I have discovered a downside to the victory point system. Because it takes into consideration every aspect of your empire, and awards you points for being first in a wide range of activities, the game tends to end just as I'm finally getting my shit together.
Like in my latest mission, for example. For the first hour and fifty minutes or so, I was thwarted in my trade ambitions by the fact that the enemy parked a garrison right between me and the trading post. I'd been counting on using that trading post to shore up weaknesses in my gold and iron production, but even though the enemy army was small, it was hiding behind some powerful fortifications that would take a disproportionately large force to break through. As a result, I had to instead painstakingly expand through the production of priests until I could scrape together just enough coins and weapons to break through, all the while amassing a huge stockpile of coats (377, at last count!).
Frustrating, but fair enough. However, less than ten minutes after I cleared out the last fortress between me and the trading post, I get the "three-minute warning to victory" timer, because it turns out that the garrison I assembled to ward off a counterattack was so large it earned my the "Field Marshall" victory point. I didn't even get to sell any of my damned coats!
Okay, so at this point, I had to control so much land and gather so many materials and recruit so many soldiers that, without that key chokepoint, the enemy was, realistically, a spent force. I get that. That battle was indeed the turning point, the single moment that made my victory inevitable.
But damn it, that's my favorite part of the game, where I'm completely unassailable, and thus free to become a coat magnate, or pursue whatever other interest strikes my fancy at the moment, chipping away at the enemy whenever they have something I want and it would be more convenient to take it than to do without, until finally they are so small and dysfunctional that I dispatch one of my secondary forces to put them out of their misery. Some would call it "tedious mop-up," but I call it "living large," or "finally reaping the benefits of all that assiduous infrastructure management."
Taking off my "power-mad coat merchant" hat for a moment and putting on my "reasonable observer of both video game mechanics and the human condition" hat, I can recognize that The Settlers 7 way of doing things is better. I don't think I'd be entirely pleased if all these complex production and trade mechanics served only as the backdrop of a winner-take-all deathmatch. It's just that I tend to grow attached to my little villages, and I wish there were a gentler drop-off before having to say goodbye to them forever (I considered sending my troops to attack the enemy's most fortified town in order to lose a couple and fall below the threshold for the VP, but that would have been both senselessly cruel and only bought me a couple of minutes before my trade routes matured and brought me in enough gold to earn an entirely different VP).
I did discover that you can play a solitaire version of the game by picking Skirmish mode and then setting your AI opponents to "none," and I did very much enjoy being able to focus purely on city-building, but you still earn VP in that mode so it still has the same basic problem. According to some online research, the only way to play indefinitely is to create a custom map and set the VPs to something that will never accidentally come to fruition. I may well do that if I either finish or quit the campaign mode.
Speaking of which, I finally got to the big betrayal. And . . . Never before has a plot twist both been so incredibly predictable and yet also left me so incredibly confused. It's like, okay, your friend Bors is actually King Balderus (OMG! Who could have possibly seen this coming?!), and once you've defeated the rebels, your father gives control of the kingdom to him instead of you, offering you the lesser prize of a castle filled with treasure. . . and this is portrayed as a profound betrayal, instead of, you know, the most sensible outcome.
Seriously, I am at sea here. Princess Zoe wasn't exactly someone at odds with the status quo. Bors was always pushing her into some shady shit, but she never exactly pushed back. There was never a scene with her witnessing the plight of the people of Tandria and cursing King Balderus or vowing to do better when she had the crown. Her response to the rebels' (admittedly half-assed) expressions of ideology is best summed-up as "yeah, that's nice, whatever."
Is the story of The Settlers 7 really "A princess wants to be a queen, so when the opportunity comes to conquer a neighboring kingdom she promises to do so in exchange for the crown, and then after putting all her enemies to the sword she comes back and is not, in fact, given the crown and must settle for merely being fabulously wealthy, which enrages her enough to spring the most powerful of the rebels from prison and turn against her father."
I mean, there's no denying that the King's actions were kind of shitty. He shouldn't have promised something and then went back on the promise. And yet Zoe was perfectly prepared to have the Tandrian hero, Dracorian, executed.
Not that the King's motivation make a heck of a lot more sense. He gives Balderus back the throne because the two kingdoms will now have a "mutually beneficial relationship" and I can't help but wonder how it could possibly be more beneficial than having his daughter on the throne, especially since he would have been the one to put her there.
I guess I have to hand it to The Settlers 7. It managed to find a way to completely validate my predictions while also making me feel like a fool.