Indie Wonderland: Big Pharma

Big Pharma. Big Pharma. Of course I’d go for being Big Pharma. There’s no point in being Small Pharma, is there? If I’m not getting the power to slap troll patents around, and suppress the cure for cancer solely for kicks, giggles, and profits, why even bother in the first place?

Okay, that went too real for a moment. The reality of the situation is that I got my hands on Twice Circled‘s medicine factory simulator because it looks shiny and colourful, and because I haven’t done anything with conveyor belts in way too long. The power to dictate the health and happiness of an entire virtual world — if that’s even included — is just a neat little side effect.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, non-existent. Mechanical, fairly low.)

(Game source: Patreon bucks.)


The title that greets me is a bustle of activity. Machines hiss and churn, hard-hatted workers fiddle with controls, and brightly coloured conveyor belts carry around bowls, potions, gas canisters, and pots of crème. And it’s all set to a simple, but energizing tune, almost the epitome of ‘whistle while you work’ music.

As far as I can tell, here, the game is showing me how to play it.

Ye olde options are of the relatively simple variety. There isn’t much more to the Video tab than screen size, resolution, and some stuff about decals and tab transitions. Audio has a grand total of four sliders: Music Volume, GUI Volume, Factory Volume, and Announcer Volume. Fancy, that. And the Controls tab hides your garden-variety list of key bindings… even if I’m not entirely sure what anything is currently actually bound to.

Ah. I… that is, I see that… er…

The only options tab with any serious meat to it is the Game Settings tab. There’s a lot here that I can’t quite parse yet, as usual, though I can preemptively appreciate the thoroughness of it. But I’m taken aback a little when Big Pharma, quite uniquely, offers me a few ways of expressing my unique Europeanism. Not only can I select the currency symbol, but there’s actually a menu option for what symbol to use as the thousands-mark separator.

That’s right, American readers! Euros instead of dollars, and 1.000,00 instead of 1,000.00. Are you dazed and confused yet?

And that’s kind of it as far as menu settings are concerned! Unless you were hoping I’d dive into Mods immediately. In which case, sorry to disappoint. Let’s get to the game proper, yo.

Or, well. I say that. But the New Game menu reveals a… I want to say staggering amount of pre-game choice. Jesus. I think these are all scenarios. But how many are there? Twenty-five, I think?

Not counting the ‘free build’ and ‘custom game’ options in the top.

No, wait, there’s more! Oh god, the list scrolls horizontally!

It *never ends*!

Okay, okay, relax. It may look as though I’m drowning in a sea of hyper-specific game information, sure. But it’s not quite as bad as it seems. The first six scenarios are helpfully labeled as tutorials, my ever-present friends in the dark waters of new game territory. Let’s do those first. And I’m sure that, after getting that done, I’ll have all the mental handholds needed to make sense of this incredible mess of possibilities. Right?


Initial impressions

Tutorial one, go!

Go! For everlasting peace!

Unsurprisingly, the tutorial screen looks pretty similar to the title screen background. It’s still the same tiled factory floor, just… less bustle. This particular floor seems empty, except for one wall part that looks for all the world like a conveyor belt disappearing into the grey squared beyond. The image of a blue potion floats above it. Mysteries upon mysteries, this big pharma business.

Looking on, I see a small black tab bar on the left side of the screen, a white bar on the bottom (where I immediately pause the flow of game time, because I don’t need any temporal stresses while learning to play), and a black text plot on the right. The latter is actually the tutorial; that is to say, this is the actual learning-to-play information. It turns out that in lieu of the organized structure some other game tutorials use, Big Pharma is content to just text-dump the whole thing in advance. I could read through the entire tutorial in one go, if I wanted to.

I can even move tutorial window around! Which is good, because that big ‘Big Pharma’ icon is blocking part of the window.

The early tutorial bits are all fairly standard fare. Here is your empty factory plot screen. Move the camera with WASD, or right-click-and-drag, or panning the screen. Zoom with mouse wheel. You get the idea.

And then, just as quickly, I get to the good part. Oh boy! Time to make my own drugs!

Just as soon as the tutorial window stops lampshading that you can move it around.

