The violent sounds of rushing wind and metal ripping pulls me from my slumber. A buzzer from the Master Alarm commands my attention. As I survey the flashing instruments in front of me, I see a planet where the vast emptiness of space should be. Our navigation computer failed, and sent us into the atmosphere of an unknown planet. There is only one option left: I smash the life-pod eject button and breathe a sigh of relief. The staggered explosions begin: One. Two. Three. I watch my crew headed towards the barren landscape. It’s no place to live, but maybe – just maybe – we will survive.
A member of the top down construction and management genre made famous by Dwarf Fortress, Rimworld is set in a Wild West dystopian space-faring universe reminiscent of the Firefly TV and movie series. Far from just a reskin or tribute to Dwarf Fortress, Rimworld sets itself apart with its robust combat mechanics, challenging “Storyteller” AIs, and unique characters. Rimworld is developed by Ludeon studios, an indie developer run by Tynan Sylvester. It was first released in a closed Alpha to crowd funding backers back in November of 2013, and is still being actively developed.
Rimworld is difficult. The brand new tutorial goes a long way to help bring new players into the fold, but expect to lose many of your first colonies. Even in the most calm of modes, there is enough to go wrong to have the whole colony die in just weeks. Among some of the users, it has earned the nickname “Grimworld.” I can certainly attest to the nickname; in most colonies I have built have more graves than I have colonists. Watch enough videos, read enough guides, and you can begin to make a sustainable colony on the easier settings. You will begin to want more, wondering just how much your colony can take. Thankfully, the adaptive AI does a great job at throwing more and more at you.
SETTING UP YOUR FIRST GAME
When you first fire up Rimworld, you are tasked with setting up the tone of your scenario. You have three different basic scenarios, character selector, three Storytellers, and a map selection. Only after you have set everything up will you begin your quest off the world you find yourself. How you set yourself up here will dictate a lot of how you will survive the first few seasons.
The first option is the one I describe above: three Rimworld settlers, some food, some gear, and a bit of tech knowledge. This is the original scenario and the best for a beginner. You have great versatility with the three settlers, and can build the bare necessities in short order. The other two scenarios are a nomadic Neolithic tribe and a rich Glitterworld individual that wants to leave it all behind. The tribe option gives you a couple pets and five settlers, but has very little tech developed. It feels more like an intermediate scenario that requires a lot of planning ahead when you have no electricity. The increase in manpower eases the burden slightly. But, food spoils quickly without refrigeration and frostbite in the winter can quickly cripple your colony.
Rimworld’s third scenario, the Rich Explorer, is incredibly difficult: a Glitterworld settler leaves his home with loads of silver, some survival goods, and little else. The silver does little good when you have no means to communicate with passing traders, and the lack of labor is noticeable. I recommend doing this scenario only when you have a strong handle on the game.
Once you have chosen how many settlers you are going to start with, you will then choose the settlers themselves. These are procedurally generated with a variety of attributes. Those looking for a challenge can just take the first three characters created for them. Or, you can re-roll individual characters until you have someone you can work with. Balancing the crew so they can cover every task will make things much easier. After all, this is the one time that you have unlimited access to get the characters you want.
A WELL-TOLD PROCEDURAL STORY
Now that you know the who and what you are starting with, it is time to decide on the AI Storyteller and difficulty. In order to understand these two discrete but related items job, we will have to get into more of the gameplay.
During the course of your settlement, you will encounter dozens of challenges: nearby villages will send raiding parties of various strengths, the fauna of the planet will attack your settlers and livestock, traders will pass by, settlers will fight or get sick, and even the planet itself will rain destruction from above in the form of toxic waste and lightning. The difficulty setting is much like you would find on many other strategy games. It controls the resources produced, the rate at which enemies spawn, and even what the traders that swing by will value your goods at. Colonists moods will be permanently affected by this difficulty setting as well. Most importantly, the difficulty setting will give the AI storytellers more or less opportunity to affect your colony.
You see, the difficulty setting adds points to a pool, but the AI dictates the cadence and severity at which these setbacks befall your world. This creative unpredictability is one of the biggest selling points of the game. It can allow for a bit gentler learning curve depending on the AI selected. Currently, there are three AIs, each with a unique set of parameters.
