‘Indie Wonderland’: Clockwork Empires, Or The Curious Case Of The Review That Didn’t Happen

This one might get a little meta.

Long-term readers might remember that in the past I’ve been a very vocal fan of Gaslamp Games‘s Dungeons of Dredmor. Still a fan, in fact, I’m just less vocal about it. I didn’t just write a praise-filled review on the still-defunct Blue Screen of Awesome, but later followed that up with a four-page in-depth screed about all the reasons I loved that game. Ninjustin and I even had tentative plans to use Dungeons of Dredmor as the basis for a charity donation drive event. Donations for Dredmor, we’d call it. Hell, that might still pan out someday — TM, TM, TM, and all that.

So when Gaslamp Games announced their second game, Clockwork Empires, a steampunk- and Chthonic-inspired colony builder, I… I generally try to not get swept up in hype, ever since Oblivion did what Oblivion does. But I was more invested in Clockwork Empires than I usually am in games in development. I really kept up with the dev blogs for a while. I checked the Steam page for news and release dates. I even found myself tentatively planning what I’d do with Clockwork Empires when it came out: Review it for Indie Wonderland, or maybe use it as the basis for another Let’s Play? The sky was the limit in those halcyon days. I didn’t actually engage with the game when it hit Early Access, because I’ve got weird documented hangups about Early Access, but I waited.

And then Clockwork Empires actually came out. I’ll give you a moment to search the site for how much I’ve written about it since release. I’ll give you another moment to figure out where out site’s search functionality is hiding. A third, final moment is reserved for the realization that I just deliberately asked you to waste your time; yeah, it’s nothing. I got Clockwork Empires on release, and I even played it a bunch, and then I never mentioned it on the site or wrote anything about.

It turns out that Clockwork Empires just kind of sucks.

Or at least, it did suck. It’s been months since I played it; my last screenshot is dated November 20th, 2016. Might be that it got real good after I stopped playing. Might not be. A quick browse through the Steam reviews seems to reveal that Gaslamp Games stopped all work on Clockwork Empires in December of that year, so I think my take is probably still accurate.

Truth be told, I didn’t write about Clockwork Empires back when I played because I was disappointed. That’s not a good reason to not write; in fact, if anything, a disappointing game should get more press. But for the longest time, I just didn’t want to. I wanted this game to be good, and it wasn’t, and then I just wanted to not think about it again. But I did keep all my screenshots from that play time. I don’t know what’s driving me to write about it right now; maybe I just want to get some lingering disappointment off my chest. Maybe I think a late warning is better than no warning. Maybe there are lessons to be learned from the ways Clockwork Empires disappointed. Or maybe the triple-A game releases in 2017 are off the chain and I’m lagging behind on my indie game coverage like some kind of rank amateur. You choose.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, not really a factor as far as I know. Mechanical, high-ish.)

(Game source: Bought it myself)

Clockwork Empires

Options and mood-setting, for what it’s worth.

As far as I see, Clockwork Empires disappointed for three broad reasons. Miraculously, you’ll find that these three reasons sync up really well with the three ‘times’ I played the game (i.e. the three discrete colonies I built); it’s almost like my personal experiences influence my perception of things! Fancy that.

My first disappointment with Clockwork Empires is that it’s unintuitive.

What the hell is even happening here?

Of the three, this is probably the point that’ll get the least support in a wider audience. Not only is ‘unintuitive’ a personal-feeling judgment, but I can already hear a chorus of voices warming up to ask, ‘who cares?’ A game being unintuitive doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, or so the conventional wisdom goes: Put your time in or read a guide and it’ll still be worth it if the material underneath is good. And I’ve played Dark Souls, so.

Still, Clockwork Empires is unintuitive to the point of harming not just the opening, but all levels of play. It’s almost willfully obtuse.

I started my first Clockwork Empires in good spirits and with almost no foreknowledge. Say what you will about the state of games development in the year of our Luigi 2017, but one thing I’m a big fan of in modern games is that you can generally expect to be coaxed into gameplay one way or another. And fair’s fair, Clockwork Empires does have a decent opening tutorial.

Yay, guidance!

That explains about… Twenty percent of the stuff you need to know to succeed.

Okay, now what?

