Dawn of Discovery
Full disclosure: I have a tendency to happily dig into real-time strategy games like a drooling bulldog into a bowl of Purina. I tell you that because I recognize that this particular genre isn't everybody's favorite gaming chew toy—slow-moving, strategizing games can feel positively antiquated to run-and-gun fans.
But well-made RTS adventures usually offer a creative environment that's almost as educational as it is entertaining. They also keep the digital playground (generally) gore-free. And Ubisoft's Dawn of Discovery does a pretty good job in all those departments.
Designed for the Wii and DS platforms, Dawn of Discovery presents a watercolor-splashed world that young gamers can explore in one of two modes: The lengthy Story mode is the best place to start since it familiarizes players with the game's world-building and economics-managing mechanics through easy-to-complete, bite-size objectives. I'll tackle Continuous Play mode a bit later.
A Colorful 15th Century
The tale sets sail in the 1400s when England's King George calls his two princes, William and Edward, into the throne room. The monarch reports that they must find new ways to supply the needs of an ever-growing kingdom. Edward, the more war-minded of the two siblings, wants to conquer foreign lands and take all they need. But William, the warmhearted, kingdom-devoted son (whom you play), suggests building settlements on islands to the south and filling the realm's needs with settler tributes and oriental commerce. And so begins your quest to make his dream a reality.
For those who've never played a game like this, the goal of creating multiple settlements, breaking ground on new farms, markets and churches, and micromanaging hundreds of peoples' lives can, at first blush, seem either mundane or mind-boggling. (Sort of like trying to wrap your brain around any of the latest trillion dollar governmental programs.) But easing into the job at hand is the real strength of Dawn of Discovery.
As the story unfolds and your meager fishing villages slowly grow into towering metropolises, it's no problem staying hooked and enjoying the ride. (Stuck? The game gives advisers who prompt you to build textile mills or lower tax burdens on your unhappy residents when such things are needed.) Along the way you can also pour over new sea charts, discover islands, search for sunken treasure ships, set up trade routes to exotic lands and unlock new technologies that will improve your civilization.
In addition to the challenges of nation-building, you also have to deal with a bit of nation-defending. You can be attacked on land and by sea by villainous pirates or other greedy foes. Which means you have to organize troops of your own.
You're thinking at this point that maybe I was wrong about the gore-free thing. Nope. The skirmishes are extremely light and amount to tiny figures coming into contact with each other and one side simply sinking or blinking out of existence. There aren't even any roaring cannons or flying bullets.
How to Build a Better (Quieter) World
After getting the hang of things, gamers can opt to jump into Continuous Play mode. This variation takes away the guiding storyline and lets explorers set the parameters for their own style of gameplay. You can adjust the size of the world you want to explore and colonize, as well as set the number of AI-controlled competing nations.
There is a second-player option, but—unfortunately—that doesn't mean friends can compete against each other. It just means a pal (or impatient younger sibling, perhaps) can grab a second remote and do little odd jobs around your colonies such as setting off fireworks in your honor.
Another small downside: The two advisers, an accountant named Cornelius and a ship captain named Evelyn, can sometimes get pretty annoying. They kept obnoxiously reminding me over and over what they thought my best course of action was.
Sure, they meant well. But I didn't want to build another fire station, hire rat-catchers or visit a sultan's daughter. I wanted to search for sunken treasure! I eventually realized I could shut their nagging off—and RTS happiness was once again mine.