Most of the time when people think about the conquest of the Americas,
they think about hardy pioneers moving westward, scraping a tough living from the land and killing Indians. Or maybe they think of stalwart pioneers rebelling against European rule, and killing Indians. Europeans might even think of the French and Indian War (though they would call it the Seven Years War) in which the British killed a lot of French and Indians.
Now that I think of it, most games about the early years of European presence in the Americas seem to revolve around killing the native inhabitants. Not so with Commander: Conquest of the Americas. The point in this game is to do what the Europeans originally (and still) came to America to do: make a buck.
You start off in control of a European nation's colonization program. All the favorites are here (Britain, France, Spain) along with some more unusual choices (the Netherlands, Portugal, and the Holy Roman Empire). Each nation has its own advantages (e.g. more colonists, better trade opportunities), so you can pick one to suit your style of play.
The basic game mechanic is simple and easily recognizable to anyone who has played East India Company. You have a home port and establish colonies in a distant land, then build ships that carry colonists and finished materials to the colonies and bring raw and exotic materials back home. The price of stuff in the colonies is less than its sale price back home, so you turn a profit. You can use this profit to buy more ships to settle more colonies to do more trading. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Different colonies produce different materials. The distribution seems to be geographically based. A colony in the Caribbean might supply spices and sugar, while one up in Canada could produce furs, gold and gems. Your home market can only absorb so much of a particular import in any time period – import too many furs too quickly and you won't be able to sell them any more. This is a handy push to get you to diversify colony locations.
In addition, some resources can be refined in your colonies by building the appropriate building. For example, a colony that mines silver can build a Silversmith and then produce refined silver bars. Refined products sell for more than raw ones (and often take up less cargo space) so it is worth it to start up these mini production chains.There are only a limited number of colony sites and their resources are randomized at the beginning of each game so some exploration is needed to find the best spots. There does not appear to be any effort to equalize the goodness of the the sites, so there will be better and worse spots. At first, colonization is limited by arbitrary rules about how large a presence in the New World you must have before expanding. Eventually, however, all the spots will be taken up and further expansion (and associated profits) will rely upon armed conflict.
There are two basic forms of armed conflict: ship-to-ship and ship-to-land. They play out similarly in an RTS-like fashion, with the big difference being that land-based forts don't move much. Ship-to-ship combat has two primary purposes: pirates and economic warfare. Pirates are independent ships that attack all nations equally. They can cost your nation lots of money if left unchecked. When one is at war with another nation attacking their ships is a good way to cut trade lines. A nation without trade is a nation bleeding money. Keep it up and they will have to surrender. Attacking forts is useful for gaining colony spots. This has the added advantage of denying long-term trade opportunities to your enemy while increasing them for yourself.
In general, then, war is economics by other means. The tactical war engine rewards good tactics, but the war will largely be won or lost by your economy. If you have a large enough war chest and sturdy enough trade routes you will be able to outspend your opponent to the point of exhaustion. Commander is, first and foremost, a game about trade economies and economic power. If you like trade-based games, this one is right up your alley.
You have domestic problems, too. You are provided with 4 “advisers”: royal, trade, military and religious. Each of them has an (obvious) area of concern and they will present you with missions. For example, the military adviser might require you to build another fort within the next 5 years. If you do this he might present you with a monetary reward. At the least, he will be happier with you. If you fail he will be unhappy. Get enough advisers unhappy enough and you lose the game.
Having missions serves to spice up what can be a rather dull game at times. The initial colonization phase is interesting. Given your limited initial colony allocation (two) you are faced with the decision “Should I found a colony in this spot or sail away looking for a better spot? If I don't find a better spot perhaps some other nation will take this one before I get back.”. This is followed by a period of shipping people over, shipping stuff back, and setting up your initial buildings.
The primary drawback of Commander is that, when this initial phase of discovery and setup is over, there isn't much to do for a while. Once trade routes are set up they will run automatically. At that point the player can sit back and watch the money roll in. New colony spots will open up eventually, but the decision here is simple – grab the first one you can get to. It is possible to go do laundry for long periods and just let the game roll on by itself. Missions provide some relief. Battles should liven things up, but this is a trading game. Combat feels a little like they tacked it on in order to give you something to do when trading gets boring. Other engines, for example The Settlers, do a much better job of integrating your economy and military. Eventually expansion will require combat and decisions about who and where to attack will come up and things get interesting again, at least if you are not already economically dominant.
Another, more puzzling, problem with Commander is the control and information structure. The most important thing in an economic game, after the basic engine, is what information the player gets and what actions they can take based upon it. In general, the more of both the better. Some of the more basic information displays are missing in this game. For example, it is possible for a fleet on a trade route to carry the same thing back and forth across the Atlantic without ever selling it. Since fleets require upkeep this is a costly and inefficient thing to do. One might think the player would be notified when this happens so they could correct it. Not in Commander. The player has to perform an awkward set of moves and check every fleet from time to time in order to make sure this is not happening. Many other basic pieces of information (e.g., what percentage of a colony's production is being exported, is a particular raw material being imported faster than the home country can use it) are simply not there.
The graphics are pleasant and clear and sound effects are informative. Commander does a good job of clearly presenting the relevant information.