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Seven Cities of Gold (1984)

March 5th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 12 Comments · Design, Feature:Map, History

For an explanation of what this series is about, go here.

It’s been 25 years since Dan Bunten and EA released Seven Cities of Gold for the Atari 800, Commodore 64 and Apple II and it’s still the most influential strategy game ever made. I guess one of the Blizzard real time strategy games would be the only competition. It was one of the first open ended historical strategy games, giving you a setting but little else. It was about exploration more than it was about conquest, opening entirely new avenues for setting player goals.

But the influence of Seven Cities of Gold is best seen in how it integrated its map with the game’s goals. Bunten did one big thing that no one had done before, or at least not on this scale. Bunten used entirely random maps.

We take this for granted today – so much so that a lot of game designers just don’t bother with it. They can, after all, design a map that is more accurate or more balanced or more challenging. Why let the computer muck it all up? One of the big problems with a random map is fairness. As anyone who has spent hours with Civilization III knows, being stuck on a swampy continent with a single luxury resource and no saltpeter or iron can lead to an early exit.

The unfairness in Seven Cities of Gold was entirely the point.

The maps themselves were fairly simple. You would have an unexplored continent and the occasional native village. (You could play an historical map, but where’s the fun in that?) Mapping the world was one of the goals of the game, so you would land with men, food and trade goods all for the purpose of cartography. The maps tried to mirror actual geographic and cultural formations, with mountain ranges and varying levels of civilization. You could build forts and missions to make your life easier, but things were never easy.

After all, Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto died while exploring. There is a constant tension in the game between moving forward and moving back. If you run out of food chasing down a rumored El Dorado, you will die and lose all progress you made since you last saved your game in Europe. But if you turn around, you waste time at sea in your limited life span. You consume food as you sail, too, so you can’t just carry it all with you while you wander the jungle.

The world map

The more you mapped (and the more gold you raked in) the better your evaluation would be. Like Microprose’s later Colonization, it was usually better to be nice to the natives, especially if you were far from help. But gold has as great an attraction for the gamer as it did for the conquistador.

If it looks like I am spending more time on the gameplay than the maps, bear in mind that the maps in Seven Cities of Gold are the gameplay. There are no set goals beyond those you set for yourself, even if you do get rated by the king. Before Will Wright’s SimCity, Bunten created an open world with “Succeed” as your only mission description.

You can judge how much and quickly the world changed by the 1993 re-release Commemorative Edition. It had goals and missions, colonies to found, etc. It was as much a do-over as anything else. The core game mechanics were basically in place, but there were new options and new urgency to follow instructions. By most measures, it is a better “game”, but I’m not convinced it’s a better world.

In a Revisionist History column in one of the final Computer Games Magazines, Bruce Geryk argued that Seven Cities of Gold was one of the only games to really take the nature of exploration – not just the Age of Exploration – seriously. It understood geography, it understood danger, and it refused to make anything really easy for you. Though it certainly gave rise to the empire building genre, Seven Cities of Gold is absolutely not about building an empire, or at least not an empire as we understand it from games today. You set up no true cities, expand no roads and your trade verges on exploitation – beads for gold – when it is not entirely exploitative – your money or your life.


It’s cliche to say that an old game would never get made today, but I’ll say it anyway. Like many games of the day, you could only save your efforts at a safe place, and the safe place was nowhere near the danger. It is too unstructured a design for many modern strategy gamers, and I personally like a little bit of direction in my games. I’m also relatively cautious – I sometimes wait until January before I declare war in Europa Universalis because I know that the autosave will bail me out if I underestimated Poland.

But there is still a lot to be learned from Seven Cities in how it dealt with maps and discovery. In Sid Meier’s Colonization, the Inca have rich cities. In Seven Cities, there are circles of civilization – you move through tiny villages to outskirt towns and then you hit the urban centers, where piles of gold await your greedy paws, made that much sweeter because of how far you’ve walked to get there.

It’s probably not coincidental that I have two other Age of Exploration themed games in this series (Imperialism II and the EU series). Pushing back the black and mapping new zones is the biggest and best X in the 4X genre. And it started with Bunten’s second masterpiece.

The influence of Bunten’s Seven Cities is everywhere in the Civilization series, but my next topic will be Sid Meier’s other great map game, Railroad Tycoon.

