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Quick builder-game reviews

I was playing a bunch of different little games recently, with a common (if stretched) theme of city builders. I thought I’d give some quick reviews here to share my thoughts – they all had things to like. Giving the verdict on the same line as the title to avoid suspense, since I’m not giving detailed verdicts anyway.

Banished 🙂

Banished Screenshot

This game is a real city builder, a pre-industrial setting with roads and houses and people, farms and smiths and tailors. Honestly, I found the difficulty level to be quite unforgiving and the tutorials didn’t really help. But that’s the best feature in this game, that it has a high degree of realism and that’s where the unforgiving nature comes from. I like how it’s set in lower Norway (or Canada, based on the length of the snow season), an excellent and challenging place to live pre-industrial age. Neglect food, or warmth during winter, and the effects devastate your community. Since I don’t know how to scale back, which is probably more me than the game, that’s game over. I couldn’t keep playing that town after I filled the graveyards with starving children, the scale is just right for individual deaths to count while still reaching a city size ‘statistical’ feeling by the end.

My difficulties were almost certainly caused by attempting to scale up too fast (encouraging breeding with empty houses – not 100% realistic but at least people don’t just “appear”) and not adequately provisioning for the numbers. Food was always a struggle that I could generally keep on top of, but scaling firewood up to dozens of wooden houses seemed to be an endless task. I may need to upgrade to warmer stone houses, but that’s so expensive and slow that it wouldn’t fit my desired rate of expansion. It’s good to see a game where you really need finesse and can’t just win by scale, even if that’s not my style.

Weak points included the scant tutorials. For some reason the peasants never fully harvested my farms after the early game, leading to frequent famines as the crops they needed withered on the vine. I played the farming tutorial to try and figure out what I was missing, it didn’t help. I also never understood the point of an education. The first game I played, the schoolhouse was the first building to go up and it was the center of town. Second game I realized that I want more laborers in order to build a settlement; can’t grow as fast when they take years off work to get an education. There’s definitely an interesting realistic trade-off to be made here, but without a quantified value for an education (do some jobs need it? does it make you a faster farmer?) it’s hard to justify no matter how much I want to give those kids an education.

Like a sandbox game, there’s very little in structured goals but I was happy to just make a town with one of each building to start. And then I hit the aforementioned farm and wooden houses problems at the same time, so I decided to end it there too. Freeze that town in time before anyone else is lost. If I went back, I’d probably have to set a goal of a certain scale (like the achievements for so many hundreds of population) to give it some structure.

Kingdom 😀

Kingdom Screenshot
Kind of a 2D city builder meets tower defense, but very simple and abstracted. No wonder they went with a simple pixel art mechanic, the complexity of this game could probably have been written fifteen years ago. You have four unit types (one of which is a rare end game elite), walls, towers, and farms. Buildings can only be built on existing sites for that building type (procedurally generated per game), so you don’t even get much placement complexity. The currency system has a beautiful simplicity, where coins just go into a sack on screen when you collect them. The scale of the economy is small enough that you don’t even get a number for your gold – you’ll have to count the coins in your sack – and when it’s full then coins just clatter off the top of an overflowing moneybag.

It also has one of my favorite real-time strategy mechanics, giving the player a controllable avatar in the world. You actually do all your interaction with the world, assigning build orders and recruiting and such, through this avatar (who can’t really fight) which I also like. Ties in especially well with the simple mechanics.

Half the point, apparently, is learning the mechanics yourself. Including the aforementioned gold limt. This leads to an interesting first few playthroughs that are survival style; you try to build your kingdom with walls and towers to defend against the classic trope of “monsters attack at night” (it’s as if all games are written by a diurnal species…). You’ll learn to explore to find chests and magic shrines, how important it is to keep recruiting nomads from the forest camps, and how to maximize hunting income to scale up as quickly as possible. Interestingly you also learn what developments are actually counter productive, too many towers spread your archers too thin and walls can both block farmland and move your defensive line too far forward.

Once you master the mechanics enough to feel you’ve weathered the endless grind of survival mode (which I got bored of on day fifty), you realize that the monster portals can be destroyed. I started a new game to do this (partly because aforementioned inefficient choices lead to attrition damage, partly because of a weird endgame) and destroyed them all by day twenty. The worst flaw of the game: that only got me the “win by 25” achievement and not the “win by 35/45/etc” achievements. By this point the game felt less like a survival/builder and more like an RTS where I was competing to achieve the objective, instead of just holding out. I personally like that transition, where the enemy is defeatable but it takes time (and maybe a few restarts) to understand.

