Civilization IV: Colonization is a standalone expansion to Civilization IV that resurrects 1994's Colonization. The new version of the game is essentially a total conversion of Civ IV, using the same game engine and many familiar game mechanics, while presenting a very different Civ experience.
Your main aim in Colonization is - unsurprisingly - to found a successful, thriving colony and ultimately declare independence from your home country. The ruling powers tend to take a dim view of declarations of independence and will respond with military force, so it's not just a matter of planting a flag and telling the King to get stuffed. Timing is everything. Get too uppity too quickly and you'll quickly find your freshly founded Nirvana reduced to ashes. Wait too long and you won't have time to fight a successful war of independence to a decisive conclusion. Each game of Colonization is limited to 300 turns - it might seem a lot at the beginning, but you'll begin to feel the pressure as the turns tick relentlessly by.
The spruced up Civ IV engine makes the game feel immediately familiar, despite the many interface changes. It looks good too, with some lovely water effects and detailed landscapes making a good early impression. Veteran Civ IV players should feel right at home, with many of the hot keys and shortcuts of Civ IV carrying over to Colonization. Keep in mind, though, that this isn't a basic Civ IV expansion, but a whole new game with its own tricks, traps and challenges.
The city management screens provide one of the more obvious points of difference. The left hand side of the screen is dedicated to a variety of specialist slots - furriers, blacksmiths, ministers of religion and rum distillers, to name just a few. As the game progresses, you can plug specialists into these slots, which will generally increase a city's production of a particular resource or item. These can then be traded between your cities, with the native population or sent home on a trader's ship. In our short time with the game, it quickly became apparent that one of the keys to success is a vibrant economy that makes the most of every resource at your disposal. Trade routes can be easily set up and automated, as can the placement of specialists. It's also possible, in the best Civ IV traditions, to simply put people to work in the fields around your cities to produce food, lumber and whatever else lies with your city's radius.
Many of your specialists will emigrate from your homeland, lured by the promise a better life. Expect to spend a lot of the early game ferrying specialists across the ocean, while also trying to milk the folks back home for every penny they've got. Someone, after all, has to pay for the war that's looming on the horizon. One of the more enjoyable aspects of Colonization is the ever increasing tension between the colonies and the homeland - you're kept well informed of the King's increasing distrust, and the growing size of the force that's itching to leap over the oceans and put you in your place. Sooner or later the tax increases, tributes and general arrogance of the powdered dandies in the Royal Court will prove to be too much, and you'll find yourself valiantly defending your new way of life.
To help you along the way, a Founding Father will occasionally offer to join you. These are historical figures who convey a variety of benefits to your whole colony, and function somewhat like new technologies in Civ IV. Founding Fathers are attracted to colonies that are focusing on their specific areas of expertise, so if you're building a lot of churches and cathedrals, you're more likely to have a Founding Father arrive on your doorstep with a sackful of specifically religious bonuses. We can't claim to have managed our Founding Fathers particularly well so far, but they appear to be a great way to reinforce a colony's unique strengths.
Okay, confession time: in the hours we spent with Colonization, we failed spectacularly to become even a teensy bit independent, having spent much of the game trying to wrangle our economy into something other than an embarrassing tangle of trade routes and under-developed cities. We never really got much beyond the stage of ploughing blindly onwards in the hope that a decent colony would begin to manifest itself. It will take time to become familiar with everything that Colonization has under the hood, and to understand the ramifications of each decision, which is exactly what you want from a game bearing the Civ IV stamp. As befuddled as we were for most of our time with Colonization, it only takes a few games before viable, manageable strategies start to present themselves and cunning plans can be tested out. There's also a solid in-game tutorial system, backed up with an exhaustive Civilopedia that covers every aspect of the game.
The multiplayer menu comes fully stocked with LAN, internet, hotseat and play-by-email options. We didn't get to try out any multiplayer games, but imagine it will involve each player trying to cut themselves free of their homeland while also competing for territory and resources. It's an interesting prospect, but it's almost inevitable that the vast majority of Colonization game time will be spent in single player mode. It's good to have the option, though.
For anyone who's been waiting for an updated version of Colonization, it all looks very promising. The standalone nature of the game should also make it a good jumping in point for anyone who's missed the Civ IV bandwagon so far, or is just looking for something a bit different from the Civ IV stable.
Civilization IV: Colonization is due for release in late 2008.