In Praise Of: Colonization.

Colonization, then. It looks like Civilization, it’s spelled like Civilization, it’s even controlled in a similar fashion to Civilization. In terms of the way it plays, though, it couldn’t be more different.

There’s no tech tree in Colonization, and no science rating. There’s no taxes (well, there are taxes, but they don’t go to you). No settlers. No city maintenance, no corruption, no happiness rating. In exchange for all of these things you get a relatively simple yet powerful economic system that forms pretty much the entire basis of the game. As a game about the colonisation of a new continent, focusing on the economy to the virtual exclusion of all else was the perfect way to emphasise just why people would voyage over thousands of miles of Atlantic ocean to settle in a strange new world: land, money and resources.

It’s this last one that provides the driving force for the first half of the game. Like Civilization, you start a game of Colonization with just a handful of units. You have a basic caravel for making landfall and for sustaining your initial trade links with Europe. On that caravel are a soldier for fending off unfriendly natives and a free colonist armed with tools, ready to strike the earth and found a new colony in the location of your choosing. Where exactly that location is is going to depend almost entirely on the resources surrounding it. Unlike Civilization you don’t get to work the “fat cross” of tiles around a town. Instead you just get the nine tiles immediately next to it. This makes good colony placement even more important than Civ; you have to pick a site where those nine tiles provide everything a growing colony needs. Food to keep the colonists alive. Wood to construct buildings and develop your industry. And – not essentially, but very definitely preferably – some form of cash crop that you can cultivate trade with Europe to buy new colonists and new equipment to expand your colonial venture.

Aside from food in the form of crops and fish, there are five types of raw resource in Colonization: wood, ore, tobacco, cotton, sugar and furs. Forest squares hold wood and furs, hills and mountains provide ore, while the cash crops are to be found on the plains and savannah of America. When you found a colony you’ll get the usual basic resources from the colony square, plus one colonist – the one that founded it — that you can put to work in any way you choose, either gathering one of these resource types from the surrounding environment or processing them in one of the colony’s buildings. Wood is cut from trees by colonists working outside the colony walls, and then turned into raw production by others working in the carpenter’s workshop. Fur pelts hunted from the local wildlife are made into lovely coats at the fur trader’s house. Similar two-step chains exist for tobacco (cigars), sugar (rum) and cotton (cloth); the sole exception is the ore chain. Ore is smelted into tools at the blacksmith’s shop, and tools are very, very useful. Tools are used to equip pioneers to cut forests, drive roads and plow farms around the colony. You cannot build any kind of advanced building inside it with expending some tools. Finally, tools themselves may be used by a gunsmith to construct a third good: muskets. These aren’t so important at the start of the game, but good god are they critical to the end of it.

The point of Colonization’s economy is that you can at any time load any or all of these goods onto a boat and send them back to Europe to be sold in the markets there. The raw form of the resources gets you enough to live on at first, but the processed forms like cigars and rum are where the real money is to be made. The cash you get from this is your sole source of income, used for everything from rush-buying buildings to bribing educated specialists to make the trip over from the Old World so that they can live in a hovel in the new one. At the start of the game when you don’t have the industry to produce them yourself, money is used to purchase tools, muskets and horses from Europe. You can also buy more ships to transport a higher volume of goods — the starting caravel can carry a measly two slots’ worth, while an expensive galleon will do six and travel faster to boot – and even warships to protect your trade from the inevitable predations of the other colonial powers. The amount of money you have is the key brake on how fast you can expand. Colonies can be founded by any type of colonist without tools or any other special equipment, but it’s not much use if you can’t adequately populate it.

Speaking of population, the way Colonization deals with this is (I think) particularly neat. If one of your colonies manages to stockpile 200 food a new colonist will be born, but this barely ever happens until you’ve built yourself up a bit as a colonial empire. The real driving force behind your expansion will be immigration from Europe. Every so often a new immigrant colonist will arrive at the European docks, languishing there until you send over a boat to bring them to your rich new land of opportunity and adventure. Exactly what sort of immigrant you get is pretty much random, at first – anything from a dignified Elder Statesman to a wretched Petty Criminal who has been sentenced to penal transportation for his transgressions – but the key thing about these colonists is that they are “free”. You can pay to import specialists but the cheapest ones run a whopping 600-900 gold, and the most useful cost anywhere up to two thousand, making this impractical to do frequently. Most of your colonist workforce is going to be made up of these hopeful immigrants who just turn up on the dock, and the driving force behind their appearance is religious unrest in the mother country.

One of the first buildings you can construct in a newly-founded colony is a church. Stick a colonist in this church, and he’ll start producing crosses. If the colonist is a Firebrand Preacher, he’ll produce double. If you upgrade the church to a cathedral you get even more crosses. The crosses represent religious freedom in the new world, and make moving there a rather attractive prospect to any Puritan or Huguenot sick and tired of being persecuted by the state.  Bank enough crosses and an immigrant will move to the docks from the colonist pool. The total number of crosses needed to attract an immigrant increases each time so it doesn’t remain quite so easy to attract fresh blood. Building up your churches and preachers are therefore absolutely crucial for creating this constant stream of religious refugees.

