An approximate pattern for 4X games in general is to start out with a single base/settlement, move out, find valuable terrain and claim it with further bases, solidify borders to keep others away from the valuable bits you’ve found, and then go take their stuff.

Thus, these games generally start out as ones of colonization. Whether it’s sending ships out into the galaxy, or settling the barbarian-infested wilderness, it’s much the same. Colonizing the New World is a natural fit for the common strategy game desire of building up. But, other than a fad in the late-’80s to mid-’90s it has not been a popular subject. More interesting, they’re a fairly disparate bunch.

Gold of the Americas (1989) from SSG is a favorite of mine, in part because it is so small. It covers three centuries at a rate of a decade per turn, and is playable in an afternoon. You play as the king’s viceroy in the New World, in charge of colonizing and developing the new world so as to fill the King’s coffers back in Europe. Europe itself only imposes itself in the game in the form of support from the King (if you paid your taxes…) and deciding who is at war or allied among the four powers. Slaves can be imported and exploited along with the native Indians, and at low development, colonies can die out.

Sid Meier’s Colonization (1994) is a spin-off of Civilization, and it shows. However, it does a lot of things differently that give it a good colonial feel. Population, and units on the map are interchangeable, and can be shifted from city to city; in contrast, there is not a lot of population growth in the game; population generally comes from Europe. Population exists in several forms, from convicts and indentured servants (who are not as productive as normal ‘free’ population) to more productive specialists. Slavery does not show up, nor the dying off of the natives from disease, though they may ‘convert’ and come live in your settlements. Trade is important, with a need to send cargo back to Europe to sell to buy tools and weapons (until you can produce them yourself). And finally, the game is completely goal oriented: instead of just trying to build the best colonies you can in the time provided, you must declare independence and win the resulting Revolutionary War to beat the game.

Conquest of the New World (1996) is close in structure to Colonization, but with a lot of attention on the world environment. The terrain is done in a simple 3D style, with elevations shown. Exploration is explicitly rewarded with points awarded for the first player to explore the length of a river or a prominent mountaintop (and the ability to name the feature). Combat is more involved, using a simple mini-game that is well done. The influence of Europe is minimal, with further colonies having to be be built as settlers from existing one. Not only is independence not necessary for winning the game (but it does add to the victory point total), but you can play as the natives and attempt to ‘federate’ the other tribes and establish a powerful native nation to resist the colonials.

Imperialism II (1999) isn’t really a colonization game, but that is part of what it shows. The New World is important because it has materials that are needed to make your nation more productive, but victory is determined purely by the Old World. The Europa Universalis series (2000-2013) is also in this period, and features similar concerns though it is more oriented to colonizing the region rather than specific worries for particular trade goods.

All of these games feature exploration, but only Conquest tries to make it a goal sufficient unto itself (though Colonization also has ‘goodie huts’, of rewards scattered through through the world). Exploration is probably the most abused system in gaming. You either know what’s there or not. On the scale of any of these games, exploration is not a binary proposition. Sure, there’s hills over there, and mountains further off, but what’s the place really like? How fertile? How many villages in the area? I’d love to see a system where you slowly progress from very general knowledge to more detailed, as you move from small expeditions moving through the area, to regular trade, to settlement.

One of the nice points of Colonization is the treatment of the natives. They are split up into a number of generalized tribes, that differ in how powerful they are (and how much loot they have), and will each have their own relations with different European powers. They can trade, and train people into specialists, and slowly get alarmed as European presence continues. They can gain horses and guns and become more dangerous. Only Imperialism II and Europa Universalis come close to this, but without as much interest. Conquest allows you to play as the ‘high natives’, but the representation of the various Indian tribes is shallow.

Overall, I am surprised that we haven’t seen more games on the subject. I’m pretty sure Conquest was inspired by Colonization, but the chain stopped there. There is a new version of Colonization (on the Civ IV engine), but it is a very faithful re-release of the original, and not really a new game. Perhaps these games (and GotA and Colonization in particular) said most of what needed to be said, but I think there’s room for a very interesting exploration-based game, if someone wants to tackle the challenges of partial knowledge.