Frostpunk, a steampunk city-builder from the guys who made This War of Mine about surviving a perpetual winter, recently went on sale to celebrate their one-year anniversary. I picked it up, and spent entirely too much time playing it the past few days (although that’s only partly why Five of Clubs was late – I also spent way too much time waffling on whether or not I wanted to shut the project down before seeking out voice actors). So, safe to say that it’s pretty good.

I’ll be digging into the mechanics in a bit, but what really sells this game is its phenomenal atmosphere. In raw graphics power, it looks good, but not great. It’s in how the smoke from your generators rises above a city clogged with snow. It’s from watching your town sprawl outwards in rings around the central generator, huddling against it for warmth. It’s in hearing the wind howling over the lip of the crater while an automaton nestles against a spoke heater to refuel, its spindly body briefly illuminated by the fires atop the steampunk pillar before it strides back into the darkness to work the coal mine and keep those generators running, while all the squishy humans have boarded themselves into their houses, desperately hoping they won’t freeze to death as the temperature drops to a Hellish triple digit negative.

Screenshots don’t begin to do the atmosphere justice. This image features a mildly intriguing interface, but playing the game makes you feel cold.

It’s one of those games, like XCOM, that keeps the pressure up constantly with an expertly balanced series of static events. The first time through, I got about halfway through before my people became disillusioned with my leadership and banished me to the icy wastes. The second time through, I paid much more careful attention to the hope and discontent meters, but didn’t put much emphasis on research or economy, which led to my creating a fascist dystopia which still lost 80% of its population in the final storm. The third time through, I did what really should’ve been my default strategy, since it’s how you win like 90% of all strategy games, and focused primarily on my economy, which allowed me to swing large piles of resources at problems as they occurred.

The same series of events played out in the same order each time: There’d be an initial calm period where you establish your initial settlement, scavenging for supplies and building primitive shelters. Eventually, you build up enough of a foothold to start sending scouts out to search for supplies and other settlements trying to ride out the snowpocalypse, and you discover that the friendly settlement Winterhome has been almost totally wiped out, with the small handful of survivors coming to your city for shelter. This leads to a movement amongst your people called the Londoners, who want to flee away from your warmth-giving generator back to London. This is suicide, so you have to find some way to convince them to stay. Once you’ve done this (with varying degrees of Orwellian ruthlessness, depending on how much life sucks in your city and thus how many billy clubs are needed to persuade people to stay), you start getting refugees from all across the remnants of the failed cities from across the icy wastes, pouring in as a terrible storm closes in. Even as you’re building new shelters to house all the immigrants (or turning them away, if your economy can’t handle them), you need to stockpile resources to ride out that final storm. When the storm hits, the temperature drops so low that all the preparation in the world can ultimately only triage the problem, but luckily it passes before your city is totally wiped out (unless you’ve seriously messed up your heat management).

Despite the same events happening the same way each time, it’s not familiarity with what was coming next that was my biggest ally in subsequent playthroughs (although knowing that the Tesla City ruins will potentially kill your scouts was certainly useful, as it meant I knew to send in a scout with no scavenged cargo to investigate, in case they never came back). By the time you’ve finished the tutorial section, the basic problem is already apparent: You need wood and steel to build and research things, coal to keep your people from starving, steam cores to power the really advanced tech, and enough people to fulfill all the jobs that need doing in order to turn all those resources into results. Although knowing exactly what events would happen when did improve one of my playthroughs, it was my fourth playthrough, when I was getting just-about-optimal and in which knowing that the big blizzard was coming at the end meant that I knew to drastically expand my medical facilities, thus preventing all the third playthrough deaths from frostbite as my healthcare system was overwhelmed. I got up to the third playthrough – one where most of my citizens survived and I didn’t end up with an evil dystopia – on knowledge that was applicable to any of the game’s scenarios, not just that one specifically.

What’s the purpose of playing the game on the same scenario, then? It has an endless mode, after all, and alternate scenarios. Definitely the reason I played through the same scenario multiple times was that I was hoping that knowing the events in advance would let me prepare for them, though I discovered that the time crunch didn’t really permit the breathing room to ambush events before they could happen. When I had spare resources, I found that it was almost always wisest to dump them into either a stronger economy or more heating, both things I could’ve told you would be important within five minutes of starting the game.

No, the reason why I enjoyed playing the same scenario over and over until I got it near-perfect was the yardstick provided. The reason why my later playthroughs did so much better than the ignominious exile and tyrannical despotism of the first two is because I had gotten better at the game, and that was really satisfying.

I do wish there was a way to turn the text scrawl at the end off. Once you survive the mega-storm, the game does a time lapse of your city throughout the entire scenario, showing it growing to fill up the crater. Watching it grow is fantastic, but the text scrawl tells a story that’s based purely on whether certain binary switches were flipped, regardless of context, even context that a machine could pick up on. For example, there’s a law you can pass that allows you to cut rations, allowing you to stretch limited food supplies but raising discontent. I implemented this law soon before the storm hit without actually switching the rations over, just to have it up my sleeve in case I needed to stretch food stores. I didn’t end up having to, and all my food reserves were regular meals. Nevertheless, the ending screen said “first we tightened our belts. Thin soup became our common meal.” The game could’ve checked to see if the option to actually serve the soup was used more often than not, or even just whether the law was passed in the first 10 days or the final 10 days. Instead, it assumes that if you passed the law at all, it was early on, and thin soup was a staple. Likewise, the game refers to “masses of sick” in every ending in which you have lots of sick people, regardless of whether you had a running problem with illness or if the storm temporarily overwhelmed your healthcare system.

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