INTRODUCING THE AI STORYTELLING CREW
The original AI is Classic Cassandra. She provides a linear increase in difficulty with regular challenges. Depending on how hard you set the difficulty, most will start as a minor annoyance and escalate to downright decimating. Don’t be fooled by the ease at which the first few disasters are overcome; hundreds of thousands of villagers pile up around her unrelenting difficulty curve. Given the easier transition into the bigger hurdles, Cassandra is a great AI to learn with.
Sometimes, though, you want something even more laid back than Cassandra. Enter Phoebe Chillax. On Base Builder or Some Challenge difficulties, Phoebe will provide the lightest challenge possible. There are larger breaks between disasters, but they still occur. And on the larger difficulties, when they do happen can be even more brutal that Cassandra’s. Phoebe can catch you off guard if you are expecting nothing major. I have been humming along without a problem, when a crop blight strikes at the same time as food poisoning. Suddenly six colonists have gone through 100 rations of food in less than two weeks!
The final story teller is Randy Random, an AI that remains intentionally unpredictable. Whereas the other AI will slowly ramp up and give you opportunities to grow, you can never tell with Randy. Some of his games can be simple with only a mild psychotic break or light raid; other times he can drop a hunter-killer robot three days into your new settlement. Players familiar with Dwarf Fortress may find Randy the most familiar, but new players would likely be better off with Cassandra.
MAKING THE MOST OF A BAD SITUATION
Now your pods crash into a rough landscape . Or your tribe wanders to its new home, as the case may be. Your new colony is facing the most fundamental of all tasks: survival. In this quest, the colony will follow the now standard resource gathering, base building, and expanding your colony.
There isn’t anything particularly new in the building or resource gathering, so veterans of the genre will be right at home. Mine rocks, chop trees, and harvest foods to expand. Colonists’ mood, food, and love life all need to be managed. Captive or tamed animals are able to be bred, but there is no method currently implemented for human pregnancy. If you need colonists, you will either have to trade for slaves, rescue crashed pods, or convert prisoners.
One of the best improvements Rimworld has over games in the genre is the amount of micromanaging you can choose to avoid or partake in. Planting zones are “set and forget” with automatic replanting. Colonists are assigned jobs manually or automatically. But, more automation options would not be remiss. Take hunting for example: you have to search the map for each animal you wish to hunt, click on them, and then your colonists will hunt them down. This is very tedious if you have to get a lot of meat, and stands in stark contrast to the amount of automation in other parts of the game. A simple go/no-go for all animals would be huge in automating the hunting: check yes for hunting muffalos and squirrels, no to boomalopes and panthers.
Your end game can take a few different routes. Most commonly, all your settlers will die. Occasionally you will be able to build a colony strong enough to research all the technology, gather some resources, and escape off the Rimworld that has imprisoned you. There is no time limit, however, so you could equally decide to live out their days on the surface until they all die. Death seems to be the most likely option.
STEAM RELEASE AND MODS
After nearly three years in an email distributed closed Alpha, Rimworld had a soft launch as an Early Access title on Steam. Rimworld had a large update befitting the game’s change in status while opening the game up to the general gaming public. Alpha members were given the opportunity to exchange for a Steam key. Aside from the normal benefits of Steam – easy updates and easy downloads to multiple authorized computers – users also got access to the Steam Workshop.
Steam Workshop opens up a litany of mods to install (or uninstall) with just a couple mouse clicks. Don’t expect quite the same number of mods as are available to Homeworld and Kerbal Space Program; this is a much younger and more niche community. Still, the variety of the mods is impressive. Players can add new raider factions, extend the crafting system, or add new furniture. You can also download something as small as new scenarios to play through. I have run through about two dozen different mods so far. Of those, two in particular stand out. I love the Advanced Bionics and Craftable Medicine mods. I feel the former makes the end-game a bit more interesting, while the the latter should be in the vanilla game.
IS IT WORTH PICKING UP
I have loved my time with Rimworld and will continue to throw my colonists at the meat-grinder that is survival in this inhospitable environment. The unique story that each game develops is what brings me back. It is remarkable I get so attached to some colonists while I pray for a swift death of others. And it never fails that the beloved colonists are the ones that die first. I have yet to survive on the hardest of settings. While I am sure there are players out there able to defeat the Storytellers on their hardest settings, I cannot find a way. There is also the thriving modding community to extend enjoyment even beyond that. With all this considered, it is well worth the mid-tier price even in its alpha state.