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Trade industries are the primary way you’ll want to make money, with different industries being more profitable depending on the era.
Rum is a good one that should be profitable regardless of the time period. You’ll have what you need to start the industry already unlocked from the start, the Rum Distillery and the Plantation (to produce sugar), so it’s a great industry to start with early to create a supply of income you can use to help you in other areas.
Building a Shipyard is a good idea, although keep in mind you’ll also need a Lumber Mill to supply the Shipyard and Logging Camps to get the trees for the mill. Ship production is slow, so while this industry is steady, you won’t be able to rely on it entirely.
Apparel industries are profitable too, especially because they have low overhead. The materials you’ll need to produce clothing are both cheap and renewable, so you can produce a lot at a low cost.
Finally, once you get to more modern times, you’ll have a lot of expensive industries that become worthwhile to consider. Keep in mind that they have high up-front costs, but they can also bring in a good profit.
Now, once you have some industries established, you can also make trade deals. Set up deals with nations to improve your relationship with them. Even if you aren’t making a profit from the trade deals at first, it’s still good in the long-term (although try to avoid deals that result in a negative). After your relations have improved, import prices will drop and you can set up new deals and contracts with those nations to import profitable items at low prices, allowing you to sell them at a profit.
Use the Overview tab to get a quick summary of everything important you need to keep track of in your country. It will show you your relations with other countries, stats about your population, any dangers you need to be aware of, and more. While the other tabs go into more detail, the Overview is your quick look so you know right away if something needs your attention.
Focus on the starting island at first. Splitting your country across multiple islands will incur costs due to requiring transportation, so you want to focus on a single landmass until you have enough money to start spreading out.
Make sure you have affordable housing available for your citizens. Start out by building cheap housing options, and then once wealthier citizens begin moving to your country, start adding more expensive homes as well.
You should build a Library as soon as possible. It becomes available in the Colonial Era. The Library will store your Knowledge Points, so you want to start gathering them as soon as possible to have more available later on.
You will also want to have many options to help people get to work. Your citizens will often choose cheap options if it means they’re closer to work.
Related to that, if you set up housing options that don’t require rent for citizens who can’t pay, but don’t want citizens who CAN pay rent choosing that option, make sure they’re far enough away from work places to make it inconvenient for them.
By building the Teamster’s Office near your industries and Teamster’s Port, you will enable easy transportation between your facilities.
Some buildings have an operating range, which will be shown to you as a blue radius when you select one. This range is important, so try to place them so that their range covers as much as possible.
Make sure you have Fire Stations set up in case of natural disasters. While there are a variety of natural disasters, they can all result in fires. The frequency of natural disasters varies based on your difficulty setting.
While it might be tempting to start building as many things as possible right away, you want to make sure you have an adequate number of workers for each one. Don’t build too many things at one time until your population increases.