Friday, March 4, 2022

Game 309: The Seven Cities of Gold

Read the manual here:


I'm going into this one mostly blind, knowing nothing about it except the developer, Ozark Softscape, and the general premise, an age of exploration-themed quest for treasure and glory, like a spiritual predecessor to Sid Meier's Pirates! From this alone, it's one of the games of 1984 that I've been most excited to play - M.U.L.E. impressed me with its hidden depths and elegant design, Pirates! is already one of my favorite computer games of its era, and this game, The Seven Cities of Gold, is all new to me.

My excitement is tempered, though, by the historical subject matter's inexorable association with some of the most horrific atrocities committed by mankind. Players naturally wish to be daring explorers, to chart out unexplored lands, discover lost civilizations, and haul back wagons full of gold, silver, and maybe a potato or two. Not conquistadors who kidnapped and enslaved thousands, displaced untold thousands more from their land, and stole their gold, silver, and potatoes, and never mind paving the way for the transatlantic slave trade, the still-ongoing genocides, or the exchange of diseases so devastating that some historians have likened it to biological warfare. In the aforementioned Pirates!, though your exploits are entirely parasitical or predatory, pirates historically had far less of an impact on their world than the imperialism and wars surrounding them, and the game, like so much adventure fiction and cinema that it takes inspiration from, can get away with depicting you as "fun baddies." Here, that doesn't work so much.


The manual, as it opens, tells that you play an explorer, sponsored by the Spanish government to send an expedition across the Atlantic in search of a trade route with the far east. Your true motivations, though, are to find untold riches in the new world, perhaps discovering the Seven Cities; legendary settlements started by seven bishops, rumored to possess fabulous wealth beyond measure. The pages beyond are brief, devoting almost as much space to historical background as they do to gameplay notes, but describes multiple modes of play:

  • In Europe, one may visit the royal court for accolades and further commissions upon successful expeditions, though failures will reflect badly on you. The highest achievement is to be bestowed the rank of viceroy, which requires attaining a score of 50% by the year 1540 - the specific criteria for this score unexplained. Maps and statistics may be reviewed, provisions purchased, and crucially, the game may be saved.
  • At sea, there are many perils, such as storms and scurvy. Sail age cartography has yet to devise an instrument to accurately measure longitude, so only noon-sighted latitude and your maps can help reckon your location.
  • As you sight and explore land, it is automatically mapped, but you are nevertheless advised to use landmarks as bearings and follow rivers whenever possible.
  • Native inhabitants live in settlements and can be approached with a variety of dispositions. Trade and conquest are your main options, with conquest faster, but costly to human life, and will naturally cause you to be mistrusted in the future.

Most impressive, though, are its claims regarding procedural generation. A map of the Americas wouldn't be very interesting for a 20th century player to explore, but they wanted generated maps to be believable. To make this possible, the procedural generation program simulates a tectonic plate model to create geologically plausible formations with details such as mountain ranges sprouting where the plates collide, and a cultural dissemination model simulates the spread of empires and city-state influences over centuries throughout the content. That's some Dwarf Fortress-level aspirations there!

Starting off, picking the lowest difficulty level as advised in the manual, something immediately grabbed me. Sid Meier's Pirates! lifted the "city" view wholesale! Or, to be more specific, the Genesis/Amiga CD-32 version of Pirates! Gold did.

There's even parallax scrolling!


I am granted 2000 pieces of gold in loan, which affords me 4 ships, 100 men, a year's worth of food, and 300 units of trade goods, with 240 pieces of gold left over. With the remaining gold, I decided to buy an extra ship, and a few more trade goods.

Even this part looks like Sid Meier's Pirates.

There's not much else in Europe of interest to an explorer who has yet to complete a voyage, so I left to sail the ocean blue.

This game does not give you much of a field of vision to work with! You are sailing fairly blind, except for the knowledge that land awaits somewhere to the west. So I sailed due west for awhile, with nothing to signify anything going on except the occasional beep from the simulated disk drive.

Before too long, I sighted land.

I disembarked with half my men. Ten weeks' worth of food is all you can carry on land, so I brought five, and brought trade goods with my remaining capacity. An early-stage agricultural society was plainly visible from the coast.

Sure, if you don't count the people literally right there.

In I went.

So, I'm not exactly sure what happened, but I wound up conquering the village completely by accident, slaughtering untold numbers at a loss of 8 of my men, and in tribute, received 72 gold, some food, and some native bearers to help carry it all. I've basically recreated Columbus' first day in San Salvador. This is already getting uncomfortable, and I can't tell how much is by design.

Also, having bearers expands your food carrying capacity well beyond what your explorers can carry on their own. But don't they need to eat too?

I explored the rest of the island, which wasn't especially big and had no other villages, but did stumble upon a gold mine with 650 pieces worth to plunder.

