Review: Empire Building: SettleForge29 May 2015 0
SettleForge inverts the fashionable trend of taking an existing, complex game and refining a single subsystem into a polished, clear, but flavorless pursuit. At its core, it resembles a single-player Suburbia: you lay hexagonal tiles which represent pieces of a settlement, with each new game offering specific goals which can improve your score. But, where Suburbia adopts that modern aesthetic of clean simplicity and has been scrubbed until it is almost entirely free of the contamination of theme, Settleforge crams in narrative everywhere it can, and adds some mechanisms to complicate decision-making. The presentation is so old-school in its opposition to that antiseptic ideal that I find myself imagining an ashtray next to the iPad.
I confess, most stories I encounter in video games hold little interest for me, and I rarely give them much attention in my reviews. In this case, though, I find the set-up cleverer than most. You've been chosen to lead your war-torn country back to prosperity; nothing very exciting there. But the advisor who selected you pretended you had a magic power which plays much the role of the divine right of kings in uniting the people. So part of the challenge is that you have to rule wisely enough not to make people suspect they've been had (and they'll periodically check via special objectives). There's no need to present an interesting moral problem which echoes Plato's noble lie in order to explain the motivation for building your towns, but developers Andreas Mank and Jochen Balzer did, briefly enough and well enough to enhance the game rather than waste the player's time. That level of craftsmanship and inspiration is difficult to maintain throughout a project, though.
For starters, though the story is well done, the writing in English is not. Indeed, the game takes a surprisingly haphazard approach to communication generally. From my glass house, I cast no stones about stylistic issues, but the writing has real problems with clarity and comprehensibility (about which I might as well cast stones; if people can't understand me, it won't do any harm, will it?). It can't be merely a problem with translation, either, as there are significant omissions from the rules. For example, I encountered a special objective to upgrade my resource dice to a new color. The rules offer no guidance on how to do that, nor any description of the significance of the colors. If you've ever tried a complex game after a poor explanation, you'll likely understand how it can sap one's satisfaction like a booger in the soup.
The game itself has all sorts of promising elements, though. The placement of your hexagonal bits of settlement is restricted by two factors: each hexside has one of two colors which must match where they adjoin, and hexes provide resources to their neighbors. The more valuable the hex, generally the longer the chain or chains of resources you have to build in order to satisfy its resource requirements, but since you only have a hand of one, two, or three hexes at a time, you have to plan for various contingencies well in advance and hope that later hexes will match hexside colors well enough. There are some generally helpful heuristics which make that easier (avoid concavities, avoid too many of the same color hexsides facing toward important spots), but balancing these against the often countervailing pressures of various objectives requires very careful balancing and well-informed planning.
So, it's a game that focuses on balancing risks using limited information. It didn't have to be; Settleforge could still have been an interesting puzzle if you had perfect information and access to all of the hexes for each scenario, but would probably be too easy as currently designed, with too little variability in the final scores. By hiding some of the information about what hexes are coming, good play changes entirely. It's not finding the best possible solution with the tools at hand; instead, you have to prepare for a variety of hexes to show up, only being able to find out some of them ahead of time. How much you're allowed to know defines the sort of experience you have. All of which is prelude to identifying two problems: the interface doesn't make relevant information salient or easy to obtain, and it's not clear the developers have even very carefully thought through what information you should have. The clearest example is the production chains--these are made plain on the game's website, but that information is unavailable for reference within the app.
Scrabble as currently played is partly a trivia game involving word knowledge. The problem with Settleforge is akin to having rules for Scrabble which made it unclear whether or not you could check the dictionary at will--it would not only be irksome that the rules were badly written, it would convey the impression that the game's designers didn't understand what kind of game they intended to make. The game is supposedly coming soon for Android, but you can try it for free on iOS already; there's a one-time IAP for the full game at $3.99. It's a marvelous structure, easily allowing players to learn the game's basics and discover whether the interface suits them better than it did me.
SettleForge was played on an iPad Air for this review.