Robotic Pass the Parcel
Having been drawn in by the art style which has that low poly/tilt shift thing that lends itself so well to strategy/resource management game a while ago, I finally got to spend a good chunk of time with The Colonists, going through the various missions and modes. While it wasn't completely what I thought it was going to be, it was an engaging experience that did what most strategy games hope to do; it was a stealthy time-sink that quickly ate up a weekend without me noticing.
The premise is simple, a group of self replicating robots have escaped from Earth with the goal of becoming more human through their colonisation of a new world. After the ubiquitous hold your hand tutorial level, the mission led levels split into to halves - one that focuses on researching to a particular product within time goals the other combines the research and settling with territorial battles against AI controlled colonists who are trying to get to and use the limited resources held on each level. Where The Colonists takes a side step from several of the games of this type that have hooked me before is the level of emphasis on the logistical components of managing your little robot civilisation. Roads, essential for moving all the resources around, are built node to node. In between each node is a carrybot which creates a chain of pass the parcel that moves your items from mine to processing, from processing to manufacture and so on. Early game, this system doesn't seem to play a large part in how you start to plan a build your robotic towns but as the complexity of your resource needs develops and the size of your colony expands the need to use this system as efficiently as possible becomes very apparent. It is very easy to find your once super smoothly running space town grinding to a halt due to piles of resources at node halting your progress.
It is this logistics aspect to the game that gives away the complexity of what at first seems a relatively simple entry to the Settlers style genre. After getting to one of the later resource/time based levels without having to worry too much about how I moved my goods around, I was suddenly stung by the rather limited logic my little robots were using. I watched with mild amazement as they took a fuel cell from its place of production to another island to put into a storage unit only to immediately take it back out, and pass it all the back to a building next to the one it had originally came from. Mild swearing later, I started to pick up the import/export blacklist/whitelist controls a bit more and the barely achieving bronze became , "oooo, I nearly got a gold that time" quite quickly.
I should probably stress, quite quickly isn't actually something I'd label The Colonists with. When I first loaded it up and saw the scenario/mission screen I thought it seemed a little light compared to other logistic/programming/worker placement games I'd tackled in the past. But, and maybe I was judging too much from the looks, the scenarios can be surprisingly long. In fact, the later levels, for me at least, were like short Civ games length-wise, rather than a half hour 'well done you got the iron ore, next level' set pieces. The game has options to speed up time (up to x4 speed) to help this along but personally I rarely put it past the x2 speed which seemed to strike a nice balance between getting the research to tick over at a less painful crawl but being able to keep tabs on road congestion before it effects production.
Where I found my interest dropping somewhat was with the territorial battle levels. Full disclosure, I rarely play any 4X/Settlers game in a conquer and pillage game style unless forced to by the game, so I am fully aware that me failing several times over is not a slight on the game. I just found that the complexity of having an efficient colony and at the same time protecting my borders from the AI a bit too demanding to be enjoyable - but, as I said, I tend to play this sort of game for a more relaxing time so I certainly don't think my criticisms would be for all people coming to this game. The way the battles play out is over strategic placement of watchtowers, the buildings used to expand usable territory. By building close to your neighbours border you have the opportunity push their little red line back a bit, while all the time trying to fend off the AI doing the same to you. The outcomes are determined by who builds first, level of repair skill and the limits of how close a watchtower can be built near an existing one. It seems like it could be fun, particularly in a game where the toing and froing over certain important resources eat into both players development, but it just didn't grab me as much as the scenarios that just put me alone on my new tiny planet.
However, the developer (who might be one person or certainly a very small team) has an easily accessible roadmap for future ideas to be added that the community can vote on. With confirmed features such as new transport features, a level editor confirmed and co-op, competitive multiplayer and more peaceful campaign missions planned or under consideration it looks like there might be a good amount to come whichever side of the mission tree you prefer. It makes me hopeful that The Colonists could become one of those rare games that I just keep coming back to again and again over the next few years. In fact despite finishing all the non-combat scenarios for the purpose of writing this, writing this has made me want to hop back in and have another go at making a highly successful island of pass the parcel.
The Colonists is a well packaged product with far more depth than it first let on. I would say that despite how it describes itself and looks I would suggest fans of games such as Opus Magnum, Infinifactory and Human Resource Machine give it a go. It leans much more to that style of thinking towards solutions than the average 4X does. As a result though, I could see that the Colonists might be spreading itself over too many styles for some. If you like your genres neat with no mixer or ice, this might be a bit too much of a cocktail to satisfy your tastes. An accessible UI and an adorable style do help to make up for this genre spreading though.
Part of me wants to own up and say just watching tiny robots pass one thing to another endlessly is probably enough for me to heartily recommend the game but thankfully there's enough behind that to say that playing it is pretty darn good too.