Utopia  often gets cited as the first RTS, or as the first God Game. The Wargaming Scribe has completely and comprehensively dismantled the case for it as the first RTS in just the past few weeks, so I’ll take it on it as the first God Game. In short… The Sumerian Game [1964-1967] and Hamurabi [1968/1973] do essentially everything Utopia does, and I think championing it as the first of its kind belies a console-centric view of games history where the entire medium starts in the 80s that still hangs around decades later. Utopia just does a resource-management statecraft game with top-down graphics of a map, a timer, and an Eastern Front 1941 -style cursor you can use to place buildings, rather than with just text and numbers.
That’s not a huge leap into a whole new shindig, but it’s not nothing either. For one thing, Hamurabi’s so legible that it’s radically transparent, exposing its skeleton for the player to pick over. The graphics in Utopia paradoxically mean you see less. Literally, because there’s less screenspace allocated for your stats, you can’t look at your money and your population and your score at the same time, and there’s also numbers that aren’t surfaced for the player to peruse. But also cause and effect are harder to read, so the manual has to pick up the slack, directly spelling out for you how much things cost and what kind of ROI you can expect out of them instead of just letting the player divine that, which would be hopeless. This is also, additionally, down to an increase in complexity and variety over Hamurabi’s bare-bones approach. Hamurabi only had farms, food/money, and population. Utopia has a much broader selection of things you can use your land and money for, not just farms but housing and hospitals and factories and such, and thus a much larger and vaguer possibility space to navigate. Also, there’s no existing infrastructure and the player builds up their society from scratch. This makes it a candidate for “first city-building game,” as opposed to one where you manage an existing city, but I haven’t actually researched into that, so maybe, maybe not.
The amount of land is also fixed and finite. In Utopia, space is a question of apportionment, that’s the trade-off the player has to face rather than population and money. Its map view serves to make this immediately legible and thus a priority for the player, though typical to the game’s very easy-going demeanor, it’s generous enough that you’ll likely never really feel pressured to pick between, say, schools and hospitals on the grounds of lack of space. Lack of money, maybe: schools are cheaper, hospitals are better. The manual is very direct on the point that, unlike Hamurabi, making money is not the point of the game but the intermediary. Money only facilitates things that are actually useful.
One interesting structure in terms of trade-offs is the fort. The fort protects surrounding tiles from rebels, making it one of the only two structures where it matters precisely where on your island you put it, but it of course takes up a tile itself. The trick is that if you’re playing decently at all, you will not have any rebels spawning who need to be taken care of. Rebels only spawn when you’re failing badly to provide the basic fundamentals to the people. It contrasts strongly against the city-manager minigame in The Prisoner  and any entry of SimCity  where policing is always needed to maintain peace and order against the implacable and irrational emergence of crime, and it also inverts the wargame logic of the likes of Empire  where the state only exists to abet the growth and strength of the military. Violence is, here, a last desperate resort for when all else has failed and generally an expense to be avoided. It’s an optimistic, even police-abolitionist note to hit, befitting a game called Utopia. The fort is a cruel band-aid, soaking up money and space that would likely be more effectively allocated towards housing and food, which would serve to prevent rebels from spawning everywhere on the island, not just in a small radius.
Planting crops is real cheap, you can almost always scrounge up the dough for it if you got the space, but farming’s ROI is low in this game, even lower than in Hamurabi in terms of profit though one acre will reliably feed 500 people. The ROI of crops is not just low, but fickle and unreliable. Crops produce 1 gold a second per tile only when rained upon, and you can’t control the rain, so it literally pays to pay attention to the local climate conditions, where rain most commonly falls on your island. (For player 1, the southeast peninsula. This is, notably, one of only two land structures in Utopia whats actual location matters.) Contrast the factory, which is way more expensive, but produces a steady and reliable 4 gold minimum every single turn, easily outpacing crops in all but the best conditions. Factories run rain or shine, too, and therefore can be placed completely arbitrarily.
The more direct alternative to crop-planting, however, is the fishing boat. These also feed 500 just by existing, and likewise produce 1 gold a second when on the appropriate environmental conditions, except instead of under a rain cloud the boat must be over the schools of fish that wander around the ocean. The key difference is that you can’t control the rain, but you can control a boat, and hold it over the fish. This is the only form of income in the game that isn’t passive. As such, steering around a fishing boat is the main thing the player actually does in Utopia, while they wait around for other things to happen. It’s a fishing game with a citybuilder attached. Talk about a bait and switch!
To me, the fishing actually hits just the right spot of compelling and meditative. It gave me something to do with my restless hands and eyes, it gave me some uncommon peace and tranquility. It was engrossing and stimulating. My mind wandered, as it always does, but my attention didn’t drift. I’m one of those people who keeps 600-some-odd tabs open but can’t finish a book anymore, and as I type this I have a ten-minute timer going to keep reminding me that I should be writing and not getting sidetracked, and I stared at Utopia while listening to music for a full game that lasted over an hour without looking away. Real-life fishing is intolerably boring to me: as a kid I took it like a punishment and my parents bought me a portable DVD player to stare at to placate me. All you’re really doing in Utopia’s fishing is moving your cursor over a slowly and randomly moving object, something like a cat chasing after a laser pointer but way way slowed down, but that’s, frankly, enough gameplay. It’s an underrated treat to simply and pleasantly exist in digital spaces. Often, games apply considerable pressure on the player’s movement through threats and obstacles and timers, inducing stress. Not Utopia, which is safely among the very easiest games I’ve ever played (difficulty of emulating it aside.)
Utopia has a very-forgiving timer and vaguely menaces the fishing boat with pirate ships, but these enemies slowly meander and pose essentially no threat at all unless you’re not controlling the fishing boat at all. You move much faster than the pirate ships, and the pirates move completely aimlessly until they get very very close to a fishing boat, making them very easily ducked, just like the rebels. They’re kinda like the hurricanes, an external threat imposing on your set-up. Whereas the rebels are more like mold. The wandering fish are really the only randomly-moving things that are a boon to you. Randomness — chaotic entropy — is really your enemy in Utopia.
Utopia is not a god game because it is actually really important that you are specifically not playing a god. You are playing as some kind of embodiment of the state — maybe of control and order itself — which exists mostly opposed to the gods. You don’t really live in harmony with nature, you exist despite it. Your goal is to supercede nature, to profit from extraction of the useful and to sidestep all the rest with your factories that take no heed of their context.
To play Utopia in single-player mode, you simply do not pick up the second player’s controller. They have an island and a point total, too. Turns pass and you can watch this abandoned island get more and more overrun with rebels, year after year. Without the guiding hand of the player, the state, they are unable to organize nor provide for themselves. They rebel, despite the total absence of any higher power to rebel against. This wasteland serves as a living mirror image of failure that takes up fully half the screen. There’s nothing in the manual that tells you what a good score is. You just have to decide for yourself what it means to win.