Sailing onward, I found more land, and another village, where this time the natives circled around me but kept their distance. I tried pressing the joystick button and got some options - offer gifts, "amaze natives," and trade. I tried "offer gifts" and nothing happened, though my goods supply diminished. I tried "trade" and was told to speak to the chief. So I tried walking around them, but bumped into one, and then they attacked en masse but futilely. So I after another lopsided bloodbath, I took their stuff too. Go me.

At another settlement inland, by offering gifts, repeatedly, and walking very carefully around the villagers, I was able to find the chief and sell goods for some gold. And at another, the "amaze natives" option made me glow, scattering them around the village, enabling me to find the chief and trade for more gold. A second mine around here yielded more than we could carry - my bearers had left at some point - necessitating several trips to bring it all to the boat.

Sailing out further west, I found an Aztec city-state, and once again, provoked an attack with my actions. I lost 30 men, but gained nearly a thousand gold, and would have taken even more had I the manpower to carry it.

Out of goods, and over half of my men lost, I set sail back to Spain, with $3,496 in the hold, a profitable voyage.

Overall maps and status. I am not sure what "lives" means.

So far, I am appreciating this game more than I'm enjoying it. Ethics aside, exploration has been a bit dull, and I haven't even come close to getting lost - harsh limits on carrying food prevents me from getting too far from the boat - but maybe things get more interesting with subsequent voyages. And the encounters are confusing and frustrating when you aren't trying to perpetrate a massacre, but I'm sure this is intentional; early explorers couldn't communicate their intents verbally either, and I expect the manual's details regarding these interactions are deliberately scant so that you never quite feel like you know what you're doing.

I also wish the manual better explained what missions do for you and how to establish them.

Going by the status screen, I've got a long way to go before I reach 50% completion. I intend to keep playing for at least a few more voyages, to see what else I can find, but I can't help but get the impression that Seven Cities of Gold is already bursting the seams of its 48KB boundary, and to be honest I'm not sure how interesting subsequent posts are going to be (e.g. voyage 2, I landed by another village and traded for some more gold). But maybe it will surprise me.


  1. Yeah that's a pretty disturbing theme; I doubt the designers were going for any sort of subversiveness or subtlety there. You could argue that a lot of other games have this kind of element -- for instance, doesn't Civilization reward you for genocide against another civilization? Perhaps what makes that seem more palatable is that you aren't forced to play the British or some other European nation. You can have the Zulus or Aztecs take over the entire world and build spaceships. I'm not a big war game player but I believe there are WW2 games where you can play as the Nazis, although I doubt any of them include a simulation of the holocaust or the concentration camps.

    1. I think Civilization can get away with it thanks to the abstractness of it all. You can be Genghis Khan, play on a map with reasonably accurate coastlines of Eurasia, and go on a genocidal conquering spree, but the mimesis falls apart a bit if you think too hard about how your reign starts at 4,000 B.C., or how it's possible to encounter railroad-riding musketmen by 600 A.D. or find the Colossus of Rhodes being constructed in Goa. But things are a little different when you play some of the historical scenarios in Civ 2's expansion packs.

      It's also possible to play Civ in an entirely defensive or even pacifistic manner, though this becomes difficult in higher levels of play.

      Colonization also abstracts things to an extent but isn't quite as successful. The scenario is just more focused than Civ, and therefore less separable from history and its atrocities. There's no mention of slave trading in the original game, and we can sort of rationalize it by saying this is just an abstracted detail that you don't personally concern yourself with as a high-level decision maker, but it feels disingenuous to declare to oneself that the slave trade just didn't happen in this universe. Dealing with Indians is expressly part of the game, and while you can get along amicably for awhile, eventually you've got to either drive them out and take their resources or get slaughtered economically by your rival colonies who won't hesitate to do that themselves. And unlike in Civ, there's no possible scenario where they have a chance to defend their land with Aegis cruisers and laser marines.

      The Wargaming Scribe generally plays WWII sims as the Germans, who have a more tactically interesting challenge than the allies in most of the famous battles. And I enjoyed Panzer General, in which you have no choice, but there was always some icky cognitive dissonance, knowing of the horrors that would follow (and often occur during) these military victories. And in a way that's oddly true to "clean Wehrmacht" history, making you into a general who knows, in the back of his head, that he's at the very least enabling crimes against humanity, even as your superiors don't acknowledge it. You either try not to think about it or you tell yourself it's the SS, not you.

      Incidentally, Jimmy Maher wrote two articles about these ethics, specifically addressing Colonization and Panzer General (I have purposefully not read about Seven Cities of Gold yet). I can't say I fully agree with everything he says, but even where I don't, he offers something to think about.

