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12 years later, Ubisoft revives its classic RTS, The Settlers

The Settlers gets a launch date, and a reintroduction to longtime fans

overhead isometric view of a village in The Settlers (2022)
The Settlers opts for a high-fantasy aesthetic, while still retaining some of the architectural traditions of earlier titles.
Image: Ubisoft Dusseldorf/Ubisoft

How best to describe The Settlers, which launches March 17 on Windows PC?

The title would suggest a reboot. Yet fans know this series has typically established new stories and settings rather than follow a continuity.

The timing, 12 years after The Settlers 7, implies a reintroduction is in order. But is that really necessary when games as old as The Settlers 2 (1996) and The Settlers 3 (1998) still have a dedicated following?

The tactics should be obvious: This is a classic real-time strategy game whose colleagues, such as StarCraft, also haven’t published new titles in a long time. Still, The Settlers’ appeal has never been in the think-fast/twitch-faster demands of an esports RTS born in the same era of late-’90s PC gaming.

“Watch those games, right?” mused Christian Hagedorn, Ubisoft Dusseldorf’s creative director for The Settlers. “Sometimes people turn the graphics down in other games just to be able to perceive the actions fast. This is the opposite in our game; we want people to be able to enjoy, immerse themselves in the world, follow the one guy who just chopped that one tree back into the base, and then see what that is turning into.”

And that kind of one-to-one resource economy — objects on the map being turned into siege weapons, or buildings, or tools — is what has distinguished The Settlers over its 28-year history. “Nothing is an abstract stat hidden in the menus,” Hagedorn elaborated. “You’re creating weapons, that’s literally a weapon being crafted in the game; you see the iron and the coal it required. And then there’s a literal person grabbing that sword and going to train.”

Players both familiar and unfamiliar with The Settlers can see this at work when the game’s closed beta begins Jan. 20, available through Ubisoft Connect and the Epic Games Store. Polygon got a hands-on preview of the same content over the past week, and Hagedorn’s pitch resonated with me after tinkering around with the tutorial and the skirmish modes that the beta’s small slice will offer.

The Settlers’ step-by-step gameplay structure prioritizes preparation and defense over speed and surprise. If you want soldiers for defense, you’ll need a training grounds, and you’ll need wood for that. If you want siege weapons for offense, you recruit their units at a tavern; likewise, get chopping. It’s a slow burn for some, but enough have caught fire in the past three decades that The Settlers has to stick to this pacing to remain true to the franchise.

Players don’t really start with resources already in hand; they start with villagers and engineers to harvest and refine them. This is how The Settlers can quickly arrive at a balanced economy, even if the granular treatment of its resources speaks of something way more complex. The Settlers’ gameplay balance comes from managing throughput rather than the availability of resources, Hagedorn said. Sure, there’s an infinite supply of iron in the mine, but your finite number of miners and engineers keeps you from overwhelming other factions with a resource advantage.

“Once we can control the throughput, we can also offer infrastructure upgrades so that you can transport [materials] faster, or a technology that would allow some other people to do something better,” Hagedorn said. Resources like food are less about unit health (in combat, spell-casting ritualists — recruited from a shrine — handle that duty) and more a production modifier: Applying a food bonus to a mine is going to mean ore coming out at a faster rate.

Of course, these materials have to make it to the smithy, which gets to the other big management loop of The Settlers: building and maintaining the spoke-and-wheel network of supply roads and a warehouse. Rather than take lumber directly to the sawmill (or harvest it at the construction site) it’s more efficient to cut the trees, store the logs at a warehouse, and get back to cutting them, leaving the transport to another unit.

Ubisoft Dusseldorf (formerly Ubisoft Blue Byte) isn’t revealing anything about The Settlers’ narrative yet, beyond the fact that it involves three factions: the Elari, who have been forced to flee their home; their rivals, the Maru; and a third, the Jorn, who are not playable in the closed beta. All three factions will have different building specialities (“a nod to the classics,” said Hagedorn), which again focuses the game balance on throughput, rather than starting position. Maps are large and contain more than just factionalized adversaries; bandit camps are there to harass and challenge all comers, underlining the need to always have soldiers on hand, even if you’re nowhere close to attacking another settlement.

Wrapping all of this is a colorful gameplay world with a high-fantasy aesthetic; previous Settlers have run the gamut from medieval to imperial Rome to competing ancient civilizations. The building style still echoes the Teutonic architecture that has been a calling card of the series, but the curving roofs and peaked gables also have a hobbit’s-village appeal.

“A lot of us within the team [...] we have played the original Settlers — Settlers 1, Settlers 2, Settlers 3 — some people have joined the studio seeking [to make] a Settlers title,” Hagedorn said. “So it is personal.”

The Settlers has indeed been a long time coming. Announced at Gamescom 2018, it was originally expected in the fall of 2019, and was then delayed to 2020. Then, in 2020, Ubisoft Dusseldorf postponed the game indefinitely; Hagedorn said that the game at that point was a group of core components that worked well on their own but didn’t really fit together.

“Sometimes they overcomplicated the game, sometimes they just did not feel like they were participating with other portions of the game,” Hagedorn said. “We had to take a step back and look at the bigger picture again, and really find or refine [a purpose]. Basically, we self-audited ourselves.”

The result is a renewed focus on unit control, and the introduction and strategic necessity of civilian engineers, which are noncombat units that still may be attacked. Landmarks, which are special areas of the map that confer great benefits when controlled, also entered the game design, with Ubisoft Dusseldorf finding they played a strong role in the infrastructure and transport gameplay loops.

“Getting a title [made] is not just a matter of rehashing anything available and throwing it out there,” Hagedorn said. “It’s something that we want to put the utmost amount of love into it. It has to be right in all the good places in order to be created.”

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