Making medicine in Big Pharma, I learn, is a combination of ingredients, machines, and ‘concentration’. The weird conveyor belt wall-slot is actually an ‘ingredient importer’: when hooked up to a conveyor belt, it will spew forth an endless supply of… ‘effervescent jackear distillate’. Yeah, that sounds appetizing. Luckily, I’m not running a restaurant; and from a medical point of view, ‘effervescent jackear distillate’ has the potential to be an excellent painkiller.

An excellent painkiller, *and* a good vomit-inducing agent.

The distillate has the potential to be a painkiller… but if that potential was already realized, well, then we wouldn’t need a whole drug factory, would we? Big Pharma’s key word here is ‘concentration’. The active ingredient in the distillate, the stuff that actually does the painkilling, exists in the larger jackear stuff in a certain level of concentration. Level four, to be exact: four parts per thousand, or four parts per million, or some other concentration ratio related to four. The game is never too clear on this.

The active ingredient, the stuff that kills pain and induces nausea, exists at a concentration of four. But in order to actually be active as a painkiller, it needs to have a concentration of at least five. Five to twelve, to be exact: that’s the golden range for pain-killing. Similarly, a concentration between six and fourteen activates the nausea-inducing part of it. And, as you can probably guess, changing that concentration…

Well. That’s where the machines come in.

Look at these fancy futuristic medicine machines.

Two machines are at my call. A Dissolver to lower concentration, and an Evaporator to raise it. And before we continue, can I just say that I’m pretty impressed with how accurate everything is so far? Scientifically speaking. It would have been so easy for a game like this to avoid going into specifics, to make its machines just magical black boxes. But even with my passing high-school chemistry knowledge, I can tell you that most of what I’m seeing here is correct. Yes, the concentration of ingredients is a big thing in drug effectiveness… if probably not the only relevant thing. And yes, you would dissolve and evaporate to lower and raise ingredient combinations.

I mean, you probably wouldn’t do that one step at a time, chaining dozens of identical machines to gradually change it. I figure if you want to dissolve a concentration from eight down to three, you just build a machine that dissolves it down to three. But hey, on the other hand, what do I know? And also, why would any of that matter here? It doesn’t, that’s why. Back to the game!

While you were reading my rambling, I went ahead and built a complete drug pipeline.

Running the effervescent jackear distillate through one Evaporator raises its concentration to five, activating the pain-killing effect. Conveyor belts take care of the ingredient-moving drug work; thanks, belt friends! For my next step, I then run the resulting product — a purple crystal called ‘satagacite crystals’ — into a ‘pill printer’. This machine turns my now-active ingredients into a convenient pill format. Finally, I connect the printing machine to another one of the generic input-output wall slots. Hooking the conveyor belt up to the slot conveys the signal that I’m about to dump pills here; the slot opens on its own, eagerly awaiting the life-saving payload. Or, well. The mildly pain-killing payload.

As soon as the first pill hits the output slot, I’m prompted for a name. The game suggests ‘Tutorialis Ache Punisher’. I instead take a page from Tom Francis’ drug-naming playbook.

Summarized as ‘if you can’t have goofy fun with your pills, what is even the point of doing anything?’

Tutorial one completed! Am I a drug overlord yet? Haha, nope: there’s still tutorials two through six to consider.

In tutorial two, I ‘decide’ to up my med-producing game. Painkillers are a baby drug, strictly entry-level stuff. But what if I could… upgrade them, somehow?

It turns out that in Big Pharma, similar drug effects are combined in a tiered system. Painkillers are the lowest level of the Pain drugs category, a tier 1 drug. But with a little careful concentration-wrangling, it’s possible to upgrade that effect to the second tier: migraine prevention.

First, I unlock more of my factory floor. Bye, two thousand euro! I’ll never forget your sacrifice.

So much more space! And yet, still, not *all* of it.

Then, more machines are needed.

As you’ll remember, the effervescent jackear distillate has a concentration of four. And my current pipeline brings that up to five. But by hovering over the effect tab, I learn how the effect can be upgraded: if I bring the concentration into the 7-to-10 range, and then run the ingredient through an Evaporator machine, I’ll unlock the Eases Migraine effect.

Like so, yeah? This is clearly an immediate and helpful summary.