The weird endgame though is that the monsters seem to be able to scale up farther than you can. If you scale up faster than the monsters’ fixed rate, it’s fairly easy to beat them and the challenge is in the scale (and not rushing out at day six to get all your troops slaughtered – another mechanic I learned the hard way). If you don’t attack them quickly enough though, you have a very long slow grind to chip away at the portal HP with attack waves that last seconds. They did offer a patch claiming to fix parts of this between my two games though, so there is hope.

What I doubt the patch fixes is my biggest end-game wish, that your catapults could attack buildings! You have catapults for defensive purposes behind your walls, great against the massed enemy infantry. But they are behind the foremost wall, so I thought I could move the foremost wall as close as I could get to the portal and then use a wall and a siege weapon to destroy it. Expanding my kingdom out that far was extremely expensive and perilous, the cost ultimately lost me that game, but it would all be worth it if it could destroy the portal. But it won’t attack portals, or maybe the wall was too far and you can’t place it closer. So you have to send out expensive infantry squads with an extremely small cap while the enemy waves seem to grow larger and larger, making a late game victory seem implausible.

Stronghold 2 😀

Stronghold 2 Screenshot
What I read about this game is that it’s criticized for not being much different from Stronghold 1. It’s not, that game was a classic, so I don’t mind. From a multiplayer perspective maybe that’s a bigger cost, as replaying multiplayer makes sense, but since I’m playing the single player economic campaigns it is definitely more content. Especially since the new “honor” system gives you some new goals in economic missions (not that they’re really that different in the end though). Focusing on the economic side, this game is a medieval city builder with lots of really cool options for stone walls and towers. Then I put archers on the walls to keep out bandits and wolves, and they keep the people safe day-to-day.

I particularly liked how the economic campaign in Stronghold 2 plays out in a single county with many estates. The in-game map is the full county size, and each mission you’re working on a different estate. But they can all interact, and everything you build persists, so as the missions progress the map is filled with the bustling and lively cities that you created. A great thing for a city builder, although having my extremely rich prior city as a vassal (paying loads of tribute) made one of the missions a little too easy.

I even like how there is combat in the economic campaign, although not nearly as much as in the military campaign (which I played a bit of). The military campaign has some levels that are just castle sieges with a fixed army, which I don’t like largely due to the clumsy and primitive unit control in this old engine.The economic campaign you were always fighting out of your own stronghold, while defending it for long stretches, and they cut out the actual sieges of other castles which is the longest part (other than walking) of combat in this game. Fine by me, for the actual siege weapon and castle assault simulation I much prefer the Total War series. But defending your people and your economy is an important thing for a stronghold, and a powerful economy leads to funding massive armies, so I like how they integrated it a little more than the Stronghold 1 economic campaign.

One drawback of the game’s age, it doesn’t auto-save. And it doesn’t handle being minimized when something pops up to steal focus. Which means that Apple managed to ruin a day of playing games on my Windows PC, when their auto-updater prompt decided to pop-up in the evening to ask me to download something. I won’t tell you what I did to it, but suffice to say that service won’t plague me again. I don’t know if Apple specifically hates games, but any of the myriad annoying auto-update prompts could probably have caused it. I shouldn’t have to remind developers this, but never send windows to the foreground without explicit user interaction. Ever. Please.

Starforge 😐

Starforge Screenshot

As you guessed from the name, this is a Sci-fi minecraft clone. This makes it less of a “city builder” and more of an “emergency shelter builder”, but I still tend to be focused on the building. So I was just playing the SP survival mode and not any multiplayer aspects.

Starforge survival has a very interesting theme, where you start out marooned with almost nothing on an alien world and eventually build yourself all the way back up to vehicles. I was hoping for escaping the planet, but that doesn’t seem possible. There is a crashed ship, which actually worked out really well as a goal (it was swarming with monsters and leaking radiation), but there wasn’t that much in the ship.

The reason the ship needed to be the goal though was because of how the crafting progression works. You can craft any unlocked blueprint, but you only unlock blueprints by finding them randomly in the world. There are a lot of supply chests randomly spawning, particularly in the alien infested areas around the crashed ship, but it’s still a very random process. Then you also get higher tech items in the random supply caches, so I lucked out in getting a high tier drill early on. That basically skyrocketed me to a surplus economy for any ores that I could find. With a high tier drill once I found sulphur (the resource for crafting ammo) and got a firearm in a random chest, I was also in pretty much a surplus economy for combat and the game got rather easy.