But then I’m one to talk, 900 words in and I haven’t even explained the game yet. Clockwork Empires is a colony-building game that shares visual flair and theme with games like Banished, world-building and sense of humor with Dungeons of Dredmor (surprisingly), and the lion’s share of its DNA with Dwarf Fortress. Its intent is to be a more hands-off game: Rather than giving you direct control over every aspect of every thing, it puts layers of menus and middle management between your people and your goals. Literally middle management, but more on that in a bit.

The first expression of this you’ll run into is that you generally don’t directly order your colonists around. Rather, at the start, you give a variety of broad orders: Level this piece of terrain, mine these minerals, build these buildings, chop that tree in half. Your crew will then organize into ‘work crews’, and assign the jobs among themselves. The process is a bit arcane, but I’m given to understand poshness is involved.

Pictured: The arcane process by which a colonist forms a work crew — with a name — decides on a job, and undertakes it. This man is chopping trees!

Initially, this works, kinda. It can take a little bit before registered jobs get picked up, but that’s acceptable. Things get a little hazier when you start putting down more jobs than you have crew. Which is easier than it sounds: A big tree chopping job counts as one job, but a big job of harvesting several mushroom fields might get split up into several smaller jobs, without your say. And trying to level terrain — which is necessary for building buildings — can really spool out of control.

Confusing the issue further is the fact that not all colonists are alike. Two types of people live in your colony: Overseers and Laborers. Overseers are the colonists that actually form work crews and select jobs. If the crew is called Ebenezer Peleg’s Fancy Rock Folk, then the Overseer is Ebenezer Peleg. He might also be the only person on the crew. Crews can be further expanded with Laborers. Overseers have particular skills and skill levels, but Laborers are essentially a fungible commodity that you can assign to or drop off from crews at-will. Laborers add hands to a crew: A crew of one Overseer and one Laborer is going to be twice as good at chopping trees as just the one Overseer, just because there’s two people chopping. Speaks for itself, almost. The connection isn’t always quite that clear, so enjoy it while it lasts.

Your colony starts with seven Overseers and two Laborers. I’m sure that’s a commentary on something.

See if you can spot how I assigned my Laborers.

Things get a little more muddled once you start constructing buildings. The building itself is a job like any other, but once it stands, the rules change: Unlike other jobs, you can actually manually assign Overseers/work crews to particular buildings. You have to, if you want them to actually work! Assining an Overseer to a building locks their time and attention to that building forever, or until you release them again.

Look at this great Carpentry Workshop! Don’t ask me how I built it without access to a carpentry workshop.

But simply assigning an Overseer to a building isn’t enough. First, the building needs to have one or more points of operation, what Clockwork Empires tends to call modules. The Carpentry Workshop shown above has one Carpentry Workbench. Then, you must select the building, then select the module from a list, and then select what you want the module to produce, from another list. Then select how many of the order the module should produce, or alternatively, select that the job is a repeating job and indicate what level of stock the module should try to keep up. It’s the difference between ‘saw 20 planks’ and ‘keep sawing planks as long as we have less than 20’.

It’s so simple I don’t even know why I bother explaining it to you.

And then your workers finally get to work! If you’re lucky.

‘Building buildings’ is already a more involved process in and by of itself. That Carpentry Workshop looks simple, but that’s because it’s the simplest possible Carpentry Workshop you can build. All buildings have a variety of modules you can add to them: Some are operational modules like the Workbench, some are mood-boosting decorations, like vases and rugs, some add more functionality, like bigger and better doors. And some are windows, which are just windows. You add modules to the building during construction, or at any point down the line.

What quickly happened in my first play is that I decided to be smart. I saw that you could add multiple modules to a workshop, and I saw that adding Laborers to the Carpenter work crew didn’t seem to do very much. So I figured, hey: They just need space to work! Luckily the Carpentry Workshop has space for plenty modules: The normal Carpentry Workbench, an ‘Assembly Workbench’ which makes trade goods, something that makes ‘furniture’… You can double up on types of modules too, if you want! So I added one more Carpentry Bench and one Assembly bench and set my crew of two people to work making planks, mine shorings, and fancy goods.

Then I ran out of planks.

Which led to me constructing a bunk house without having the wood required to add any *doors*.