Two additional Evaporators take the concentration from five to seven. Then, one final Evaporator performs its magic… a pain-killing concentration 7 ingredient comes in, but a migraine-easing concentration 8 ingredient comes out!

On the plus side, this new pill makes me about twice as much money. On the minus side, raising the concentration this high has also activated the nausea effect.

Am I getting the hang of this? I think I’m getting the hang of this.

Tutorial three introduces the ‘exploration’ sub-mechanic. Here, I can hire explorers, and send them out into the world’s untamed wildernesses. For kicks and giggles, yes, but also to find me more interesting ingredients to work with. In Big Pharma, as in real life, a lot of medicinal advancement comes from scouring the jungle for cool-looking plants and beetles. And then crushing those into powder and seeing if they’re any good on toast.

Hello, little beetle! Don’t be afraid. You would make an *excellent* entree.

Similarly, I can hire researchers to design and build new machines for me. Like the Ioniser, a fancy machine that lowers concentration by a whole three points per application!

And probably some other things that aren’t quite included in this tutorial.

And hey, wouldn’t you know it? Combining the juice I get from crushing those beetles with the Ionizer machines leads to an excellent angina treatment! I immediately set up a fancy production line (as dictated by the tutorial), and fun and profits are had by all.

I even use two Pill Printers here. As it turns out, a single Pill Printer actually takes *two* time units to process an ingredient. And since every other machine so far only needs one time unit — ‘day’ — the printer was something of a bottleneck. But adding a second one cleared that right up.

Level 2 cures are nice and all, but do you know where the real money is? The fourth tutorial puts forth that level 3 cures are even better… that is to say, if you can set them up. Going from painkillers to migraine relief was a relatively simple trick, but upgrading that migraine relief to antiseizure medication requires a few more tricks. It requires ‘catalysts’, special colour-coded ingredients that serve to enable upgrade reactions. And it requires mixing different ingredients together…

…in these giant open-air mixing vats…

…and even using fancy shimmy-shakers to ‘change the order of ingredients within a drug’.

You can’t see them very well, but they’re there!

Finally, I have six completed tutorials under my belt. If I’m not a drug-producing master now, I don’t know if I’ll ever become one. It’s time, I think, to whet my teeth on an actual scenario!

…an actual low-grade scenario, sure. But still. I understand now that the massive list of scenarios I saw earlier is actually divided into difficulty-based categories. The lower difficulties have easier goals and less ‘opposition’, but also filter out some of the more advanced research and possibilities. The later scenarios, on the other hand, add extra modifiers: less input slots, crippling starting debts, or every single machine and ingredient unlocked from the start — but you’re not allowed to have any active side effect, ever.

I decide to start with a simple scenario. ‘Earn one million revenue inside ten years’, I can do that. And in preparation of the play style I intend to take, I find the optimal combination of avatar and company name to convey my intentions to the world.

I’m gonna be a *good* person!

Time to rock it, medicine-style. Be back when I’ve won the scenario forever!

Work, my minions! Work, for the glory of… I mean, ‘to supply a sick world with needed medicine’!

Onto page 2. >>


  1. Interesting subject matter, but the game doesn’t explore the darkest depths? Fun for a while, but then you just get into the same routine every game? Colourful graphics and a cheery soundtrack? Truly, Big Pharma is the Tropico of puzzle games. I’ll definitely be getting it, once I can spare the dust.

  2. I bought this game recently and really enjoyed it! It’s fairly simple but complex enough to keep me interested, and I’m only getting into the intermediate-level scenarios. I thought I had a good handle on things, but that trick with the overlapping Autoclave belts shows that I’ve still got a lot to learn!

    P.S. I also recently bought Factorio, largely on your article’s recommendation, and have had a ton of fun with it. I’ve been on some sort of process engineering kick lately, I guess.

    1. One bit of criticism that didn’t end up making the review is that Big Pharma’s tutorial doesn’t quite teach you everything. I’ve heard from people that they didn’t know you can move and rotate machines after buying, for instance. And similarly, the idea that you can have complicated overlapping belt systems — and that the game will sort out the specific details of what goes where — is something that’s never explicitly addressed.

      It is implicitly addressed, though. Do you know where I first picked up that trick? From studying the machine layouts on the title screen.

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