Frostpunk: Review and Podcast Companion

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It’s becoming more obvious day by day that Poland is becoming one of the nexus points of gaming. The numerous studios there turn out (for the most part) very successful games. CDPR sits as one of the crown jewels of course, but the crown has many other jewels that are extravagant and shiny.

One of those jewels is 11-Bit Studios, the maker of 2014’s This War of Mine and developer of Frostpunk, our September game on the Splash Damage Bros. podcast.

Frostpunk is bomb diffusion in the best way possible.

As a one line summary I’d say “Frostpunk is bomb diffusion.” but I need to be clear that I mean that as complimentary as possible. It’s a game where any decision is a wire you’re cutting and any of those wires could be disaster. The decision points in the game give much-needed energy to the otherwise somewhat slower paced strategy genre. City builders can be relaxing but with this game you’re getting a sort of City-Builder Roulette and it’s a fascinating experience.

You play as the leader of a group of survivors in northern England scraping out an existence in a new ice-age. The main line goal of the game is to survive for sixty days. Along the way you’ll research, build new structures, but most importantly, enact laws. Here is where the game cuts its butter, so to speak.

Any good morality game worth its salt will turn the mirror on the player and get the player to examine themselves, and this is where Forstpunk truly shines. There were moments where I felt like George Washington, making tough decisions during tough times but ultimately doing the right thing for the people. Then a moment later I’d enact a law that made me feel like Stalin. This see saw continued through much of the play through and it’s what glued me to this experience. The line between George Washington and Stalin became much cloudier than elementary school had taught me.

Each day the player can enact a new “law” into the Book of Laws and this game-loop forms and guides your play through more than anything else. You can take your laws down an Order track, that eventually turns your community into a Police State, or you can enact more religious laws and eventually become your worlds version of The Pope.

Running along the “law” mechanic is the weather. Just when you think you’ve got resource management nailed down, the weather turns worse. Suddenly it takes more coal to maintain warm temperatures. The inevitable decisions become how to get more out of your workers, how to trim resources wherever you can, and what laws you can use to get you there. You find yourself saying yes to laws you’d ideally hate, which is why I mentioned George Washington. GW was adamant about shooting deserters from the Continental Army. It wasn’t a law he loved but he knew it was important to keep his fighting force together.

The flavor of the game comes from the salt you pour on yourself, as you hit your head against the wall after every fraught decision you make.

There is no play through where you won’t second guess yourself or enact some law that you regret. The flavor of the game comes from the salt you pour on yourself as you hit your head against the wall after every fraught decision. At some point you will have casualties directly resulting from one of your mouse clicks. That happens in many games, sure, but there’s a desperation here combined with a burden of leadership and it’s a recipe unique to this experience.

As you progress through the game days you might feel yourself with a hearty amount of resources. Things are looking up and the people are mostly happy. To counter this the game makes the days grow progressively colder. Your Core Generator must work harder to keep the same amount of warmth. You can enact extra working hours but if that’s not enough you can always consider feeding the furnace with human fuel.

A center light in the middle of the dark cold world is not only a game mechanic, it’s also a metaphor. The furnace provides the physical light but your group will also need an ideological light. The former is provided by the game, the latter is entirely up to the player.

It’s good for someone like me (middle class American sitting in a Starbucks) to play a game where life is hard and the choices that follow are harder.

I was (and still am) fascinated at the mental rationalizations I made as I enacted various laws on my people. At times the laws seemed a bit uncouth but in the face of a nuclear winter survival demands certain sacrifices, or does it? Allowing my town to have brothels and fight clubs seems like heading the wrong direction, but my people need any and every distraction from the “white death” outside. The game triggered a logic gymnastics that I haven’t experienced in any game I’ve ever played.

I recommend this game not only for gamers but also history professors, economics classes, and sociology clubs. It’s good for someone like me (middle class American sitting in a Starbucks) to play a game where life is hard and the choices that follow are harder. I’ve never had a made up world teach me so much about the real one and that’s why I recommend this game.

Nathan is the co-creator and co-host of the non-hit sensation Podcast, the Splash Damage Bros. He can and will be found at @thenatejc and @splashdamagebro

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