In a few months it'll be five whole years since survival city builder Frostpunk was released, challenging players to build a working city in a freezing post-apocalyptic world and carefully manage the society taking refuge within its borders.
And while we wait to hear when Frostpunk 2 will arrive (fingers crossed for 2023) it's interesting to look at the city builders that have been coming out more recently, and how many of them may have been inspired by Frostpunk's blend of story-driven management, society simulation, and survival systems.
We're in a bit of a city building boom these days, which is exciting. While Fraser accurately pointed out that no one seems to be gunning for Cities: Skylines' urban city builder crown, that's left plenty of room for all manner of different kinds of city builders. We're seeing city building games that take place at the bottom of the ocean, in outer space, on the sides of mountains, on the backs of giant creatures, and even on a fantasy ringworld populated by dice.
There's usually something going on in these games besides just building pretty cities, managing money and resources, and simply making sure there are more happy faces than frowny ones in the civilian population. There are echoes of Frostpunk's systems in so, so many recent city builders.
One of the earliest buildings you can unlock in Frostpunk is the beacon, a tethered hot air balloon that can rise up above the city allowing a lookout to spot places of interest far beyond the central generator. Scouts can then travel out into the world to explore new locations (which often lead to the discovery of even further-flung areas) and return using the beacon as a guide.
Often these expeditions give you not just additional resources but narrative choices, extra decisions to make, and plenty of tension while you wait to see how things play out. Expeditions also excel at making you feel like your city is just a small part of a much larger world taking place offscreen.
I've been happy to see more city builders include systems similar to Frostpunk's expeditions, to allow us to peek beyond our own borders. In The Wandering Village, where you build a settlement on the back of a giant, lumbering, dinosaur-like creature, you're able to send scavengers out into the world as your mighty beast slowly stomps through it. Scavenging isn't just enjoyable and useful, it can be absolutely crucial—since your city is on the move, it can wander into biomes lacking certain resources and gathering extra supplies is incredibly important to survival.
I haven't played Ixion myself yet, but it's set in outer space on a massive traveling space station. Along with the interior and exterior views of the station, there's also a star system map, and once you've built shuttles you can send them out to investigate and explore the solar systems the station visits, gathering supplies and managing encounters.
That feels very similar to Frostpunk's expeditions. Aquatico, the undersea city builder arriving in January, also has expeditions. You'll be able to build submarines and use them to explore the ocean around your settlement, which can include new sources of important materials and potentially even undiscovered types of ocean life.
Real world politics and policies
Frostpunk isn't just about building a functioning city, but managing the society within its borders. Keeping citizens happy isn't anything new to city builder games—typically, it's the overarching goal, or people will move away and the city will fail—but society management and the policies and laws you can pass in Frostpunk felt deeper and at times troublingly real. It explored systems like child labor, propagana, censorship, and authoritarianism. That's a far cry from deciding what kind of advertisements you can put on blimps in Cities: Skylines.
We saw more of those real-world policies in survival city builder Floodland, which released in November. Floodland is set in a world devastated by climate change, and contains options to enact social policies that are shockingly familiar to us following the COVID-19 pandemic. Citizens in Floodland can contract airborne diseases and to combat their spread you can enact policies like mask-wearing, social distancing, and even lockdowns.
City builder Urbek, which focuses on using natural resources instead of money as a way to build a functioning city, has other examples of social policies like reducing work hours for your labor forces (unsurprisingly, this makes people happier, and it would be nice if the real world would take note) and producing better quality food. (On the other end of the spectrum, you can use bugs as a food source. This definitely doesn't make people happy, but it's still a viable solution to food shortages.)
Making you an actual person
One reason I tend to drift away from strategy games like Civilization is that I never really feel a connection between myself and what's happening in the world. That's why one of the few strategy games I've really gotten sucked into was Crusader Kings 2, because not only does it simulate a massive world full of countries and people and events, but more personal systems. I have a character, who has a personality, attributes, flaws, a family, and all the personal drama surrounding those things (like when my son falls in love with my aunt and they form assassination plot against me).
While I enjoy city builders like Cities: Skylines, I have a bit of the same issue. I don't really want to be a god making decisions from the sky, I want to feel like I'm a part of the city, too. A resident. Frostpunk did a good job at making me feel like I was really there, especially because if people got too unhappy they could simply remove me from power and kick my butt out into the snow. Ixion takes a similar approach, casting you as the temporary manager of the space station until everything goes wrong and you're forced into a crucial leadership position. As with Frostpunk, if you do a poor enough job you're removed from your position.
The upcoming Manor Lords, which had an excellent playable demo (and hopefully will have another one soon) thought up an especially fun way to make you feel more like a real person than a deity sitting behind a keyboard: you could actually spawn yourself into the village and walk around in third-person mode. It's a small touch—you couldn't really interact with anyone—but it's a great way to feel some connection between yourself and the people you're lording over.
It's an exciting time to be a city builder fan, with lots of new games coming out now from the big to the very small, and it's even more exciting to see them growing into experiences that go beyond just plopping down buildings and connecting them with roads. While we wait to see what Frostpunk 2 delivers, it's nice to see the original Frostpunk is still having an influence, nearly half a decade later.