Never did I think that in a year we got Cities Skylines II, I’d be championing a spin-off from a completely different genre as the best city builder of the year. But that is precisely the case with SteamWorld Build from developers The Station.
It is all well and good nailing the look and feel of the series from which you are spinning off from, it can make for a nice little experience. Yet to elevate a game above that, the core mechanics need to be on point and this is one of the best examples I can think off.
So let me try and do this in some kind of order.
The SteamWorld games have a really lovely style across all their titles, Dig, Heist and Quest a sort of cartoon styled Steampunk aesthetic with a world inhabited by robots. Androids? No definitely robots. Robots who reproduce, have families and need all the home comforts we do.
Anyway, all the games are one hundred percent part of a larger universe and all feel linked, despite being very different games. The humour also carries through, never in your face and instead done in a very comforting way. This really carries through to SteamWorld Build, which has an amusing narfrative about robots that may or may not be duped by some malevolent AI.
The story is actually really important here, as it gives you a goal and an end point for each playthrough. This is something of a trend in city builder type games of late and one I am all in on. Give me the likes of Against The Storm over another Sim City clone any way.
The core mechanics of the game are of course about building a settlement, growing and expanding, with the end-goal being to build and launch a rocketship to relative safety and escape the world you are on. Because reasons!
The first part of the game is your standard affair, build roads, homes, amenities, comforts, etc. Then use those to allow your citizens to live and improves, gathering new skills, which will in turn allow you to get bigger and better buildings, upgrade roads, etc. If you’ve played a builder before, you get the drill.
Getting a drill is a pretty vital thing too! Because once you upgrade to a certain level, you won’t be tasked with expanding outwards, but instead you need to go down! What else would you expect from a game that started with a game all about digging!
Essentially, to get the rocket parts, you will need to start mining and this is where SteamWorld Build really starts to show it’s standout features. Whilst underground you need to make sure you build living quarters for miners, prospectors, etc (plus more secrets later) to allow them to excavate and gather important resources.
You then need to use these resources to continue to expand your main city above ground. Whilst at the same time maintaining both levels. Keeping your citizens happy, so you can continue to upgrade and expand, but also making sure your mine is sustainable from collapse, being able to mine major materials and much much more.
It would be enough if you were literally doing just that, but there is also an economy and resource management aspect. Citizens need food, water, booze! As well as many other things, so production trains become a factor.
You need to provide a saloon for comfort? Well you can’t just place one, you need to produce glass, which needs you to get sandm you also need water, which needs a cactus farm. You get the idea. But the other thing you need to worry about is reach. Starting roads are made of dirt and only reach so far, so placement of things here is so so vital. But roads can be upgraded to increase that reach, so it isn’t a case of just plopping everything together. As doing so won’t allow you room to grow.
Thyere is so much to consider within the game, but there are some really good QoL additions that make it all possible. With warnings to advise of something urgent in the mines, plus a screen to what materials you are low on, or not producing enough of. Plenty of icons that let you know statuses and the like of citizens.
On first inspection it can look overwhelming. ut trust me here, everything is super intuitive and it controls wonderfully well on a controller, which can easily be combined with mouse and keyboard controls (which is great on a Steam Deck).
The only issue I have is with some minor accessibility things. Some important details are red text on a dark background which can be near impossible to read, especially as the font size can’t be changed. Thankfully on a Steam Deck you can easily set the left trackpad to magnify the screen, thanks to the simple control scheme.
But that is a minor niggle in what is a fantastic package and risen right into the discussion for my games of the year. We’ve been spoiled in the late 2023 indie scene and SteamWorld Build feels like one of the cherries on top of a very well iced cake!