The Progenitor of the RTS Genre
Created by Don Daglow, who also created the first interactive baseball game – aptly titled “Baseball” in 1971, the first RPG based on Dungeons and Dragons – again, simply named “Dungeon” in 1975, and much later on, the first 3D RTS game – “Stronghold” in 1993.
Utopia is a 1 to 2 player strategy game where the objective is to score points. Score is calculated every round, and at the end of the final round, a winner is declared. Although technically there is always a second player, one can ignore it and focus on getting a high score. The way you score points is by improving the well-being of the population living in your island. You can perform actions like build housing, schools, forts, crops, fishing boats, hire rebels. Each element has its own gold cost and benefits that help keep the people happy. If the population is getting high, you have to build houses to accommodate them. If they are rebelling because they are unhappy, then build a fort to deter them, or build more crops or fishing boats to feed them. Because there is a second player, you can influence their island as well. You can hire rebels, or build a patrol boat that tries to sink their fishing boat in order to put a cap on their gold income. Although it feels archaic playing it today, one can appreciate the game elements that back in the day, were innovative.
At the start of the game, you decide how many rounds and how long they last. During a round, a player can move a cursor around, which is used for helping build new structures or to manually control boats. Gold is earned every round, and can also be acquired during a round, by either moving a fishing boat towards schools of fish, building crops and hopefully getting lucky with the rain patterns, or constructing factories to generate constant slow periodic income. Population and well-being also fluctuate each round, keeping the player engaged in trying to build enough structures to keep them happy. At the end of the last round, a winner is decided based on a score calculated in by the total well-being of the population of your island.
Players interact with the game primarily with two main actions, building structures, or controlling boats. This is all done in real-time. This game could have easily being turn-based, but it has real-time random elements that the player has to account for. There are randomly spawning rain clouds that help grow crops, hurricanes that can sink boats or destroy structures, pirates that sink you fishing boats, while you attempt to chase schools of fish. All the while, the opposing player can send their own boats to try to sink your fishing boats, trying to gain a lead in resources. For its time and even today, it is an interesting mix of timing elements. Though, it also negatively affects the gameflow. Since you can’t skip a turn, you might find yourself waiting for a couple of round to end before you can actually do anything.
After having played it for the first time in 2014 ( 33 years later), I can tell how influential the game was, as the progenitor of several interactive strategy genres. It came from an era that was focusing on arcade and sport genres almost exclusively. Ambitious for what it was trying to do with the very limited technology of the time, being a console game to boot. Unfortunately, it hasn’t aged well because of it. My highlight with it is possibly finding the first instance in a real-time strategy where players can attempt to attack directly the enemy’s resource gatherers.