luckily at least isn't necessitated by quite every trade. Control over individual buildings should probably have been included.
In addition to keeping your serfdom running smoothly you also need to build a military force. The military is used to expand your borders, either by the taking of unclaimed land or the capture of enemy buildings, and to defend your own serfdom. It consists solely of variously ranked knights (advanced ranks are achieved through training). Civilian serfs can not be attacked but if a serf's building is located in territory lost to an enemy the building is immediately burned down and the serf returns to his castle. Combat is strictly knight versus knight and the only factors are rank and morale (which is largely based on the amount of gold the knights' serfdom possesses). Warlords this is not."
Simplistic combat mechanics and weak military aspect in general make The Settlers too easy, especially because the AI is quite bad. Once you master the economics of your own empire, it is only a matter of time before you can conquer the other tribes and win. The game does include a two-player mode, but it is only playable via an awkward split-screen interface – no modem support here. There is a number of "missions" to choose from, although they are simply preset maps with a varying number and strength of AI opponents.
Despite a weak AI and far too simple combat mechanics, The Settlers deserves our Top Dog tag because building your economy is so much fun. Think of the the game more as an extended version of a "software toy" like SimCity rather than a challenging strategy masterpiece like Civilization, and you will have a great time. Two thumbs up!Reviewed by: Underdogs