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Brave pioneers explore uncharted islands in tall ships, finding bountiful lands that yield valuable resources, while establishing homes and becoming the first settlers of this new world. Soon their isolated cabins grow together, forming villages, and before long they begin to establish trade with the inhabitants of neighboring islands. The island world begins to grow the inhabitants attaining prosperity and wealth as they become skilled in trades and commerce. This idle life is treacherous -- wildfires threaten the rapidly growing colonies, and the seas hide gold-greedy pirates intent on booty & plunder...
Since it's first appearance, the PC-game ANNO 1503 has been a true success story. No other PC-game has been so successful in the German-speaking world in so short a time. Now master game-designer Klaus Teuber has succeeded in transferring all of the excitement and action of this popular game into this board game, stamped with his own unique type of play. Now you can experience all the variety and adventure of this strategic game in about an hour. You guide the fate of your homeland and people with ANNO 1503!
Designer Klaus Teuber is obviously enamored with exploration. He has utilized the exploration theme in many of his games, including Entdecker, Oceania, Die Neuen Entedecker and even numerous Settlers of Catan variants. It was no surprise when he was tapped to develop a board game based on the popular German computer game Anno 1503.
Set in the exciting period when Europeans began their historic voyages of discovery, Anno 1503 cast players in the role of the brave settlers who were attempting to establish colonies in the newly discovered lands. Ships must be sent into the unknown to discover uncharted islands and bring back their resources or establish outposts and trade agreements. Armed with the proper resources, hardy pioneers become settlers, townsmen and ultimately merchants. Various victory conditions give players sufficiently wide latitude and strategic paths.
A central board depicts a sea dotted with islands. The reverse of these island tiles will yield resources, gold or trade agreements. Each player receives a home island board, which he populates with one pioneer and one settler tile. The top of this board depicts various workshops that will produce commodities when the appropriate resource number is rolled. There is also space for six more colonist tiles and four public buildings. In addition, there are spaces for outposts and trade agreements, which may be found on the voyages of discovery.
Each turn follows the following sequence:
As mentioned, players may recruit new pioneers or recruit existing colonists. There are four levels of colonists: pioneers, settlers, townsmen and merchants. Each promotion requires a specific combination of resources, and each allows a specific type of commodity to be sold. Further, once a player recruits his fourth colonist, he may begin acquiring a public building for each additional colonist added to his island. Public buildings grant special powers, including protection from pirates and fires, additional commodities, increased income when selling, increased movement of ships, etc. Each player can only possess four buildings, and there is a limited quantity of each. So, choosing which buildings to acquire and at what point is very important.
Ultimately, players are attempting to be the first to satisfy three of five possible victory conditions:
I am particularly fond of games wherein there are numerous methods in which to achieve victory. This generally allows players some latitude in pursuing various strategies, and while it works in Anno 1503, it is not without its problems. There is a very limited quantity of outposts and trade agreements. Several tiles are not actually placed onto the board, and may actually never appear. If two players are pursuing the same tiles, it may well be possible that one player is unable to acquire the needed tiles, and be forced to change his strategy late in the game. Often, it is usually too late, and the player will effectively be out of contention.
While the game works and has some interesting aspects, it somehow lacks spark. The exploration aspect is rather lifeless. Generally, you are searching for a particular type of tile, and will often just keep sailing, looking, and sailing again. This is actually a bit frustrating, especially when an opponent seems to find the tiles he is seeking quickly.
Other aspects of the game aren’t as potentially frustrating, but again, seem to lack excitement. While there is a race to achieve various victory conditions, the end can be anti-climatic. Often, a player can sell numerous commodities to quickly acquire the gold needed, or simply get lucky in finding a needed outpost or trade agreement. I found the ending unsatisfying.
Anno 1503 is one of those games that is decent, but not spectacular. For the most part, the mechanisms work fine, and it does present the players with some interesting decisions. Unfortunately, there is nothing here that generates a high degree of excitement or challenge. The game simply doesn’t rise above the “slightly above average” category. The fact that it is limited to four players also limits its appeal. As such, it is a game that has languished on my shelf for a long time, and its prospects for further play are bleak.
Anno 1503 is a pleasant game that feels more like the next Settlers variation than anything new. It also is not particularly interactive, yet the turns move fast and the end game is usually quite tight so while the solitaire-nature would normally detract from the game play it doesn't make this one suffer. Each player manages both ships to sail the ocean and discover goods, and an island for pioneers to settle and begin trading. There are five criteria that earn a victory point, and the first player to meet three of the five conditions on their turn wins the game.
The common board shows an ocean with spaces for island tiles. Everything on the tiles is helpful. Each player also has their own island board, which shows spaces for pioneers, city buildings, and bridges to support extensions of the island with tiles drawn from the ocean. The island boards also show what resources will be earned from die rolls, and this is one of the most direct Settlers ideas implemented in the game. The good design, though, is that each player will earn a resource on every die roll, but not the same resource. For example, on a one, one player will earn a brick and another will earn wood. But no one is ever shut out, and so the die roll does not result in skewed resource generation.
