Steamworld Build Preview: You’ll Dig This City Builder

In its ceaseless effort to robo-fy every genre, Thunderful is giving the city builder treatment to the SteamWorld series. Like the other SteamWorld games, SteamWorld Build is a fresh take on a classic genre that’s both approachable to city builder novices and compelling to experts. The short demo, available now on Steam, gives us just a small taste of SteamWorld Build’s story and gameplay, and as a big fan of strategy simulation games and the SteamWorld series, this one is already near the top of my most-anticipated list for 2023.

The fifth adventure in SteamWorld takes place in a mining town of your own creation. Starting from a single train track that periodically brings goods in an out of town, you develop an intricate web of streets, housing, industry, and entertainment in order to fulfill the needs of your steamfolk, generate resources and profit, and pursue the goals of a mysterious character that urges you to dig up the ancient-advanced technology buried beneath the settlement.

Finding and using that tech is your primary goal, and the city expansion is all done in pursuit of it. This is a major departure from most other games in the genre. When it comes to city builders, you’re typically either building up a zoo/theme park/combination zoo-theme park-dinosaur island for fun and profit, or, in games like Frostpunk and Against the Storm, trying to build a city that can survive in some kind of apocalyptic scenario. SteamWorld Build’s goal is much more focused, even though you aren’t entirely sure what it is you’re working towards at first. Rehabbing a nearby abandoned mine will give you your first major clue about what kind of ancient tech you’re after, and it also opens up Dig’s big, innovative mechanic.

The city and the mine are two completely separate (though interdependent) places, each with their own totally unique gameplay loop. While the town itself features pretty traditional city builder gameplay, the mines are a lot more hands-on, chaotic, and even RTS-like at times. Each half of your settlement serves completely different purposes, but the way they feed into and rely on each other means you need to constantly monitor the progress and performance of both. There’s a rhythm and sense of urgency here that adds an action element to the typically slow-paced, casual city builder genre.

To over simplify things: the top-side settlement generates the basic needs of the steamfolk, like water, steam, and moonshine, while the mine produces all of the metal and rare materials that allow the city to expand, advance, and generate wealth. The work forces on both sides are completely separate, which creates some interesting commentary on glass divide. I’ll need to play more to see what, if anything SteamWorld Build does with it, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the township becomes more needing, demanding, and profit-oriented as you expand (the top-hatted and mustachioed ‘Aristobots’ require luxury amenities and pay the highest taxes), while the miners’ only concern is maximizing their own productivity. Top-side upgrades are things like saloons and burger stands, while mining upgrades consist of speed vents, teleporters, and conveyor belts to help them get more work done.

Whether or not Thunderful is making some kind of statement – even an inadvertent one – remains to be seen, but even from this short demo I’m already convinced that SteamWorld Build is introducing a lot of great ideas to the genre. City builders tend to get monotonous once those early hour progression spikes smooth out and you begin to micromanage automated processes for maximum efficiency, but SteamWorld Build seems to be giving you a lot more to do. In the mines, workers can be directed to specific tasks the way they are in RTS games, which gives it a sense of time management and a degree of decision making that other city builders don’t have. Using miners to extract materials, expand the mine, and find the hidden objects that move the story forward is a great hands-on alternative to the more detached city planning aspects, and having the ability to swap back and forth between the two sides of your settlement whenever you want helps to keep things interesting. The demo stops as soon as you reach the second layer of the mine, but the trailer reveals that there’s more danger and even combat encounters once you delve in deeper.

The SteamWorld Dig games are some of my all-time favorites, and while I wasn’t as into Heist and Quest, I'm impressed by Thunderful’s willingness to take this series in so many different directions. The SteamWorld aesthetic ties them all together, but more than that, their inventiveness and genre-bending qualities are what give the series its identity. City builders may be niche, but the SteamWorld series has already proven itself to be a competent gateway into unfamiliar genres. Whether you’re a Tycoon expert or just a little Tropico-curious (tropicurious?), SteamWorld Build should definitely be on your radar.

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