Video games dream of the colonial. Not the colonial in the historical sense, of plague and destruction and seizure, but the ideal of the colonial. The idea of a weak person or group (controlled by a player), dropped into unfamiliar territory, learning the land, surviving it, and eventually thriving upon what was once so dangerous, crosses most genres.
Despite that, games haven’t often succeeded at that core experience -- of creating and managing a thriving colony. Ludeon Studios’ RimWorld, recently released on Steam Early Access, does this magnificently, setting new standards for survival strategy games.
One of my most promising RimWorld colonies, Stonkley, was destroyed by a single heat wave. I’d set up a good base: a barracks, a couple of stockpiles, a kitchen, crops, some solar panels, and a walk-in freezer. The next stage was to create an efficient base: digging out the tunnels in the local mountain to build safe apartments and a hospital, and then get to clothing and weapons and research and art. And beer. The plans were all laid out.
Then the “Heat Wave” message popped up and temperatures soared to 50º Celsius. Instead of going outside to work, my four colonists huddled in the freezer, eating my stored rations for the days it was inhuman outside. Then the pirates attacked. It wasn’t a tough battle -- my colonists took a few gunshots, but captured a pirate and quickly shoved him into a makeshift prison, a little walk away from the base.
That’s when it went to shit. Because of the heat wave, my colonists hated everything. But they had to go outside to take care of the prisoner. They had to leave the freezer to collapse in their beds to have their wounds tended. And so they writhed and bled in my tiny barracks, loathing one another.
One left to go feed the prisoner. He went berserk on arrival, attacked, and was beaten unconscious. Two more developed infections, and the pain and hatred of their vomit, dirt, and blood-spattered barracks sent them into a daze. The fourth holed up in the freezer and refused to leave, the infected colonists and the prisoner died, and with it, my glorious tropical colony of Stonkley, destroyed by infection, fever, and madness.
What’s special about RimWorld is that all of these things are transparent game mechanics, interacting with one another, building strategic Jenga tower that has piece after piece added and taken out.
RimWorld, as you may be able to tell, is a space Western survival strategy game. The default game mode has three colonists crash-land on a planet, attempt to survive, and eventually build a new craft and escape. The game’s description says it’s “inspired by Dwarf Fortress and Firefly” which is probably the most accurate summation possible. There’s also a tinge of Left 4 Dead, with an AI “storyteller” who tosses events at colonies to keep them on their toes.This is an ambitious concoction, but it works stunningly well.
Here’s how, taking my fever-dream of a colony’s example. One of the first choices you make in RimWorld is your colony’s location. There are several different factors here, but the two most relevant are temperature and elevation. Build a colony in the mountains or large hills, and you’ll have less space but an easier time defending -- I like these for learning the systems initially. Meanwhile the warmer it is, the longer the crop-growing season is -- usually a significant benefit, but with drawbacks, as my Stonkley campaign demonstrated.
Once you’ve picked a location and your colonists land, you have to tend to their needs: food and shelter primarily, but also ensuring access to resources. The influence of Dwarf Fortress rears its ugly head in this early stage -- wrestling with the interface in order to properly construct buildings, store items, and freeze your food can be a bit of a process. Fortunately, it’s relatively quick to get through, and the graphics, while simple, do an excellent job of representing exactly what you need to see in order to make good, quick decisions.
Those first decisions are a constant struggle between working toward perfection and slapping band-aids on temporary needs. At Stonkley, I made temporary housing and set up my dream location, in a secure mountain valley. But the time I spent building up a gorgeous food production and storage system was time not spent putting together a hospital, a prison, or housing that wasn’t a ramshackle nightmare. It’s a simple risk-reward system, and it pervades the entire game. Build a bunch of solar energy units, or try to research your way directly to the super efficient geothermal power?
But my colonists are people too, with their own internal drives and reactions. So simply laying out my perfect plans wasn’t enough: I had to keep my characters motivated. The default RimWorld scenario starts with three colonists. You want a good mix of skills: mining for mountain terrain, construction, growing, shooting, and cleaning. Adding new recruits -- a full contingent is about eight people or so, though more is possible -- allows for further specialization. Hawk becomes your full-time farmer, while Kyle is exclusively a hunter and soldier. Some people refuse to do certain kinds of work; beware anyone who refuses to do hard labor, as cleaning and hauling are the lifeblood of your economy (this is also true in real life, by the way).
