If you push me, I'll confess - I'm an Anno fan.
An often overlooked franchise, Anno came from rather humble beginnings back in 1998, with the European release of Anno 1602, which somehow became 1602 A.D. by the time it was released down under. Perhaps German publishers Sunflowers didn't think anyone outside Europe knew what "anno" referred to, or perhaps their translator got a bit carried away - it did little to detract from what was an unbelievably complex and, at times, overwhelming real-time strategy title.
Where the Anno games differ from virtually every other real-time strategy title out there is the emphasis on economic growth.
To the casual observer, Anno 1602 appears very much like Age of Empires, or Settlers, and it's easy to conclude that there's little value in favouring it over these much more popular titles. After all, you can build barracks where you can train troops, shipyards where you can build warships, and you can declare war on your foes at any time you want. To do so however, you'd have to be mad.
In the real world, countries exist in a near perpetual state of peace (perhaps augmented with occasional harsh words and threats over immigration) for a very good reason; war is expensive. In fact, short of inventing a rocket, strapping three people to the top of it and pointing it at the moon, very few things are more expensive than even a minor skirmish. This isn't a recent development, war has always been expensive in relation to other human endeavours, such as curing disease and abolishing poverty for example, and if you scale this concept it really makes little difference which century you point to.
This rather depressing thought is presumably the motto developers Max Design chose when laying down the foundation of the Anno series. Anno isn't about war, it's about economic triumph. It's about smirking when you see your enemy training cavalry whilst you set up another gold mine. It's about getting your damaged ships back to port so they can be repaired, and sent back out to transport more goods for your colony. It's about only resorting to war when you have absolutely no other choice, and then ending it as quickly as you can before you run out of money.
This might sound boring to the average strategy junkie, but Max Design packed in so much complexity in simply keeping your colony afloat that you scarcely had time to contemplate war anyway. Upon settling an island, you had to build a foresters hut to provide wood. The wood was used to build a fisherman's hut which would provide food to your fledgling settlement - the houses of which were also constructed using the same wood. After a while, your people would need clothing, so you'd have to build a sheep pen, and a weavers building, which required tools.
Tools were a problem, as they could only be created by building an ore mine, a smelter and a tool shop, and you couldn't do that until your population reached a certain level. Place any of these buildings outside of the influence of a warehouse, and they'd all need to be connected by roads - dirt at first, then stone, then paved.
The demands of your population seemed to know no bounds - from simple construction requests such as churches and taverns, to slightly more difficult produce requirements such as tobacco, alcohol, spices, cocoa and even jewellery, each advancement in culture brought about a seemingly unstoppable greed for merchandise and ever more grand building accomplishments. As your colony expanded, so did your land requirements, so settling other islands and setting up trade routes was crucial to victory.
Eventually your pioneers would be replaced with settlers, and citizens, until finally aristocrats would walk the streets of your shimmering metropolis, content with the luxury goods you'd imported from distant isles. The struggle was in maintaining a finely tuned economic powerhouse, and then defending it against those who would seek to take it off you.
In 2003, the sequel Anno 1503: The New World was released to an established fan base. Rather than the overhaul most players had hoped for, it was little more than a fresh face with a few new additions and never really felt as innovative or exciting as the first. Despite receiving a number of positive reviews, it had interface changes and unnecessary additional units that failed to compliment the 1602 experience in any meaningful way.
The one area that 1503 did manage to get right however was to expand the land masses. In a game that is designed primarily to set up chains of production, you can never have enough land. If America is anything to go by, the further people are away from the sea the crazier they get, so it's just as well 1503 still had a strong naval theme to fall back on.
In 2006, the series had a major revamp, resulting in Anno 1701. Max Design was replaced with Related Designs, another German developer who until that time hadn't worked on anything approaching the scale of the Anno franchise. Happily 1701 was a huge success, and pushed the series in a bold new direction. The stunning 3D engine presented the same daisy-chain resource concept as the earlier titles, and allowed you to see even the smallest of details in your established city.
In addition to the sweeping graphical changes, the AI was vastly improved, and new concepts such as lodge buildings and a technology tree were implemented. Even the trade route mechanics were overhauled, allowing micromanagement of your shipping in a way not previously seen.
Simply put, the production values of Anno 1701 were well in excess of what you'd expect from a title that had such little mainstream following, and even now most people are largely unaware of what a fantastic trading and economic game can be had for minimal outlay, probably out of a bargain bin by now.
Anno 1404 is currently under development, and as Sunflowers has now been acquired by Ubisoft, there's likely to be more of a push to mainstream RTS gamers. Anno 1404 moves the city-trading genre back to the Orient, were you'll be able to construct cities from scratch and build them to a truly impressive scale.
Returning to Anno 1404 will be a heavy emphasis on the culture and technology of the land you inhabit, along with a requirement to master the economy and exercise discretion with your enemy. The basic goals don't appear to have changed, it's still all about producing the most impressive metropolis and stabilising it through efficiency.
For the first time, a new faction has been introduced to allow extensive trade options. The concept here is very much "East meets West", however it's likely to be better than an advertisement from Hong Kong's tourism board. As for graphics - you can expect an entirely new engine built from the ground up that supports both DirectX 9 and 10, and even scales well to allow older machines to play.
New customisable elements, dozens of embellishing objects and bigger islands have been promised, and should provide players with endless opportunities to get creative. A huge part of the entertainment inherent in earlier titles was your own ability to customise the look and feel of your city, so it's great to see a strong focus on this for 1404.
Ubisoft have also reworked the interface, as well as including a fully modifiable sandbox mode akin to the "continuous play" option previously available.
We've mirrored the announcement trailer for Anno 1404 from the Leipzig GC last year over at GP Downloads (138MB), and if you haven't already seen it, it's a good way to acquaint yourself with all things Anno.
The Anno franchise may have flown under the radar for the past ten years or so, but during that time it's still managed to sell over five million units. Expect this extraordinary title at some stage towards the middle of the year; naturally we'll keep you updated on any news we hear from Ubisoft in the meantime.
So why the crazy dates associated with the franchise? Well, it seems the secret is that each numeral, when added together, must equal nine. Who'd have thought?