There are six resources in the game, and these are used to develop and build, again like Settlers. Different combinations of resources are used to build ships, to add Pioneers to your board, and then to upgrade each Pioneer first to a Settler, then again to a Citizen, and finally to a Merchant. Each different stage of character development will buy resources from your hand, and this becomes the primary way to earn money. Money is necessary in the game for two reasons: to buy resources when you haven't developed them on your own, and to protect your island from Pirate and Fire events. Reaching 30 gold pieces is also one of the five victory conditions, so generating money through proper resource sales can help to directly win the game.
On a turn, first the die is rolled and all players 'develop' the resource shown for that roll on their island. This means that they take a card showing that resource. Next, the player can buy or sell and develop in any order. This means selling unneeded resource cards to one of your pioneers, or trading in cards to buy a ship or upgrade a character. Lastly, you can move your ship or ships if you have them, and these move through the ocean to collect tiles. Then the next player follows the same order, and so it goes until someone meets three of the five victory conditions.
The tiles drive most of the action. The first of these are the Pioneer tiles, which each player gets in their color. These include four tiles with a Pioneer (value 1) on one side and a Settler (value 2) on the other. Three tiles show a Citizen (value 3) on one side with a Merchant (value 4) on the other. Each island can hold all seven tiles, but obviously at least one must be upgraded to a Citizen before the fifth Pioneer can be placed since that is the only way to get a Pioneer tile back. Fully upgrading three tiles to the Merchant level is another of the five victory point conditions, and like the gold condition it is one that every player can achieve. The other three conditions are not necessarily that way.
Adding the fourth through seventh Pioneer tiles allows the addition of a Public Building tile for free. These are initially placed for all to see, and each building added gives a specific benefit. Some protect from bad events, some increase the value of commodity sales, and others turbo-charge ship movement. Getting four Public Buildings is one of the five victory conditions, and this is closely linked with the Merchant condition since by definition three of the Pioneer tiles must already be at the Citizen (3) level for the seventh Pioneer, and thus fourth Public Building, to be placed.
In the ocean, tiles are discovered by the ships. Ships move a fixed number of spaces per turn, and if they move adjacent to a tile the ship owner can look at the tile and choose to take it. If the tile is taken, the ship is removed from the board and a new ship must be purchased by turning in the right combination of resources. The ocean tiles come in three flavors. The first are 'branch offices,' and these are extensions on your island board which show a different kind of resource. So, if I draw a 'spice' tile I can place it above my island board tied to one of the fixed die rolls. When that roll comes up on anyone's turn, I can then choose to produce the good printed on my island board or the good on the adjacent branch office. In this way, the die rolls can be even more productive. Four branch offices fit above each island tile, and getting all four is yet another victory condition. Obviously to do this, you need to fund the ships and the time to get out into the ocean and find the right tiles. In a typically smart Teuber idea, branch offices are the only way to directly develop two of the six resources. These two can of course be purchased and one of the die rolls for each player gives them a 'joker' that allows choosing any resource, but producing Spice and Tobacco is useful since they are used for the higher level upgrading of Pioneer tiles and they are sold for the highest values.
The second type of tile found in the ocean is the 'trade agreement.' Three of these can be placed to the right of the individual island boards, and each lowers the purchase price of a resource by one gold. Normally each resource card costs six gold to purchase; getting three 'trade agreement' tiles lowers that cost to three and also makes up the fifth and final victory point condition.
Along with this set of ideas, a few other nice touches are thrown in. Only die rolls one through five are spoken for on the island boards. When a six is rolled, an event takes place and the die is rolled again. Two-thirds of the time this event is negative, and requires paying gold or otherwise losing a previously placed ocean tile or Pioneer tile. One third of the time is a 'good harvest' and each player gets a free resource of their choosing. The Public Buildings can modify these events, as two protect from the two bad events and one enhances the good harvest. Getting to the ocean tiles gets more difficult as the game proceeds, since each trek into the ocean requires further sailing for discovery. Thus, choosing the tile that helps the most is important but can also slow you down.
The game board and tiles are usefully segregated to allow for two, three, or four players. The rules stay the same in each configuration, but the set of ocean tiles and Public Buildings is reduced in ways that make the game work well and keeps the victory point conditions related to these tiles contestable. The game has a natural momentum, as resources become easier to control as branch offices are created and efforts focus on the logical way to meet the third victory condition. A ship-heavy strategy will likely rely on meeting the 'branch office' and 'trade agreement' conditions, while a Pioneer development strategy will support the 'merchant' and 'public building' goals. Either of these can be combined with the 'gold' condition or of course any combination works. It is not possible for each player to get four branch offices or three trade agreements, and so both speed in the ocean and selection of tiles will either create opportunities or close off options.
Anno 1503 is an enjoyable game, though it won't feel new or original to anyone who has played any of the Settlers games and Entdecker. But it works very well and will make an excellent introductory game that will be more approachable for many without the player-to-player trading. While there is not much interaction, it is easy to stay engaged figuring out your own strategy and the game sails along fast enough so that you're almost always doing something.
I would be remiss not to remind some of you that this game is the board game version of a popular PC game, but since I've never played it that way I can't comment on how well this captures the spirit or ideas of its electronic original. Its derivativeness from earlier Teuber designs makes it feel natural as a board game and most will find this one to be a pleasing implementation.