(Images taken from The Video Game Museum)


12 Comments so far ↓

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  • Soren Johnson

    Seven Cities of Gold is the game that made me want to be a game designer. I told Sid that when I interviewed at Firaxis, and I chose the right game as he told me that Seven Cities was the game that inspired him to make Pirates!

    By the way, Bunten’s inspiration for making the game came from a hiking trip in which he got lost. He wanted to recreate that feeling as a game. The classic way to screwup a remake, of course, would be to add a mini-map!

  • Tom H.

    Wasn’t there a map of the New World you could access at any time – it just didn’t show you where on it you were?

    I’ve been waiting to see what you had to say about the game, since I’ve been toying with a remake. Definitely thought-provoking.

  • Neil

    “Pushing back the black and mapping new zones is the biggest and best X in the 4X genre”

    That is why I never finish a game of Civ 4 (or the Gal Civs, for that matter). When the exploration is done, half the fun is gone, as the military/culture/city improvement aspects of the game are the weakest. Starting up a new world sure is great, though.

  • Chris Nahr

    Seven Cities of Gold was such a wonderful game. I still remember the drumbeat of the natives — slow if they were calm and liked you, then getting faster and faster as they got agitated and hostile…

  • Jimmy Brown

    Oh, I remember Seven Cities of Gold fondly. I also remember how fiendishly difficult it was. “Pushing back the black” is one of my favorite things to do in a good game-world (hence my 145 hours and counting for my first game of Fallout 3). It is a shame that such a game wouldn’t be made today. While it has been good that game designers have learned how to mold and direct the experience of a game without putting it “on rails,” there is something to be gained from have the occasional game the just gives you a world and a few resources and lets you create your own experience.

  • Thomas Kiley

    What about Spore? After you got in to the Space age, objectives were vague and long distance. If they hadn’t screwed it up with the endless attacks on your one ship, that would have been exploring an absolutely massive map. Factor in that you would have had real peoples creations, it would have been a fantastic exploration focused game.

  • Neil

    Yeah, space spore could have been a great exploration game if it was more nethack in space and less playing MOO with your arms and legs tied.

  • Alan Au

    I don’t remember much about the game, having only played it briefly on the Macintosh long ago. I agree that the exploration component would be a lot of fun, particularly if the worlds are large enough to make it matter. Of course, I’m an “explorer” type player, so I’m a bit biased.

    On the topic of automaps, I’m a bit torn on the issue, because I don’t think that games should make it difficult to do anything that you could accomplish by other means (e.g. pen and paper). That said, I think it would be interesting to tinker with map-making mechanics in a game about exploration. Do you start with a super-basic automap that gradually becomes more detailed/accurate as you spend time in an area? Do you generate the map but not show player position? Ah, the possibilities.

    In some ways, I think it would almost be more interesting to have a game set on an alien world, with unknown aspects that change with each playthrough. Maybe you don’t know whether or not those rock formations are significant. Do you draw them on your map? At high-detail or low-detail? Maybe it takes more time to “map” them if you select those options? Just some food for thought.

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  • Dauntless_Dad

    This remains one of my all-time favorite games. It was one of the very first PC games I bought (right after Gato and The Ancient Art of War, I think). For you youngsters, this game is so old that it didn’t even run under DOS on the PC; to start the game you literally booted your PC directly into the game from the game disk.

    Thinking back about this game, and looking at what exploration-based strategy games have become since then, has made me realize that I’m really not a 4X gamer. At heart I’m more of a 3X gamer: explore, exploit, expand. That’s really what Seven Cities of Gold was about, and I was perfectly happy with that. Later games added that fourth X, eXterminate, and my interest in exploration-based gaming declined when this feature became prevalent. Exploration and discovery are what I enjoy most, not unit-building and military campaigning. I sure wish someone would release a game that would take me back to the 3X days.

    By the way, there was a later re-issue of Seven Cities of Gold, called the Commemorative Edition, that ran under DOS on the PC. It had updated graphics and gameplay was mostly the same as the original version, but they made one change that ruined the game for me. In the Commemorative Edition, the King of Spain would punish you with a demotion in rank if you attacked the natives. I discovered this when, after being repeatedly ambushed by a tribe of hostile natives without due cause, I took an expedition back to the same area, located their village, and attacked it to put an end to their depredations. When the King demoted me for abusing the native peoples upon my return to Spain, I quit the game in disgust and never played it again. The remake of my favorite game had been modernized by the inclusion of late 20th-century political correctness and cultural sensitivity.

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