1849 Review – Limitless Possibilities, Frustratingly Limited Gameplay

1849 is a new game by SomaSim, and simulates the experience of living in California around the time of the Gold Rush. There are two modes, story and sandbox, where the ultimate goal is to not run out of money, keep your residents happy and safe, and foster trading with surrounding areas to keep your supplies ample for helping your humble town grow.

The game plays remarkably like two games I’ve played in the past, and one of those comparisons, at least, may cause some disdain from readers. The first is SimCity 2000 for SNES, which I was terrible at, and thus never did anything but select pre-made cities and bring disaster upon them in the form of tornadoes and Godzilla attacks (I was an impatient child). The second is Frontierville, a Zynga game for Facebook, which I was only good at until it began to require micro-transactions to get anything done. Thankfully, the comparison to the latter goes only as far as appearance and some basic functions.

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If you’re looking for anything deeper than basic functions, however, I’m not entirely sure how well 1849 will suit you. Perhaps my personal lack of patience is to blame, but I found myself getting frustrated at limitations that shouldn’t be present. For example, in story mode, you build towns one-by-one until you’ve populated the area around San Francisco, and (presumably) win the game if you complete the goals for every town. There are 3 goals for each town, usually pertaining to population and building requirements. One town needs a sheriff’s office and a saloon, and another needs to have 75 residents while also selling 75 units of gold to a neighboring town. You’re given a set amount of money at the beginning of each level, and later down the line, you can choose whether you start with only money, certain buildings and less money, or certain buildings, built-in residents, and even less money. The difficulty with each of these is, of course, different, but my frustration comes with the knowledge that no matter how much work I put into a town getting it to run efficiently, once those three measly goals are done, I can never visit that town again. I can view my score, pr I can replay the town from scratch, but the fact that I can’t look in and change things makes the whole thing seem like a wasted effort.

This is where sandbox mode comes in, but the levels there are extremely limited as well, with supplies in one area not exactly matching with needed materials in surrounding trade areas. You can have 5 plots of silver around your land, but if no one around your town that you can trade with needs any silver, you’re not in a great position. Conversely, if the people around you ONLY want silver (no animal skins, lumber, rock, or food), and you run out, your ability to make money to continue to improve your town suffers greatly. I realize these limitations are supposed to feel more realistic, and having a MacGuffin item in each town that will magically be tradeable everywhere when all hope is lost is unrealistic (though gold comes pretty damned close). Once your town starts to sink, however, you’re better off quitting the map and making a new town.

Some of the starting options for one of the levels.

Some of the starting options for one of the story levels.

Onward from those points, let’s talk about graphics: They are good for the genre. You can tell what the buildings are, there are indicators that you can activate which tell you which areas need a certain thing (like a sheriff, or fire protection), and which areas have a certain type of resource to be obtained (gold, silver, iron, and crude oil). There are workers, some costumed appropriately, wandering the roads of the town, indicating activity. Whenever a building (the houses, mainly) upgrades, it’s indicated by a sound and an appearance change, and the differences between a house that holds 4 people and one that holds 10 are very clear. When you need to place a building that affects the residents, there’s a circle that shows the range of that building’s reach – if you place a fire station in an area and there’s a building just outside the circle, that building will burn (I lost 3 gold mines that were technically on the line of coverage until I gave up and finally just placed a fire station right next to the mine that burned the most often). The HUD and interface are very simple, and everything in-game is done with the mouse and/or trackpad. The graphics aren’t demanding in the least, and the game ran just fine on my old laptop.

The music contains variations on themes of several old-timey American songs, and they’re pleasant, but there’s no option to turn the music or sounds down, only on or off (another similarity to Frontierville, I’m sad to say). Turning down your computer’s volume helps, but it’s baffling to me how the sounds of mining can be so loud when I have my laptop’s volume on the lowest setting. A slider would definitely help here. Noise indications are a bit confusing, as the sound of things being built is the same as the sawmill making planks. You hear people’s voices rising in volume at seemingly random points in the game, and I still haven’t figured out why there’s an increase in activity, so it’s alarming because in many games, an increase in crowd noise indicates a problem or a major change, and here there is neither.

1849 is also available to play on tablets as simply a sandbox experience, and given how long tablets are typically used for gaming sessions, I really think this game was best geared toward mobile users. Any sort of long-term PC gaming, either in story or sandbox mode, doesn’t seem plausible, and the replay value seems low, given my point earlier about a lot of work for little reward. The $14.99 price, therefore, seems a bit steep to me. Then again, this could be the perfect game for someone who’s tired of micro-transaction-heavy pseudo-sim games on social media, and could serve as a baby step into more complex gaming experiences.

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If you’d like to pick up the game, you can get it on Steam, GOG, and Gamer’s Gate, as well as on Indie Game Stand, and all purchase links are available on the official website. Follow SomaSim on Twitter, or “like” them on Facebook for updates.

Good Things

  • Easy to play
  • Runs well on nearly any machine

Bad Things

  • Payoff does not match effort
  • Sandbox is very limited
  • Game is loud with no adjustment options aside from "off"