Planning by numbers.
Anno has always been about slowly, dedicatedly growing your city until its massive scope eclipses your wildest expectations, but with Anno Online, Bluebyte and Ubisoft have seen fit to deliver that experience for free to anyone with a web browser. In developing a free-to-play city-builder light enough to run on almost any computer, Bluebyte takes a bite out of what you'd normally expect in a resource-management sim. Instead of scraping together what I need for expansions and new buildings, I started to leave Anno Online open on my desktop for hours on end while I did something else.
That's the effect free-to-play games have. There's so much waiting around, watching timers tick down until your corn is ready to harvest or, in the case of The Simpsons: Tapped Out, your Krusty is done walking Mr. Teeny. Despite the ire the new genre (er, method of selling you games?) has received among the hardcore, Anno Online's closed beta is polished, accessible, and ready to welcome anyone to its uninhabited shores. You'll be surprised at how fast your civilization can grow (on you).
In the beginning, I tried playing AO full-screen. Finely drawn graphics, diminutive citizens, and smooth animations made me want to blow the resolution up and appreciate everything on screen. The global chat box and your friends list sit in the bottom-left corner, while the quests and important city stats dot the upper-right corner. All of the building buttons are easy to understand, but if, like me, you don't have a clue how to play Anno, a detailed and thorough tutorial section will guide you through the first building blocks your city needs to survive.
I quickly constructed a few dirt roads, settlements and marketplaces for my earliest settlers. Markets and other community fixtures have areas of influence that can overlap and fulfill your citizenship's needs. I won't blame you for wanting to drop Stinky Pete the Pig Farmer's house way out in the boonies, but every settlement needs to have access to services or else they'll remain abandoned.
Progressing further into the build tree unlocked carpenter shops, churches, and more. It wasn't long before my first friend (computer-controlled) was added and our cities could start interacting. You can sell overstocked goods to neighboring city-builders or buy needed resources from them. Your growth and prosperity don't depend on your neighbors, but everything's more fun with friends and Anno's closed beta community has been friendly and energetic so far.
As with any free-to-play game, there are certain things you either have to wait for or shell out the cash for. Building simple structures and making short headway in the game doesn't ask for Rubies, Anno's brand of fake-money, but expanding your land can take time or pilfer your pocket if you're eager. You can also buy coins, wood, hemp islands, and more in the shop. That said, avoiding the pay wall isn't hard.
I learned this early when a clock started to countdown an hour until my development's expansion was complete. I pulled the tab out of my main Google Chrome window and shrunk it to a third of my screen. Anno Online's controls and stats moved to fit in the new size and my view on the world I'd built zoomed out enough to contain everything. Then I went on with my business. Over the course of that hour, I clicked on the window in between posts or e-mails or whatever else I was doing.
I haven't closed that tab in days. Anno Online is still in closed beta, but we've got plenty of codes. Once you get in game, add hampton_stewart to your friends list because I've got way too much fish and not enough wood. Wanna trade?