It turns out that when you have three jobs and two workers, a magical arcane process kicks in that decides for them which ones to actually do. The intent, I’m pretty sure, is that you can order your jobs manually, with the top-most ones in the queue getting priority. Not that the game ever told me this. Or not that I’m sure about this. I’ve had situations where the top-most job was clearly being skipped over, even though I had the necessary raw materials. I think.

My first play of Clockwork Empires was full of moments like this. Even with the tutorial’s decent help, I kept running into situations that made me wonder how anything worked. Job assignment, job ordering. How to build sleeping arrangements. How to get more people. How to get food after the wild fungus runs out. How to build defense. How to not get harassed by fishmen all the time. How to defend your colony against a monstrous awaked obeliskoid, summoned by one of my own cultists for reasons entirely unknown.

This wasn’t in the brochures.

Which, hey, segues into my second point of disappointment: Clockwork Empires is unrelenting. And I know that’ll sound like a good thing to some people, the ‘failing is fun’ crowd, but in Clockwork Empires is honestly really isn’t.

I put a stop to my first colony when it became clear that I was in, as I’m sure economists around the world want to call it but never can, a death spiral. Partially because of my poor resource throughput and lack of food production, and partially because of all the deaths. My second colony fared a bit better: Having learned some lessons from the first, I was able to avoid a bunch of rookie mistakes and set up something that sort-of worked. Enough storage space in the center of town. A farm and a sizable kitchen. Not too many jobs at once, and focus on the resources I need at the time. In a more charitable mood, I might even say that this progression from game to game could be considered part of the learning curve and of the overall experience — I did get better.

Look at this nice colony! It’s going so well, I could even spare the manpower to plant some flowers.

Which is not to say there wasn’t any confusion left, and I realize this is technically dipping back into my previous point a little. Past the basics, Clockwork Empires is still jam-packed with poorly-explained and poorly-understood systems. You need a Naturalist to mine, and to hunt, and also to research. If you build one Barracks to guard your people, they’ll continue to complain even after you staff it; it turns out that Barracks squads only patrol during the day or night, and that you have to toggle this manually. For the longest time I didn’t know where to get sand. You’d think it’s easy enough to get sand, but no dice. And sand is needed for glass, which is needed for fancy houses and for research — because research needs bottles, you see, that’s how research works. There’s something about the quality level of different foods and different kinds of drinks and haircuts and churches and foreign relations, and, and, and…

As your colony grows, so does — if you’ve been building new houses — your worker pool. And as you build more workshops and buildings, your options increase geometrically. It becomes more and more difficult almost as a matter of course to keep track of all the stuff you’re doing, all the stuff you can do, and all the stuff you were still intending on doing. None of this is helped by any kind of convenient information presentation, because Clockwork Empires hates your guts when it comes to that. Since all resource streams are based on discrete packet transfer and up to the whims of your colonists, it’s impossible to get a good (Factorio-esque) overview of how much of any good goes into and out of your colony. Like, say, food. You can get an indication of whether it’s been going up or down, but that’s it. You’ll be chasing log jams of some form of another most of the time: Now this resource has run out, now that production line has stopped for no reason. Even with the best intentions, and having the idea that you know what you’re doing, it’s still hard to keep track of everything.

And that’s before Clockwork Empires starts hitting you with events, and generally bad stuff.

Suddenly there are skeletons dancing in my place.

Clockwork Empires is a game where a lot of things are happening all the time. Even if you’re not aware of all the systems, they’re definitely aware of you. Each of them impacts you over time, and pretty much all of them hate you. Your colony is always on or near a fishman trading route, so you’re gonna have to deal with the fishmen. Be too nice and they walk all over you, be too aggressive and they’ll be super aggressive in return. Colonists form and join cults all the time, which tends to end poorly for everyone involved and lots of people not involved if not stamped out. Traders come and go, and on the background, a complex web of international relations shifts to and fro, detailing how your country of Not-England interacts with Not-Germany, Not-France, and Not-Russia.

Each of these things can pop up and mess with you at any time.

Good. This is what I wanted right now.

Sure, on the surface, this is part of where the fun comes from. I understand that idea and in essence I agree. Clockwork Empires wasn’t just billed as a steampunk colony simulator, but an eldritch steampunk colony simulator. And the first time you see a colonist slip on dark robes and walk towards a weird eyeball altar, it’s pretty cool! Even if you can’t do anything about it immediately.

