I've been playing a bit of Anno Online, which went into open beta this week. In case you haven't guessed it yet, Anno Online is browser-based version of the Anno series (Anno 1701, Anno 1602, Anno 1503, Anno 1404, Anno 2070) of city-building and economic simulation games. Players build cities on islands, and need to provide goods to their citizens to keep them happy. Different islands provide different goods, so you send ships to trade between the islands. Anno Online pretty much works like Anno 1404 (Anno 2070 has a futuristic setting), only that you can play for free. And, as is typical for browser-based city-building games, it is a lot slower than the single-player version, so you can build up your islands over weeks and months.
Now there are thousands of very similar online city-building games which all work on the same principle: The economy is trivial, and only serves to feed an army, with which you can then go a raid your neighbors. Beyond some newbie protection, these games are rather horribly unbalanced and harsh to newcomers, as the free-for-all PvP favors veterans and large alliances. That sort of free-for-all PvP gameplay is considered "hardcore". Anno Online is very, very different from that. And it might require a new definition of what exactly "hardcore" is.
In Anno Online there are no military units, and no PvP. But if you don't define "hardcore" by "I can gank other players", but by "it is hard to play this game well", Anno Online is one of the most hardcore browser games I've ever played. For example I built a city on my main island during the closed beta where I had money trouble, but when I built a better city on the same island under identical conditions after the reset a week before open beta, the new city did much, much better. Many buildings in Anno Online (just like in the single-player games) work only in a certain radius, and how you place your building to optimize the effect of those buildings, and how you connect everything with roads is of extreme importance. You do well by playing well, and at the same stage of the game a skilled player will have a better income and economy, and thus advance faster than a less good player.
For me that makes Anno Online a nearly ideal concept for a browser game: The game is intellectually challenging, but at the same time "casual" in the amount of time it eats up per day. There are no activities where you "grind" or click on cows or anything similar. You only make meaningful decisions, and the game rewards you for playing well. The typical "hardcore gankers" of other browser city-building games would not only find nothing to do in Anno Online, they would also find the game too hard for them.
I do applaud this bold move from Ubisoft. But I am not 100% certain how big the market is for a difficult economic simulation game outside Germany. On the other hand Anno Online starts still relatively easy, with a good tutorial. And you can move building around now, so that a bad build is something which can be fixed. In any case, having a city with a low income is something you can work on; that is a lot more motivating than a game where some veteran players come and gank you.