New video game ‘1849’ mines California – and Sacramento’s – past

A San Francisco video game company is hoping to tap into a new legion of 49er fans.

“1849,” a new simulation game from developer SomaSim, tasks players with building and managing cities in 20 California counties during the Gold Rush. Released today, the game can be played on PCs, Macs and both Android and Apple tablets.

The setup is simple: Players are given a patch of land and limited resources. It’s up to them to create and maintain mines, roads, houses, farms, stores and services that will potentially grow into one of California’s cities.

Successful communities require workers, and workers need equipment, food, clothing and yes, even liquor, which can be acquired by buying, selling and trading goods. In addition, players take on certain tasks at different levels, such as establishing wineries in St. Helena and selling pallets of wine to San Francisco.

Geographic-specific history serves as the game’s backdrop but doesn’t overwhelm “1849,” said SomaSim co-founder Matt Viglione.

“Since it’s a simulation game where you build things from scratch, it isn’t about one city so much as it is about a context and a location,” he said in a recent phone interview.

So while players won’t hear mention of John Sutter or James W. Marshall, they will get the chance to make Sacramento a roaring hub of gold trade, and in one case, help keep the city from perpetually flooding.

California’s population explosion and the up-from-nothing nature of Gold Rush cities sparked the idea for the game, Viglione said.

“That’s ... what happened during the Gold Rush,” he said. “Three hundred thousand-plus people showed up in six years and built most of the towns in Northern California from nothing.”

Viglione and Rob Zubek, who previously worked games such as “CityVille” and “FarmVille 2,” wanted to make a city-building simulation game when they co-founded SomaSim in April 2013, but struggled to find a thematic focus.

During a trip around Northern California, they realized that they were surrounded by cities that fit the “have nothing, grow into everything” construct perfect for simulation games, Viglione said.

From there, they visited other Gold Rush towns, researched period architecture and poured over “The Shirley Letters,” a collection of missives that detailed daily life and conditions of mining camps.

While sharing similarities with recent resource-management games such as “FarmVille,” “1849” is perhaps more closely aligned with titles such as “Sim City,” “Civilization” and “Caesar III,” which saw their heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“We’re really trying to hit people who are essentially like my generation, who played these kind of games in college and in high school, who were at their peak of game playing when these games were at their peak of popularity, and who have fond memories of them like we do,” Viglione said.

That doesn’t mean that the game is only for experienced “sim” geeks. With tutorials that explain the necessary tools and actions to start and grow a city, the game is accessible to anyone interested in playing.

“Also, we think that because it’s on tablets, we hope that it will hit a demographic that didn’t grow up with these kind of games,” Viglione said.

Early responses from beta testers and video-game journalists have proved positive, hinting that the hunger for old-school simulation games hasn’t yet died out. “We’re hopeful that this is the start of something, a renaissance of simulation games,” Viglione said.

Some of the game’s most fervent interest has come from Europe, he said, adding that “the Germans and the French seem to have a strange affinity with the American West.”

“1849” can be purchased for desktops and laptops through www.gog.com, IndieGameStand.com and through the digital distribution service Steam for $15. The tablet version, which is functionally similar but does not contain the desktop version’s “sandbox” mode, can be downloaded through Google Play and the Apple App Store for around $5.

The game is rated appropriate for children 12 and older and features “infrequent/mild alcohol, tobacco or drug use or references; infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence,” according to the Apple App Store.

For more information about “1849,” visit www.somasim.com/1849.

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