I have no idea what any of this is or means.

But cool as they are, these things do impact your bottom line. Often in ways you can’t control directly, or even indirectly. When skeletons come to dance in your colony and you didn’t build a church yet — churches are fancy and expensive and require lacquered wood, what kind of fancy place do you even think we’re running here — for the next few days your colonists are going to be anxious, and panicked, and prone to work less and sulk around more. If fishmen skulk around the colony’s edge, any worked who spots them — say, when they walk to a tree they’ve been meaning to cut — will panic and run away, dropping their work for a time. Then they’ll recover and make for the tree again… and panic again if the fishmen are still there, you get the idea. Unless you know how to turn it off, your workers will harvest the weird alien spores you sometimes find, and store them with the rest of your goods… Which means that when the spores awaken and start throwing around psionic explosions, all your stuff is going up in flames.

Not that I would know anything about that.

And this keeps going.

Clockwork Empires makes no affordances for how well you may or may not be doing. Clockwork Empires makes no affordances for anything, honestly. It’s easy enough for one bad event to knock your complicated and hard-to-parse resource chain out of alignment, invisibly setting you up for (say) clay shortage or lack of wine down the line if the wrong people die. And it’s even easier for a second event to come into play when you’re still dealing with the first event. Not even the fallout of the first event, just the first event proper.

You can call this ‘challenging’ if you feel like being charitable. If I was still extending goodwill to Clockwork Empires I might even agree with you. But it’s one thing to be challenging in a game that’s otherwise well put together and easy to parse. It’s another thing entirely to get sidetracked by a life-or-death challenge when you’re still trying to figure out where to get that bloody sand.

It turns out you *mine* for sand. No, really.

If you’re not playing a near-perfect game, Clockwork Empires will over time grind you down, with layer on layer of unfeeling, uncalculated garbage. There’s not even any intelligence behind it, that’s the worst part. Most events are in some way traceable to the game’s systems, once you know what you’re doing, but there seems to be no AI Director-equivalent dishing them out at a steady pace. It’s not just that God rolls dice, it’s that God rolls dice, loses interest in the outcome of the roll before the dice even stop, and then grabs for a new pair. And all the while, it’s always possible for your colony to get messed through entirely mundane affairs as well: A food shortage you can’t quite trace, or maybe the mine hasn’t yielded iron in a while, or no work crews are willing to pick up the lumberjacking job… I lost count of the number of times that much-needed trader caravans jumped ship because they met one angry fishman between the map’s edge and my trading depot. Yeah, that’s a thing that happens. Single fishman, they just run off.

My second colony met an untimely end after enemy invasion. But not in the way you think. I got a pop-up at one point warning me that the Empire had declared war on… hold on… ‘Novorusia’. As part of that war, a Novorusian war party was on its way to my colony! I had only days to prepare, assign more workers to the Barracks squads, build defenses, and ask allies for help.

I won’t lie, this was interesting.

And I did pull through! A dozen people died in the skirmish, but with the help of my allies, my guns, and some carefully-placed land mines, the colony lived to see another day.

Not all those ‘Tragic Deaths’ are mine.

Thirty minutes of play later, I got news of another war declaration.

Ah, I see. This is how it’s gonna be.

I sat through three consecutive Novorusian invasions before I sussed out what I missed: I was supposed to use a Foreign Office to keep up relationships with all the foreign powers. Apparently. I abandoned ship before the fourth invasion warning could hit.

The third colony, I finally put all my lessons to use. Walled-off storage space that’s not in the center of town, check. Good resource supply lines, check. Early mining and research, check. Foreign office, check. Building a church as soon as I can, check.

All was well, and all manner of thing was well.

That’s when I learned, to my third and final disappointment, that Clockwork Empires is ultimately uninteresting.

It’s a little tricky to say ‘once you’ve done everything, there’s nothing left to do’, because yeah, obviously. But remember that Clockwork Empires wants to share its DNA with Dwarf Fortress, that infamous game of playing forever and building megastructures and then getting killed by rampaging elephants or something like that. Dwarf Fortress, for all the criticism you could rightfully level at it, has a long tail. In fact, I’d argue that that’s an important metric of any city/colony builder — The amount of things you can do and the amount of things you will want to do after you functionally reach a winnable state.