I liked some of the tweaks on the traditional mining mechanics that Starforge has. With a three dimensional world of average shooter resolution, you deform terrain of normal polygon count (like in Space Engineers). Unlike most of the minecraft like games though you don’t just dig in random places to find tons of ore, or better ore the deeper you go. You actually have to cover a lot of terrain searching for rare veins of key ores like iron and coal (the game called it oil, but it was in solid rock form?). I think this works a lot better in a survival mode for forcing you to get out and explore, and might even be more realistic if the “veins” weren’t just big domes of pure resource sticking out of the landscape. The downside though is that there were several key types of ore I never found. You can’t even craft a surveying instrument to help you find minerals, which would have solved that late game. It would be feasible to craft one solely from the high-tier ore you find randomly in the chests, given enough time.

Despite being called “finished” by the developers, an odd thing to do in this day and age, it doesn’t really have an end-game in the survival mode. If I could find the high tier ores in the amounts needed to make the space copter blueprint, I might have flown around the vast alien landscape for a while. But endlessly looting randomly spawning chests hoping to get enough rare resources to build it would take hours, and it turns out that I have other games for exploring endless procedurally generated alien worlds…

Starbound 🙂

Starbound Screenshot

As you may not have guessed from the name, this is another Sci-fi minecraft clone. Two dimensional this time, so it’s closer to Terraria than Minecraft and it’s really hard to avoid seeing it as “Space Terraria”. Which is automatically better than terrestrial Terraria for me, as a fan of sci-fi settings. But it’s not a carbon-copy of Terraria and diverges in a lot of key aspects once you pass the surface. On the surface I feel there’s a little less focus on combat compared to Terraria, and of course you get to travel to different worlds allowing you to really strip mine the place, but the one giant world isn’t all that different. You’re also a little less dependent on finding specific sub-surface biomes in Starbound I feel, but I haven’t played Terraria for a long time so maybe that’s changed.

One reason that there’s less of a combat focus is that you get your own ship in Starbound. Which is great in any sci-fi game, I even loved it in Unreal II where your ship was just a glorified mission hub between FPS levels. But in a more survival style game it is nice to start with a free “super shelter” (monsters can’t beam up after you) that stays with you wherever you travel. That’s a nice combination of permanency with your ship/base, while allowing you to explore a variety of different worlds and feel less tied to a specific location. A nice feature in a recent (well, since I played last) update allows you to bring in NPCs to buildings, which lets you build colonies if you so choose. I do have a merchant cluster with four occupied houses on an out of the way desert world, but my main base is still in my ship. Since you can teleport between you various bases, it’s not too much of a hassle to spread your colonies across the universe. This gives you a sense of space and accomplishment without spending a long time travelling, at the cost of being even less “hard science” (you also have super-cheap FTL drive, if you hadn’t guessed).

There is still some artificial combat focus that I’m not fond of though, where a key element in the quest progression is to go through combat missions occasionally. It does drive you to get the requisite armor level and thus provide a compelling structure to make you mine higher grade ores, but it also forces combat upon you. The mining is fairly good in the game, with vast cave networks to explore and find, containing random areas as well as minerals. Although they recently removed pickaxes from the game, slowing your speed of mining until later when you can upgrade you free sci-fi miner tool. On the other hand the sci-fi mining tool, like the super-shelter ship, gives you a reminder of the sci-fi setting as well as a sense of permanence building up elements that stay with you always. Which is a bit of a unique touch in this genre. Later on you’re crafting diamond drill and have your sci-fi miner far more powerful than a pickaxe so this ends up being more of a pacing issue.

Overall I would say that Starbound provides a lot of variety and “fun” item types while driving you along a fairly refined and narrow path with the quests and the necessary set of items. The extra structure feels a little odd in a game loosely based off the archetypical sandbox game, but it has advantages and disadvantages. It’s certainly a nice change of pace to play one with infinite procedurally generated worlds instead of one (even though it’s really just a different way of boxing infinity) and with a sci-fi theme. It’s certainly not too strictly structured so as to ruin the sandbox explore/collect/create feel, thus I think fans of the genre will still like it as I did. But it doesn’t seem to have the same level of sticking power with me as Minecraft or Space Engineers had, so maybe it’s a tad too structured away from my specific tastes.

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