I picked up this game a while ago based on Syncaine’s recommendation / praise. I played about 2 hours, couldn’t make heads or tails of the systems, and moved to something else. I knew that it was a mash of crisis simulator / city builder, and what better time to play that than now!?
Premise is simple – its the 1800’s, the world is frozen over, and you’re leading a small group on rebuilding a single city. Steampunk + extreme cold = wordplay. The actual gameplay is a spreadsheet manager, where your pivot table keeps messing up. But it looks pretty.
Where normal city builders have you starting small, and the only real chance at failure is a lack of funds, Frostpunk has you in a continual downward spiral of not having enough resources. While doing A, B suffers and vice versa. You end up doing a bit of A, moving to B before it gets critical, then back to A before that gets critical. When you think you have a handle on it, the game throws in something to mix it up. Either it gets so cold no one can work, a bunch of injured people show up, the population demands resources, or a long list of other items.
Resources are managed through an underlying source of heat. The generator in the middle of the map provides heat for those nearby, and humans can’t work if it’s too cold. There are many ways to improve this – either more heaters, hubs, insulation, overdrives. They all consume coal, which you need to harvest. Building / research material is a combination of wood and steel, also things to harvest. Food you need to hunt (and a TON of it), then cook it. You need people to do all of this, and you rarely have enough of them.
One add-on here is automatons. These robots can replace humans gathers, work 24/7, and don’t need heat. Making them requires a core, which is a very rare resource. If you get enough of them, and the right buildings, you can basically huddle down the humans permanently.
These things are painful, yes, but they are not game breaking. If 90% of your population died, that wouldn’t be game over. Instead there are two larger metrics – Hope and Discontent. The former is how people feel about their chances of success, and there are a ton of variable to make it move. Discontent is how upset people are with the current state – too cold, not enough food, bad laws, criminals and the like. If Hope reaches 0 or Discontent reaches max, you lose.
Every in-game 18 hours, you can pass a new law. Either these are Adaptation laws (thin the food, make children work, bury the dead) which have very long term consequences, or they are Faith / Order laws which primarily govern Hope / Discontent. This part gets neat, and quickly. You may think you are a good leader, and would try to help everyone. But when you don’t have enoguh food for half the population and a group of 30 show up at your door… do you have everyone starve to death? Do you make people work a 24 hour shift so that there’s heat for everyone through the night? Do you triage the sick, so that only those with a strong chance survive and the rest pass?
Or maybe discontent is so high that you need to pass laws on protestors, and publicly execute someone. Maybe you become a prophet for the city and simply avoid discontent altogether, as anyone who doesn’t follow you is exiled. Are there bad choices when it comes to survival?
So that’s the real goal of the game – letting you try your hand at managing a non-stop crisis.
The gameplay itself is generally solid. The graphics represent the activities going on, people picking up wood, or heading out to hunt. You get heat and religion overlays. You get to see where people are working. You’re presented with generally enough data to show what’s going on at any given point. What you don’t see are the things that are about to happen. If you’re in the day, maybe that part of the city is warm enough, but at night it will freeze the bones of someone. Maybe half the people in a building are sick, dropping productivity. And when people get sick, that has a cascade effect on others… production slows, other people get sick, and then woosh.
The game does a decent job at explaining what a Law will do, in the immediate sense, but doesn’t really go into the long term effects. Child daycare may seem a great idea, but then you realize they eat all your food, live in the least insulated buildings, and don’t produce anything – ever. Like a near permanent hole in the dam.
The game also doesn’t do a very good job explaining what the buildings do, or how it impacts the long term city viability. Hunting huts never require heat, but you’d never know until you turned heat off for them. Cooking huts require TONS of heat. Mines can be rotated before building to make them much more accessible. Roads… holy crap it took me forever to realize how to build them. What’s the difference between a Coal Mine and a Coal Thumper? Is a Wall Drill better than a Sawmill? How does exploration work?
It is hard to articulate how important these items matter. If you’re going into this cold (heh), you can’t make educated decisions. You will fail, multiple times. The initial 3 days have cascading effects for the rest of the game. Passing laws before you need them has by far the largest of all consequences. Ignoring research + related buildings focuses your resources on much better things. Building “permanent” hot zones for residents, and working “hot zones” for gathers has a major impact on coal management.
From a gameplay perspective, it is incredibly frustrating not to have that balance ahead of time, or the information at hand. From a simulation perspective, it makes total sense. People managing a crisis rarely have all the facts at hand. You can only prepare so much for a crisis, and once it hits, you realize how everything is so interconnected. You’re going to have protestors who are thinking about themselves rather than the city. You’re going to see really hard decisions made, based on the goals of the person making those decisions.
My first successful playthrough (I failed a half dozen times before) had over 600 citizens, 1 death, laws focused on hope (extended shifts, child shelters, amputation, soup), and a faith-based hope system, without New Faith (where hope is replaced with devotion). I won’t lie, the mechanics and planning required to get to this point where substantial. At the end of the scenario (~12 hours), you get a video of your city building over time. When it was over, I felt relief and some measure of pride. I did it, the way I wanted to.