Do you want to build a snowman? Or would you rather build the last bastion of humanity at the end of the world as the planet plunges into an Ice Age. With only late 1800s steam technology to hold back the snow.
Frostpunk is technically a city builder, in that you need to sort out the housing, food and power needs of your handful of survivors. Yet it’s the survival side of the game that provides the real challenge. The temperature starts out well below zero and drops lower over time, which makes it harder to provide liveable housing, harder to grow the food you need and harder to keep everything warm.
Unlike other city builders, which tend more toward freeform, endless building, Frostpunk has a handful of scenarios providing specific challenges. The first scenario, which you’ll need to beat to unlock the next, is also probably the best, as it’s mostly a straight up race against an incoming storm.
Things start out fairly simple as each scenario has a few piles of junk conveniently lying around the crater surrounding your central generator, getting you started with some wood, metal and coal. Tell your people to wade into the snow and bring materials to your storage tent and they’ll trudge off. Before you start building streets and heaters they’ll actually forge paths through the snow on their way to gather materials, tracks which fill up with snow over time. This is basically all I have ever wanted in a city building simulator…
Anyway, once you’ve got a few tents set up, a medical facility, maybe a hunting lodge and cookhouse to provide food, you’re ready to tackle the larger challenge of building a sustainable settlement.
To get started you’ll want a workshop, as that’s where all your research happens. You’ve got to make some tough choices here, as getting better generators and heaters will doubtless help in the long term, as the cold is a constant threat. But in the short term you’ll want a beacon, allowing you to scout the wasteland beyond the city. A hothouse to grow your own food. Or a coal mine to… well, mine coal.
Everything that provides heat requires coal, in increasingly greater amounts. If you build too many steam hubs or run the heaters 24/7 you may run out of coal, causing your central generator to shut down. It does so gracefully, cooling off over time, which gives you a chance to shut off some heaters to lower your coal usage, or to ramp up your coal production if possible. This desperate hunger for coal can be ameliorated by researching efficiency techs for the heaters, but also alternative means of generating coal. Including a “Coal Thumper” which… well, it’s fracking, okay? The world has already ended, it’s fine.
Alongside the research system there’s a choice of various laws to enact. Want to put the children to work? You can do that. Provide palliative care to gravely ill people, or chop off frostbitten limbs and replace them with prosthetics? There’s a series of choices, where enacting one option may lock you out of others. You can’t change an enacted law, you must live with the consequences, good or bad. Later you even need to choose between becoming a police state to keep the peace, or a (nondenominational) religious one. There are no “best” choices here, though the game itself may judge you more harshly if you choose the more morally troubling laws. Children really shouldn’t be working in the coal or logging industries, but desperate times can call for desperate measures.
In between all the building, researching and lawbringing you’ll send scouts out into the frozen wasteland surrounding your settlement. Points of interest on the map can be explored, revealing stashes of supplies or fellow survivors, or complex moral decisions. Do you bring sick survivors back, where they’ll clog your medical centers, or do you leave them to die and take all their stuff? If you see a group of survivors on the map you can send your scouts to intercept, bringing them in a lot faster. If you’re in the middle of a labour shortage, this is great! If you don’t have any food or material to build new shelters, maybe leave them out there a bit longer?
Each scenario has a different end goal. The main storyline has you try and survive an epic storm that rolls in after around a month. Before the storm arrives you’ll need to recall your scouts and outpost teams, removing that source of materials. Once the storm arrives your hothouses and hunter cottages will shutdown, meaning no more raw food coming in. You’ll need to have enough rations stockpiled to see you through.
Coal production will continue, at least to begin with. You’ll want an upgraded generator, heaters and steam hubs to fend off the cold so it’s good to have a huge coal stockpile ahead of time. Especially as the cold can, eventually, cripple your coal mines as tunnels collapse and machinery freezes.
Even with enough coal to burn, the temperature can get as low as -100 degrees celsius, which is almost impossible to make comfortable for people in their own homes, much less their workplaces. If you haven’t been researching the heating technologies you probably won’t even make it this far, as everyone would have frozen two weeks earlier.
And that’s the brilliance of Frostpunk. What seem trivial choices early on can lead to utter ruination or a mad scramble to get everything done in time. It can be tough deciding whether to save some refugees when your existing population is struggling, but those tough choices have to be made by someone. And at the end of the game you’re treated to a timelapse of your city being built, with overlayed text judging you for all the children mashed by your coal frackers. You monster.