It’s not just what they do, though, it’s also what they want. Each colonist has a “Needs” tab which explains how they’re feeling. They want to wear nice clothes, have spacious, clean rooms, live in a beautiful colony, and, uh, not have their mothers accidentally murdered by your Assassin character in a drunken rage. What happens if they get unhappy? Sometimes they just hole up in their room, or drink all the beer you’ve brewed (you can brew beer).
Sometimes they toss all their clothes into the cornfields and dance around in the sub-zero weather, or set fires to your weapons arsenal. Or, as at Stonkley, they go berserk and try to pummel whatever person or animal they see first. In other words, keeping your colonists happy is an absolute necessity, and RimWorld both gives you the information to make this an achievable goal, and then throws obstacles in your way.
Some of these obstacles are structural: every decision you make comes with an opportunity cost. Mining steel across the map may get in the way of harvesting your crops; using that steel on weapons could prevent you from building automated turrets later.
Then there’s the weird science fiction stuff. After a pirate attack, you’ll occasionally be able to imprison those attackers. You can try to recruit them or let them go...or you can harvest their organs. Or you may need to amputate limbs, only to buy bionic replacements later. Perhaps they’re bleeding to death, but you’ve researched cryogenic storage so you can shove them into a stasis chamber and sell them to slavers without wasting your precious medicine. These aren’t just cool things you can try to do that make the game more complex, but they become legitimately difficult choices.
What makes RimWorld feel truly special as a strategy game is that these decisions never feel like they’ve been abstracted to fit a simpler game. For example, when building a city in Civilization, you decide whether to have your population focus on “production” or “growth” -- where, in RimWorld, you actually send those characters out into the fields, or have them travel to and work the forge.
And yes, some of this is a measure of scope -- Civilization is about empire of millions, not colonies of a dozen -- but RimWorld becomes comparable as it moves into the mid and late game. When you get a reasonably functional colony, your economy becomes exponentially more complex. Instead of a few generalists who all try to pitch in wherever they’re needed, a RimWorld colony thrives of specialization: a chef here, a cleaner there, and someone who will take a few days per week just to toss the useless tattered rags of old clothing into the incinerator to create more space in the warehouse -- which, of course, interstellar traders have access to. You construct a house of cards, delicate, beautiful, and fragile.
The house of cards can also collapse in memorable, hilarious ways. In my most successful colony, I had my economy in decent shape, and defenses prepared for an enemy attack, so I decided to open an “ancient evil” room that occasionally appears on some of RimWorld’s map. I lost two characters accessing those secrets, but quickly gained two more, so my economy seemed to be in fine shape.
But with those two deaths, I lose my two best shooters -- a major attack of dozens of low-tech enemies swiftly overwhelmed and doomed my colony. Losing is fun, right? In the game I recorded for the video guide, I had a group of pirates set up artillery and besiege me, so I sent two snipers to pick them off. This succeeded remarkably well -- until a bear walked through the sightlines of one of those snipers, was enraged by the gunshot, and massacred most of my colony while the pirates (wisely) fled in terror.
Arguably the most astonishing thing about RimWorld is that these are the literal things that happened in my games. This is a game where keeping your characters happy, setting up work orders, managing food supplies for the winter, breeding pets (did I mention pets? I’ve had colonies filled with kittens and husky puppies!), and tense military hit-and-run tactics all exist as part of a larger, coherent whole.
As a strategy game player, I fully expect there to be an imagination filter between me and a game, where, say, I interpret a relatively straightforward conflict between two duchies in Crusader Kings 2 as a grand, multi-generational Shakespearean tragedy.
In RimWorld, there’s still plenty of space for imagination, but the game engine consistently depicts what’s important. That this is attached to well-developed strategy game with a fantastic hook for a premise is even better. RimWorld’s greatest achievement is that it is exactly what it appears to be: a wildly ambitious, surprisingly accessible, strategically deep science fiction colony simulation. It is a strategy game dream given form.