Settler Training: Build and Burn Cities in Ubisoft’s Rebooted RTS
Growing an empire is a balanced business. Expand your borders very quickly and you will spread weakly, and you will become an attractive target for enemy raids. Branch out very slowly and another faction will demand valuable resources before you can. Get the balance wrong and you’ll watch your empire burn to the ground.
In the beta version of Ubisoft’s The Settlers I was playing, I’ve watched my empire burn to the ground a few times now.
The Settlers is the latest entry in the long-running series of real-time and city-building strategies, begun in 1993 for Commodore Amiga. There have been six sequels since then, as well as a number of spin-offs including a free online browser game. However, the past decade has been difficult for the settlers. The eighth game was planned for 2014, but the closed beta was not well received by players and the game was never completed.
This new reboot had some issues getting to players as well: it was originally supposed to be released in 2019, Then delayed until 2020and then postponed indefinitely. Finally, The Settlers is finally getting ready for release in March, with a closed beta in January.
The only mode available in the beta I was playing is Skirmish mode, where in 1v1 or 2v2 matches against other human players or AI, empires share space on one of two maps and try to conquer them while destroying each other in the process. Until now, I was usually the one being destroyed. On the plus side, I learned something every time enemy soldiers wiped out my defenses, smashed my buildings, and threw lit torches on my warehouse until it turned into a glowing pile of ashes. Perhaps this is simple consolation for all the dead villagers, but each of those blazing failures meant I did a little better and lasted a little longer next time.
The early game is straightforward. You start with a handful of units on the edge of the map: engineers to explore and claim new territories, soldiers (some with long-range weapons, others to engage) to protect your land or wage war with other factions, and villagers to take supplies to wherever they need them. Select buildings from the list and place them with one click, provided you have the resources, and draw the ways to connect the buildings together. There are sawmills for turning timber into boards, quarries for turning rocks into stone blocks, houses for producing new citizens, etc. The center of your empire is your warehouse, where the collected resources are stored. You can survive other buildings burning on the ground, but if your warehouse crashes, it’s over.
My downfall is usually that I’m too eager to expand and expand my boundaries too quickly. In The Settlers, rapid expansion is essential because while starting areas usually contain enough resources for buildings and food, the most valuable resources, such as iron ore, are a good distance outside the starting limits. Iron is necessary for blacksmithing to make weapons, and weapons are necessary to turn ordinary villagers into soldiers. Not only do you need to find and claim those distant deposits, you have to do it before your enemies.
This means expanding as fast as possible – sending engineering units to expand your frontiers, claiming promising grass, and doing a long survey of areas for signs of buried minerals. At the same time, you need to create wheat farms, windmills for grain, fishing huts and food bakeries, donkey farms to speed up the transportation of goods or to create delicious steaks that can boost the production of some of your buildings. (A flatter belly makes workers more productive.) It’s hard to manage while keeping an eye on other AI or human players. They are somewhere on the map and they are just as busy as you.
The real problem with engineer units is simple: they can’t fight but they can be killed. Which means that if you send them on a sprawling expedition to find iron and expand your territory, you should consider sending soldiers with them for protection. Soldiers from another faction can not only find and kill your engineers, but there are thieves’ camps spread over the map and pose a threat if committed. On the other hand, if you send your soldiers away from the base camp to escort your engineers, who will defend against the raid? Again, big balancing is common in many RTS games.
There are some useful defensive buildings like turrets that can rain arrows when approaching enemies, which work well for protecting your borders or important buildings. But to get the materials to build these towers, you have to build roads and deliver supplies, and the farther away from your settlement, the longer it takes. And as it happened to me, your enemy might approach from a completely different direction, setting fire to your town while your towers stand guard in a threat-free zone.
I’ve finally found some success with a military strategy I like to call “Do what my enemy does, but do it first”. After a raid on the western end of my land, I set up two defensive towers and guarded them with soldiers until they were built. Then I sent all my soldiers on a long course winding east before turning them southwest again. When the next raid reached my towers, I ignored it and sent my soldiers deep into enemy territory. There was no army to fight because they were busy on my land trying to burn my things. Instead of tearing down my enemy’s defensive towers, I circled them and started throwing torches at the warehouse. Meanwhile, the enemy soldiers finally destroyed my towers, but taking the time to do so meant that they didn’t burn my warehouse as much as theirs. Finally victory.
I’ve had a great time with The Settlers so far. As a reboot of the series, it doesn’t sound like an ambitious reinvention trying to change the genre – which might actually be a good thing. Not every game needs to rework the completely familiar systems that players enjoy just for its own sake. Although I wasn’t stunned by the skirmish setting, it was a great challenge and required a lot of attention to juggle the many moving parts.
But building hustle and rapid expansion isn’t my favorite way to build an empire (in general, I’m more drawn to city builders than RTS games). I like more time to plan and manage and it expands a little slower. So I’m looking forward to The Settlers campaign mode which unfortunately was not included in the build I was playing. The campaign will have different story, characters and allies to meet and different biomes to build like arid deserts and lush green pastures. There will also be an attack mode (this wasn’t in the beta I played either) where players can use skirmish maps with custom settings like fewer resources or more enemies for a greater challenge.
The Settlers (and hopefully for real this time) will be out on March 17th. A closed beta release is scheduled for January 20-24. For a chance to get into it, You can register here.