Fans of Virtual Villagers take note: the Windows downloadable Westward could be your new favorite addiction. Taking a page out of the popular village management book, Westward by Sandlot Games (the creators of Cake Mania) drops casual strategy elements into the mix for a game that's both interesting and a bit different. Rather than spending your time in one pre-made area, Westward pushes you across the unexplored old west setting up towns and hunting for riches. There's a surprising amount of depth in this game, yet very little was sacrificed to keep it user-friendly.
The basic idea of Westward is simple: strike out into the wild and build settlements from scratch. Once you've shed your training spurs in the tutorial it's time to head out on your own. Your over-reaching goal is to provide enough food and water to your population to keep them alive and happy. Each citizen needs a job and a place to call home, so put everyone to work harvesting food, mining gold or bringing in lumber. As you gather more resources you can build more interesting buildings such as a Trading Post, Ranch or General Store. There are also bonus structures you'll learn how to build along the way, allowing you to explore the land and create a town bigger than you could ever imagine.
In addition to keeping your citizens happy and fed, each town you set up has a main goal you'll need to complete in order to move on. Other mini-tasks crop up as the game progresses, such as strangers wandering into town seeking your assistance. These side quests reward you with gold, food, or maybe even a new technology or two. They're great diversions from the main game and keep Westward feeling fresh and full of surprises. Tasks are stored in a handy clipboard at the bottom of the screen, so you never feel lost or overwhelmed.
Analysis: Westward takes a lot of great elements from strategy and village sim games and blends them with a little Sandlot finesse. When you first start playing, Westward seems alarmingly complex for a casual game. Once you complete the tutorial, however, you'll be surprised how simple everything is. Each time something unfamiliar comes along help text appears to give you a nudge. A lot goes on in your tiny settlement, and it will take some practice before you can keep everyone's belly full while you mine for gold and build up a surplus of supplies.
The entire interface in Westward is mouse-driven, though there are a few optional keyboard shortcuts you can use. One very disappointing omission is the common "Shift + number" macro found in most strategy games. Selecting a unit or group of units and pressing shift plus a number assigns that key to the group. If you want to zoom back to that unit, just hit the number you assigned to them and away you go. Westward doesn't include such a shortcut, forcing you to manually scroll the map or cycle through your citizens one by one. A bit cumbersome.
If you like this game, be sure to check out the entire Westward series!
A lot of players point out the similarities between Westward and Virtual Villagers. While the two may share a common theme, the games are actually quite different. Westward allows you to venture out across the wilderness and create your own towns from scratch, putting you in control of almost every aspect of gameplay. It's more building- and resource-oriented as well, letting you play a much larger role in the creation and management of your town.
Westward is a fantastic casual strategy/town simulation game. It's simple, it feels fresh at every turn, and it's unbelievably addictive.