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Taking to the skies in Airborne Kingdom's floating toybox cities

City builder Airborne Kingdom seems like it's going to be a simple escapist fantasy. "In 2019, when everything is in different places of disarray, it's a lovely idea [to have] a utopic city flying through the clouds," says designer Ben Wander, one quarter of developer The Wandering Band. But as he explains to me over Skype, it's more than just a toybox: You need to fuel your city to stop it falling from the sky, farm enough food to prevent your workers from starving, and research a constant stream of new tech to keep new citizens joining your city. That mix of whimsy and traditional resource management is what makes it so intriguing.

The aerial theme is more than just a gimmick. Every house, plane hangar, farm, and propeller has weight, and if you put too many buildings on one side of your city it can tip over. If it's leaning then you'll fly slower, and buildings will degrade faster. Just glancing at your city will tell you if it's balanced, and I like how your whole airship wobbles and settles as you plop down new houses. 

You can create funky, asymmetrical layouts by moving around your heavy structures and "lift buildings" such as propellers and hot air balloons, which you'll need to keep your city afloat.

"Your city might look very lopsided, but because of the way you've placed heavy buildings, it's fine," says Wander. "Depending on where you've placed your lift buildings, the centre of your city might actually be way off to the side."

As well as worrying about weight you'll have to find fuel, water and food, building hangars so your workers can reach the ground, and it's satisfying to watch these planes zip back and forth. The map is completely open to explore from the start, but a lack of resources will hold you back, and you'll have to unlock storage buildings before you can build stockpiles large enough to supply you through longer journeys.

Some clever UI tricks make it easy to know where you've allocated workers at a glance. Once you've sent a plane to a forest for wood, that area will be market by a red balloon—one for every worker. The amount of wood left in that forest is shown on the ground next to it, so you never have to fiddle around with menus to find out whether it's running low.

And it's not just the UI that's sleek: The whole game, even in the early, out-of-date demo I play, is a joy to look at. Wander says the team are going for a "toybox, miniature feel," and so far they're on target. The buildings are complex dioramas of whirring cogs and spinning blades, and you can watch individual workers march along walkways if you zoom in. 

Their animations are crude in the build I play, but the dev team are still working on them ahead of the planned release next year.

Beyond the essentials of food, fuel and water you have a second tier of resources that keep your citizens happy: Faith, aesthetics, and entertainment buildings such as tea houses. When you visit a city on the ground—which we'll see in a bit more detail shortly—you can attract new citizens, and they'll usually only join if you're fulfilling a given desire.

In my demo, one city will only send me workers if they have a place to worship, so I must build minarets first.

Those minarets are one of the buildings that have an area of effect, and you can maximise their impact by stacking nearby houses on top of each other, increasing their density. Wander and his team haven't decided exactly which buildings will stack, but you'll only be able to put buildings of the same type on top of each other: You won't be able to plonk a warehouse on top of a hangar, for example.

You're therefore only really building on one plane, because each building is the same all the way up, so you'll never have to scroll through different layers to find what you want. You build walkways by simply clicking and dragging and place buildings along the route, which feels perfectly natural. Wander says the team might add support bars that players must first lay down before they expand—personally, I like the simplicity of the current system.

As you can see in the clip above, stacking buildings naturally changes how they look, with different buildings fusing together to create new designs. You'll also be able to apply dyes and patterns to your city, which you'll get from cities on the ground. 

When you visit a city for the first time, you'll be greeted with some flavor text alongside information on the technology you can obtain from that city. Tech you find, such as farming, will have to be researched at academies before you can incorporate it into your floating city, and your research capacity will be limited, which forces you to choose what to pursue. 

Those choices will shape the way your city evolves: perhaps you shoot for a green city, prioritising manpowered oars and hot air balloons over fuel-guzzling propellers, for example.

 Sometimes you'll have to complete quests for a city before they cough up their tech: Wander describes visiting a far-off temple and bringing something back. You'll also pick up rumors from cities about nearby points of interests. These quests and rumors provide your moment-to-moment motivation. A city might tell you to explore a particularly barren part of the desert to find an upgrade you want, leaving you to stock up on food and water before putting all hands on deck as you right-click in the fog, starting your journey. 

The storytelling is inspired by 80 Days and Sunless Skies, with some "strings of stories" spanning several points of interest. Wander wouldn't let me pry any details out of him, other than to say there are four clans, each with their own cultures and building styles. Airborne Kingdom also has an overarching story that gives you a reason to keep pushing forward, but again Wander is determined to keep quiet—in part because he and his team haven't fully finished writing it.  

Without knowing more about the narrative it's hard to say how just long Airborne Kingdom will hold my interest. But for now, I'm just content to watch its dioramic cities float through the clouds.