Frostpunk is a new city management game from 11 bit studios, the developer / publisher behind This War of Mine plus some other games (including the Anomaly series and Tower 57), but where This War of Mine is the most relevant because Frostpunk is like that game but on a larger scale, where you have to deal with the hardships of your people just as much as you have to manage their economy and environment.
Frostpunk is a steampunk game where because of volcanic eruptions and possibly the dying of the sun, Earth is going through “global cooling.” So Britain sends its people to the arctic — which sounds strange, but apparently that’s where a lot of coal is located — and sets up generators there that are powerful enough to keep a colony of people alive. You then have to manage some of these colonies as you play your way through the game’s (short) campaign.
In some ways, Frostpunk is just like every other city-builder out there. You have to maintain the health and happiness of your people, and you have to run an economy so you can keep expanding and researching, to prevent your city from devolving into ruin. But of course the details are different. The most important aspect of Frostpunk is the temperature, which begins at -4 degrees Fahrenheit and only drops from there.
Each colony starts with a generator at its heart. You can then place buildings in concentric rings around the generator, with (ideally) the least insulated buildings the closest. For example, at the beginning of a game you can only build tents for your people to live in, and tents have no insulation at all. So you have to place them right next to the generator, or else your people will freeze, get sick, and eventually die.
There are three main resources in Frostpunk: coal (for heating the generator), and wood and steel (for constructing buildings and performing research). You start out by just sending your people to collect debris at your colony site, but quickly you have to build a workshop so you can research new buildings like sawmills, steel mills, and coal mines to harvest resources more quickly. Then it becomes a matter of improving your colony and generator so you can keep everybody warm as the temperature falls.
To help you out, you can pass a variety of laws. Laws allow you to do things like put children to work, open up fighting arenas, and force people to work extra shifts. The laws can make it easier to run your colony, but you have to decide if they fit into your moral code. For example, you can either have a cemetery, or you can use bodies as fertilizer at your hothouse gardens. Or you can allow prostitution, have people spy on each other, or encourage duels that can result in death. In general, the “nicer” you are, the more difficult it is to play the game.
The happiness of your people is measured in two ways: hope and discontent. These sound like the opposite ends of the same spectrum, but they’re actually two measurements. Things like keeping people healthy and housed raise hope, while forcing people to work longer hours and passing unpopular laws raise discontent. If hope drops to 0% or discontent reaches 100%, then your people challenge you in some way, usually by giving you an ultimatum that you have to solve within a short period of time. If you fail the challenge, then you’re banished from your colony, which means you die and lose the scenario.
Along with your colony, you’re also allowed to send scouts out to explore your surroundings. The scenarios only last about a game month each, which means the only way you can increase your population (which is usually a good thing) is to find other survivors in the wilderness. You can also pick up loose resources and discover sites that can be turned into outposts, which will then supply your colony with goods every day.
Unfortunately, Frostpunk does not come with a manual, and it doesn’t really have a tutorial, either. It only brings up information windows when you encounter new buildings and concepts, and these windows aren’t as detailed as you might want. So your first colony isn’t likely to go well, but you’ll probably learn enough while leading all of your people to death that you can be more successful in the future.
The game works pretty well, and 11 bit studios kept a pretty good balance between things going well and things going poorly, that you’re not likely to cruise to victory, especially if you’re playing on the “hard” difficulty setting. But sadly, Frostpunk does not have a long campaign. Currently it only has three scenarios and no sandbox mode. 11 bit studios has said that they plan to expand the content — for free or through DLCs wasn’t mentioned — but right now the game only takes maybe 40 hours to complete, and it feels like it was rushed out of the door too quickly.
Overall, I liked Frostpunk, but it felt like half of the campaign was missing. Just when I got to the point where I understood the rules and how to play the game, it was over. Still, Frostpunk is challenging and interesting, and it has a unique setting that brings in some new gameplay mechanics, so it’s worthwhile to try out. If 11 bit studios follows through on their promise to add more content, then Frostpunk would be an easy game for me to recommend. But as the game stands now, things are iffier, and they depend on how much you like city-builders. If you can’t get enough of them, then go ahead and get Frostpunk, but if they’re more peripheral to your tastes, then it’s probably better to wait and see what happens.
Reviewed By: Steven Carter
Publisher: 11 bit studios
This review is based on a digital copy of Frostpunk for the PC provided by 11 bit studios.