    2. Both Zulu and Aztecs were bloody conquerors, and far worse than the spanish. But you and the authors operate in a very manichean ideology: european conquerors, bad non-european conquerors, good. You cannot even let yourself enjoy a game without pledge your alliagance to your ideology.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Hey, now I feel like I should say something. Even though I joke "WW2 was designed to be played as the Germans", I don't specifically play WW2 sims as the Germans. I try to pick the most interesting side in any give scenario/game, and if given the choice, I am usually going to go by "rarity", so minor factions first (eg Italians in my Computer Air Combat scenario), then Brits > Soviets > Americans > Germans ; Germans of course being the most common faction because, well, they are in both Western Front and Eastern Front games. But even when playing the Germans, I don't have the icky cognitive dissonance, as long of course as the game is not pretending you are the good guys.
      Out of 4 games that gave me the choice, I played only one as the Germans (Tigers in the Snow), in part because they are attacking, in part because you picked the Allies in your own AAR.

      Checking my list of games up to 1982, I expected most game forcing you to play one side to ask you to play the Germans, but it is actually not true. For the land war Tanktics, Eastern Front 1981 and Dnieper River line force you to be German and are single-player only, Computer Ambush, Operation Apocalypse force you to be allies in solitaire but can be two-players, Tigers in the Snow allow both. For the naval war, most games are on the side of the allies, with the exception of Bomb Alley and North Atlantic Convoy Raider.

    5. Gotcha. Sorry for misrepresenting you. I think I also might have misremembered a comment by Harland as your own commentary, so sorry for that too.

      Anonymous, I never once suggested that Aztec conquerors were "good," and being the lesser evil wouldn't give me much comfort even if I bought it. The first thing I did on landfall was enter a Taino settlement, kill several dozen of them, take all of their gold, and impress a few dozen more into my service. "The Aztecs did worse" doesn't make me feel better about this, and I don't know why you brought up the Zulus.

    6. Your - fictional in a game, for Gods shake - raid on tainos, was repeated thousands of thousands times by different people on different places. Why single out the spanish for "the most horrific atrocities committed by mankind" when those attrocities are part of parcel of humanity?.
      Coming back to the historical background in those times the tainos were also raided by the caribes. At least the spanish charged Colon and throw him in jail for this and other things -unfortunely he was indulted so justice was not made - but at least they had a bit of restraint which was somewhat uncommon to previous and contemporany empires.
      The zulus and aztecs were brought by other commenter, I imagine they mass killings are bad candidates to "the most horrific atrocities of humankind" after all they lack the european flavour.
      Anyway if your ideology does not let you even play a game about those europeans devils without embarrassing guilty feelings, I suggest that you tone down the zealotry

    7. Why single out the spanish for "the most horrific atrocities committed by mankind"
      The obvious answer is because this game makes you play as them.

    8. So your yardstick for "the most horrofic atrocities by mankind" is t"he ones that have a videogame to play as them"?. It sounds strange.

    9. It's more of a yardstick for being relevant in a blog about playing video games. This digression is over.

    10. Ok, lets turn to other topic.

      This game got a remake around 1992, I think trying to capitalize the 500 years of the discovery of America, that is the one that I played.
      It gets nice landscape with birds songs and a catchy music (for low 90s standards), but when you get bored of seeing the overland map it has nothing to do. I found the village segment somewhat pointless (try until you found the one that works).
      So it dropped it about the second voyage after build an outpost.

      As for the differences of gameplay between versions, the only difference that I found with your entry is that in the sea they had storm clouds that you should avoid.

  2. Surprising that a transgender designer went for this theme.

    1. The actual ideological construct was not yet erected.

    2. fair, though if she lived to today she may have regretted this one

  3. If the natives touch you, they die. It can be quite a challenge getting to see the chief. There are ways to calm them down, but I forget exactly. When too many of them bump into you, it can provoke an attack and whatever mission you had fails.

    The Germans were the antagonists of WWII, so obviously they're the most suitable for a human player. The antagonist sets the tempo of the game for everyone else, who just reacts. A lot of gamers want to be in control and despise a game that makes puts a computer player in the drivers seat. This goes for any attacker in any game. Heck, a lot of computer players just deploy in defense and sit there. Ever played as the defender in Panzer General? I too like to play the minor countries and Marita-Merkur was a total snoozer. Your Greeks just sit there and wait for the incompetent Axis attacker to bog down in city combat. Assign the computer player to the Greeks and it's a fun scenario.

    Jimmy Maher has been making sneering borderline misogynistic comments about female game designer Roberta Williams on another blog and nobody has called him out on it.

    Shaka Zulu had a long career before his great military victories. A career that I do not recommend looking into if you consider him some kind of hero.

    1. He also deadnames Dani Berry and refuses to acknowledge her being trans

  4. Maher thinks Roberta Williams is an indifferent adventure game designer, and backs up his critiques by describing puzzles, design choices, etc.; I'm not sure how that is borderline misogynistic.


Most popular posts