The only problem with this approach is that you can often end up with a colony full of undesirable persons like criminals and indentured servants. These colonist types do well at gathering raw resources from the fields and mines, but they’re utterly terrible at any sort of intelligent work like processing those raw goods into something useful. You have two options for dealing with this.

1)      Ship all your undesirables off to the slave mines in the pestilent swampy interior of the continent, with their only contact with the outside world being the wagon train that picks up silver from the camp once in a blue moon . This is my preferred approach.

2)      Educate them into something useful.

This second approach takes a lot of time and effort. First you have to build a schoolhouse, then a college, then a university. Then you have to assign a specialist or three to the university to teach there. While they’re doing this they can’t do anything else useful for the colony, effectively functioning as so many extra mouths to feed. It also takes a while for education to produce results, depending on the level of educational establishment you’ve built. Eventually, though, any petty criminals present in the colony will be transformed through the power of education into indentured servants. Indentured servants in turn become unspecialised free colonists. And free colonists can learn the speciality of any of the specialists teaching at the university.

Education is something you are going to want to do sooner or later as your colonies improve and more and more native free colonists are born into the population. Free colonists can do any job, but they don’t excel at anything in particular. In order to make them genuinely useful you have to give them a specialty, and there are only two ways of doing this: either send them to an Indian village to learn a trade from the natives (more on this in a bit), or else educate them up using the specialist teacher-free colonist student method. It seems like a lot of time and effort to go to but specialists produce twice the number of goods in their speciality compared to basic free colonists – so an Expert Lumberjack will cut ten wood where a free colonist would only produce five – and so they’re essential for both making your colonies as efficient as possible and also circumventing that horrendous premium you pay back in Europe for attracting skilled specialists. It might cost you 1900 gold for that first Elder Statesman, but once you have him locked in your university he can educate any free colonists present into more Elder Statesmen.  Native-taught skills can also be hard to find since a given village will only teach a skill once, and so education allows you to disseminate that skill amongst your general population.

Once you’ve overcome the initial problem of founding the first few colonies and getting your economy going, the conflict and challenge of Colonization stems from two different sources. The first of these are the native inhabitants of the new world, who are already populating it very densely. This country is theirs. Not yours. Theirs. You can find native villages every seven or eight tiles or so which underline this fact. Your little band of colonists is encroaching on their land, and while they might start out friendly — giving you the land you initially settle on and occasionally sending small gifts of furs and sugar — any further expansion and development of their land runs the severe risk of pissing them off. If you settle next to an Indian village and want to use the tiles next to it to produce resources, you have to pay the resident Indians for their land or face a potential uprising that will easily wipe out your incipient colony. They outnumber you, even though you have guns and they don’t, and so they are best treated with a very light hand to begin with.

Later on, though, even if you’ve tried to keep on the natives’ good side, the demands of developing your colony to its fullest potential ensures that things will get ugly sooner or later. If you’re a complete dick you can systematically eradicate and enslave the native population surrounding your colony, but this requires a substantial military buildup that costs you time, money and manpower. The other option is to buy them off with regular deliveries of guns and booze, which still leaves me feeling tainted despite being the “good” choice. One way or the other you end up destroying their culture and their civilization to make way for yours, for no other reason than that they happen to be in the way. Colonization may have sidestepped the issue of slavery but it does do a good job of making you feel like a shit about the destruction of an entire people.

(One of the reasons the 2008 remake sucks so much is that the natives happily hand over their villages without a fight if you haven’t antagonised them, removing any hint of necessary conflict with the native peoples and sanitising the entire experience.)

The second threat to your burgeoning colonial government is the mother country itself. At first everything is hunky-dory; they’ve rid themselves of unwanted members of their population, you’re selling them dead animal skins and drugs and shit, everybody is happy. Eventually, though, the King of the country in question will start to do this:

Taxes! They are in the game but they are a decidedly bad thing. The King starts raking in a take off the top of every single bit of income you make selling goods to Europe. He won’t just implement one tax, either; instead he’ll hit you with tax after tax after tax until you’re forking over 40-60% of your money to him after every sale. Remember when I said that your money supply was the main brake on your colony expansion? The taxes make it even worse. Combined with market prices that fluctuate in response to supply and demand (so flooding the market with Rum will drive Rum prices into the ground) it can make things intolerable for you. Eventually your only option will be to throw off the tyrannical yoke of the King – and all his taxes – and declare independence.

