The 6th Settlers game is a city-building sim similar to "Dawn of Discovery" or any of the Anno games. Its cutesy style, along with a fairly simple layout, makes it probably the most user-friendly game in the Settlers series, something that may not appeal to long-term fans.
The Settlers VI operates on simple principles. There are two types of buildings: gatherers and producers. Gatherers are placed near resources like wood, stone, or wild animals, and gather those resources. Producers are "city buildings" and turn raw materials into usable product. There are only a few categories of product compared to earlier Settlers games. There's food (meat, bread, cheese, or fish), clothes (made from leather or wool), cleaning supplies (soap from animals or brooms from wood), and entertainment (mead, baths, or decorations). In each category, you only need one particular type of thing - compare this to Dawn of Discovery, where your citizens had very diverse tastes and needed all of them to be fulfilled equally.
Not all the things you will need will be in your starting area, though. The game divides maps into different provinces; by making outposts in other provinces, you can secure their resources for your city. Choosing which provinces to expand into is a vital part of the game, especially in multiplayer when they are contested by several players.
A new element in VI is the presence of Knights. Knights serve as avatars for the player, providing bonuses depending on which one is picked. The military knight, for example, produces soldiers more cheaply and can refill their supplies. The holy knight can heal sick settlers, the trade knight gets better deals off of trading with villages or other players, and so on. The knight you pick also serves as the voice of your advisor, notifying you of events around your city. Fulfilling short-term objectives, like giving your citizens clothes or cleaning supplies, allows your knight to be promoted in rank and unlock the next tier of buildings. As your knight gets promoted, the demands of your city grow, but so does your power as a ruler.
Besides making sure everything is running smoothly, there are a few other things you can do with your citizens. You can call a sermon at your local cathedral; attendees will be happier, and will donate some money after it is over. You can declare a festival at your marketplace, which results in people getting married; housewives (or in one case, house-husbands) will take care of chores like retrieving food and clothes, leaving the actual business to their spouse. Finally, you can adjust taxes once you're high enough rank, meaning that if you're doing well with money you can drop off your taxes to make your citizens much happier (or raise taxes if you need cash quickly).
There is also a military system present in the game. There are two types of soldiers: swordsmen and archers. The former are a melee class; the latter are a ranged class. Both sides use torches to attack structures, and they possess them in limited amounts (though they can refill them for free at military structures or outposts). There are also siege engines, used to attack stone walls (which don't burn). The combat in the game is very simple, and hinges primarily on numbers. However, the prosperity and happiness of your city also influences the quality of your soldiers, so keeping your people happy is a good way to ensure a strong military.
In addition to the fairly enjoyable campaign mode, there are also some side scenarios and multiplayer options. The side scenarios aren't that great, and there are disappointingly few multiplayer maps. The presence of random maps would have done a lot to add replay value to the game outside of the campaign. There are four distinct climates in the game - mild (standard European), cold (Viking), warm (Spanish), and hot (Arabic). However, the climates only affect crops (the availability of crops at certain times of year and the presence of fertile ground) and the appearance of your castle. Villages on these maps will have unique climate-specific buildings, but your own city always has the same building styles. This is unfortunate, but understandable. Most of the buildings are nice to look at as it is, with a wide variety of roof-tile colors so you're not just looking at the same building repeated 20 times. In fact, making a satisfying city is one of the best parts of the game, further reinforced by the fact that your settlers and their spouses are all visible somewhere in the city going about their tasks (or loitering and chatting, if they've got nothing to do).
The graphics are nice; the cartoonish look means that their ostensibly low quality goes unnoticed in favor of a more stylized approach. As mentioned, making beautiful cities is the high point of the game. Voice acting is somewhat laughable, but not actively terrible. The music is a little bit annoying, but not offensively so. Some sources complained of technical difficulties and crashes, but playing the game through the Gold Edition (purchased with the Steam online service), I had no problems of that nature. On the whole, The Settlers: Rise of an Empire is a good game, but better for more casual city-builders instead of hardcore settlers fans. The lack of free-play and city diversity is annoying, but not unmanageable.
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We purchased this game with our own funds for the purpose of this review.