Clockwork Empires has… very little of that.

It has *some*.

I could talk about this at length, but the core issue underlying everything is simply this: The game doesn’t have enough interesting content to go the distance. Once you get past the learning curves, the bad controls, and the random nonsense, it’s almost trivially easy to finish up everything. I wouldn’t say that my third colony was particularly good, but I still managed to build everything up to and including a Steam Knight Workshop, more or less the ultimate building. I figured out a way to build houses such that they were of the perfect size for the people coming in. I set up resource pipelines that kept my citizens in food and booze forever. I could have kept expanding all across the map, if I wanted to. I know that’s a thing some people go for; it’s not my jam, but if you want to turn the whole world into a flat plane and cram it full of houses, Clockwork Empires does deliver.

All the while, though, Clockwork Empires will keep serving you content. Lots of content, over and over. I said earlier that it doesn’t have enough interesting content to go the distance, but that’s no problem: What it lacks in quality, it tries to make up in quantity. Specifically, repetition. Extra specifically, I hope you like alien meteor showers and fishmen raids. Because you’ll be seeing a lot of these.

A friend once told me (you know who you are) that from a certain perspective it’s impressive to note that Clockwork Empires did fulfill most or all of its promises. It’s definitely a steampunk-Victorian colony builder with ties to Dungeons of Dredmor. It definitely has its own strange work crew system. And it does deliver on the promise of weirdness: It has fishmen in spades, weird cults, ancient artifacts, alien invasions, obelisks from beyond, books that vanish into and out of existence, maddening dreams… But repetition is anathema to horror. And if there’s one thing that’s core to the Clockwork Empires experience, it’s repetition. The fishmen become a nuisance instead of an interesting event the third-or-so time they visit, which is to say, one hour in. The Selenian spores are mostly annoying, either ticking time bombs or red spots you have to tell your workers not to pick up. Enemy invasions are rough, until you learn to preempt them forever. And so many other things, the dreams and the cults and the deeper weirdness… The farther you get into the game, the easier it is to just deal with them. Once you have a church and a vicar, you can just banish the evil spirits. You can just tell your colonists to not dream weird dreams. A barracks squad can fight off a cult before their plans come to fruition. And generally, the happier your colonists get, the less likely these things are to begin with.

I guess you could see that as a victory condition. ‘My colony is now so efficient, it’s super boring in all respects.’

This sounds like a thing that *could* be super interesting. It’s not, though. I don’t even remember what it means.

There is no fun story about the end of my third colony. I just didn’t want to play anymore. It didn’t feel like an ending, or an achievement, even though I did unlock all starting options and terrain biomes for later games. I wanted this game to be fun, to be what it was trying to be, and it gets so tantalizingly close at times… But at the end, I found I was playing just because I was playing. Making the numbers go up while I listened to a podcast. That that line could describe any clicker game equally well makes me sad. In the end, I walked away from Clockwork Empires not feeling fulfilled, or engaged, or even necessarily angry. I just felt…

There’s a common sentiment on the Steam forums that Clockwork Empires as-is feels like it never left Early Access. I haven’t played Early Access, so I can’t really comment on that. But if Gaslamp Games jumped in tomorrow and announced that they were pulling Clockwork Empires back in for a second development pass, I’d still be interested. There’s a core of narrative potential here, a spark, and I’d love to see that come to life.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Jarenth is getting back to nice, non-depressing reviews next week, honest. Probably. Follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam for moral support. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

2 comments

  1. Man, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard similar sentiments about Clockwork Empires, but it’s such a shame. It’s a really good premise but I guess they couldn’t quite pull it off in an interesting fashion. (to be fair, I’ve bounced off most of its most obvious inspirations and contemporaries – notably Rimworld and Dwarf Fortress)

    One thing I will say is that your comment about replayability and variety reminded me of Banished, a game which, while technically a colony builder I suppose, definitely feels like it can be ‘beaten’ and there’s an end state. It’s much more simple and is mostly about supply management and logistics (i.e. do I have enough food and firewood do get through the winter, repeat until done) than complex production chains or whatever, but I enjoyed my time getting to that end state Banished definitely has.

    1. I mention Banished as a stylistic influence early on, yeah. But I haven’t actually played it, so I couldn’t say anything about the mechanical comparisons.

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