There are two major barriers to doing this, though. First is that you need to get a sufficient number of your population to support a bid for independence. The colonists you star the game with? Those are Tories. They support the King. Everyone else who comes over from Europe is also a Tory who supports the King. In order to foment a dissenting opinion you need to stick Elder Statesmen into your town halls to produce liberty bells, which are Colonization’s way of representing rebel propaganda. Liberty bells do two things: they attract “great” people into your Continental Congress (the quotation marks are there because some of these people were demonstrably monsters) who provide empire-wide bonuses like not having to pay the Indians for their land any more, and they also slowly convert the population into members of the Sons of Liberty. The Sons of Liberty are a group who would be labelled as a terrorist organisation if they existed today, but in Colonization you want as many people to be members as possible. If 50% of a colony belongs to the Sons, they get a production bonus. If 100% of a colony are members they get an even larger production bonus. Producing liberty bells both puts you on the path to independence and maximises your economy to the fullest extent possible. Once 50% of your entire population joins the Sons of Liberty you can declare independence.

Of course the King isn’t going to take this lying down. He has a small army sitting on your doorstep – the Royal Expeditionary Force – and the turn after you declare independence they’ll land on your coastline and start invading your colonies. The regulars and dragoons making up the REF are the equal of your very best colonial forces, and they get a passive bonus for attacking colonies to boot. The only way to take them on is to fight them in the countryside where your forces’ familiarity with the surrounding countryside gives you a passive bonus. You’re also going to need an awful lot of guns, which is why industrial-scale musket production comes in rather handy at this point. My battles for independence usually see me starting out with a core of Veteran soldiers but quickly deteriorate into me handing a gun to colonists conscripted from the fields and churches.  Because of the way combat in Colonization works – probably the game’s single weak point – it’s numbers that will carry the day, not the quality of your troops or their positioning or anything like that, which is why the ability to create a soldier using any colonist and fifty muskets comes in rather handy.

Eventually this huge war of attrition will end one way or another; either the REF will take all your coastal colonies, cutting off your ability to continue trade with Europe, or you’ll succeed in exterminating every last one of the REF’s land forces. Either results in a game over, but winning the war of independence understandably confers a rather large score bonus when the game determines how well you did, naming an object after you depending on how future generations perceive your performance. Then you start fretting that you probably could have expanded some more, made more use of the land, declared independence earlier. Then you start a new game. That’s the curse of Colonization; it is, if anything, more addictive than Civilization if you’re interested in the time period at all (and if you’re not the game will get you interested), and it’s aged far more gracefully to boot.  I’m sure it’ll show up on GoG sooner or later, but for now you can download the DOS version from here and use it with DOSbox. You might end up losing days of your life to it, but I guarantee you won’t regret it.

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13 thoughts on “In Praise Of: Colonization.

  1. Adam Benton says:

    “One of the reasons?” I quite like the remake!

    • hentzau says:

      It was weird, it didn’t seem too bad to me at first but the more I played it the more a thousand little niggles and changes started to grate. The big issue I have with it is that the ridiculous link between liberty bell production and REF reinforcement rate basically forces you to cheese the whole rebellion side of things, but while it’s a fairly significant problem it’s the only thing I could point to and say “Yes, this is objectively worse.” Everything else is just me hating on things that are different from what I’m used to.

      • Adam Benton says:

        Having never played the original I never experiences many of those niggles. My big qualm was just the random map generator. It would always create snaky lines of islands, no matter what my settings were.

      • hentzau says:

        The random map generator in both of them is terrible, but then I ignore them and spend all my time playing on the America map anyway simply because I get a kick out of doing something so completely ahistorical.

  2. innokenti says:

    Never really got on with Colonization. It was in a weird middle ground for my tastes – neither big nor small in scope, and just didn’t really gel.


  3. Josh says:

    Ooh, more layers of nested comments!

    • Hentzau says:


      (Apparently I have to log in to comment on my own blog, which seems a bit weird.)

      • innokenti says:

        To prevent impostors!

        • Hentzau says:

          Well, now you can log in using your account! I think. That’s what Jetpack said it would do for me, anyway; it’s entirely likely it’s just freeloading on a sofa at the back of my web hosting instead.

  4. Kamos says:

    Pretty well explained! I just finished another game of colonization. I keep coming back to it (and Civ1 or 2 as well) every 3 years or so and lose like 20 hours finishing a game.

    I must admit that the battles being win or loss feels unfair at times… Where sometimes I lose 4 times fighting the same unit (while being equally matched)! But of course you won’t hear me complain when I win 4 times using the same unit ;)

    Your tactic of handing guns to colonists is pretty much how I imagine the war being fought back then. And that’s the brilliant thing about Colonization for me, it lets you experience that time. Indians pissing you off or being in the way? clear them out.

    My tactic is stocking lots and lots of horses, 300 in every city and then another 200 or so in terrain wagons per city. Everytime I lose a fight, move unit back into city and rehorsify it. And horses basically come for ‘free’: no building required. (well ok… at the expense of reduced population growth).

    Anyway, brilliant game even now in 2014!

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