It takes time to play God

Andrew Brown reviews Colonisation, and finds that it taxes his resource s
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Computer games should be like wars: much easier to start than to stop, and gripping even when they are at their most confusing and pointless. There is something intrinsically wrong with a game that needs a manual you have to keep by you to play.

Colonisation comes with a manual, two cards full of extra rules and an addendum explaining where the manual is wrong. All these have to be read at least once if the game is to make any sense. Even then, if you have not played such a game before, it takesseveral hours before a recognisable pattern emerges.

But hundreds of thousands of people find these complications natural now, for Colonisation is the latest in a hugely popular series of "God Games" produced by a designer called Sid Meier. Before Colonisation came Civilisation, where you had to conquer the world, starting as a nomad tribe; and Railroad Tycoon, where you had to cover the prairies with your railways and drive out of business everyone else's. None of these games is particularly warlike. They gratify a more complex urge to power.

If you have time to sink into them, they can rapidly become addictive. A single game should take at least six hours to complete, at the simplest level, and could easily take much longer. The games offer an entire world in which to lose yourself, full of complicated and unpredictable interactions. One selfless 15-year-old volunteer, with whom I have been testing the game, found himself waking in the middle of the night and sneaking off to the computer to make one last attempt on a troublesome Dutch fort.

The purpose of Colonisation is to win a war of independence after conquering the New World, which can be America, or a computer-generated patchwork of islands. Either way, the key to success is money, which you earn by exploiting the natural resources ofthe new continent, by plundering the Indians, or both. With money, you can buy soldiers; however mercantile and pacifist your earlier strategy, in the end Colonisation becomes a war game - thankfully, one in which nobody ever explicitly gets killed - asyou struggle against the European power that has launched you.

All this is done with a gratifying degree of complexity and apparent realism: colonists must grow food and other raw materials (sugar, tobacco, cotton and so forth), which they transform into new colonists, or rum, cigars and cloth. They can also mine ore, which is used to make tools. With tools you make factories, armouries and shipyards. All this work is carried out by blacksmiths. They need the help of carpenters, who in turn need lumber. Almost all these specialists are either unavailable, too expensive to hire, or in the wrong place.

No one territory contains all the available natural resources. Much of the skill of the game lies in arranging your colonies so that the abundance of each area can supply the wants of others. The remaining skill, so far as I can understand it, lies in buying as many soldiers and as much artillery as you can, and waging tireless war against your weaker neighbours.

All this takes time. A game has at least 500 turns and may have 600. Each turn could involve the arrangement of 100 colonists, though in practice almost all the tedium is removed by being able to give them orders and leave them to get on with it. The terms of trade in the game are constantly fluctuating, so that it is not safe to entrust the success of your colony to one commodity, since the price will inexorably diminish. I once built up a huge silver-mining operation, only to see the price per ingot fall from 19 gold pieces to two.

That disaster re-created the consequences of the great 16th-century inflation, brought about by a glut of silver from the Americas - but it was more likely the result of a bug. Games such a Colonisation are just as complex, considered as programs, as any"serious" software, so there is usually something wrong with them somewhere when they first apppear. Colonisation has occasional sudden, random hang-ups, when the whole screen freezes and nothing will rescue the game but switching off. But the game is still there, saved, when you resume play.

It may sound a back-handed compliment to say that the game was deleted from my computer's hard disk as soon as I completed this review. But it is in fact high praise, because the problem is not space but time. If I kept Colonisation around, I would use the computer for little else.