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Before We Leave is built on the basic principles of the classic 4x genre, except it’s actually more of a 3x game. It eschews combat an violence entirely, focusing solely on the other three Xs: explore, expand and exploit. It describes itself as a “non-violent city-building game set in your own cosy corner of the universe.” But can we really enjoy a strategy game without the ever-present threat of war and annihilation? Can we truly be content living peacefully? I mean, how will I be entertained without chainsawing someone in half?
Your people (called Peeps for some reason) emerge from the safety of their underground bunker into a lush world, unsure of their future but ready to start a new life. All that’s left of humanity’s last go around are some decaying ruins, monuments to whatever calamity befell them. But it seems the human race hasn’t learned too much from its mistakes because before long you’ll be smelting iron, pulling up oil from the ground and presumably doing all of the things that screwed everything up before. Despite the game’s beauty, the premise is actually sort of bleak. (but it did pique my interest in construction for a bit. I wonder how to get into construction?). I wonder if that’s deliberate, or an accidental by-product of the developer’s design.
You’ll start with the basics, setting up things like a woodcutter to gather lumber, houses to for your starting population and a few potato farms. Before We Leave works on a hex-based tile system and almost every type of thing you can place will get a benefit from being adjacent to something else. For example, a farm will get more storage space when placed next to another farm, or a 10% boost in production speed if it’s next to a house or well. It’s a smart system that encourages you to plan out your placement in advance, although because I have all the forward planning skills of the United Kingdom’s government I mostly just made it up as I went along.
Pretty much everything needs to be hooked up to roads, though, and they take up potentially useful tiles. On top of that only certain things will work on specific tiles – try as you might an orchard just won’t grow on sand. With the fact that your island has limited space and that you’ll want to keep pollution producing buildings away from food and housing added to the mix there’s a nice layer of space management going on. If you just slap things down willy-nilly you’ll wind up having to demolish some stuff later.
Notice that I said pollution. By constructing an explorers’ hut you can start snatching up the remnants of ancient technology scattered around the land, then use a library to research it. Before long you’ll be mining rusting hulks for iron, smelting it and using it to build tools and produce steel, or refining crude oil into fuel to run power plants. These industrial style buildings will pump out pollution which affect the nearby tiles, so it’s best to keep them away from the main chunk of your town. Later you can unlock more green options like turbines, but pollution remains a persistent issue.
You can’t find everything you need on your starting island, mind you. Some resources and the different colours of research you need to progress can only be found elsewhere, so you’ll want to build a ship an start colonizing other lands. As it turns out your Peeps don’t like other environments without decent clothing, so you’ll also need to start looking into making comfy garments for your folk. There’s a nice thrill to scouting out a few islands and then finally sending out a colony ship to settle a new town.
It won’t take long before you have multiple islands, and that’s where a big focus of Before We Leave comes into play; shipping supplies. Using a very basic menu you can set ships to hauling resources and goods back and forth between your islands. In this way certain areas can be focused toward producing something specific, or maybe supplying more food. As you’d expect you can name your islands, too.
The good news is that Before We Leave sticks to its chilled out goal, and so even when you’re struggling to set up a new island properly you can never actually fail. At worst your Peeps can get hungry or lethargic and refuse to work, but even then you can patiently dig your way back out of the hole you unceremoniously fell face-first into. For more hardcore strategy fans the lack of failure could be a problem, but personally I enjoyed just kicking back and knowing that no matter what stupid decision I made a dozen hours before that came back to bite me in the ass it could be remedied.
As you move through the tech tree and think you’ve got a handle on everything the game presents its party trick: a spaceship to repair. If you can gather the materials needed to get it up and running then you can launch into space and colonize a whole other planet in your solar system. Now that you’re a spacefaring race, albeit in ships that appear to be made largely out of wood, there’s a whole new set of research materials to be gathered and technology to learn. Plus, space comes with a few cool surprises, one that I feel like shouldn’t be ruined despite the game’s description talking about it.
The sleek interface makes jumping between islands and entire planets a doddle, though I would have liked it if you could zoom out of a planet to the solar system view instead of using a button to switch between them. Just like when you were only dealing with islands you have to consider moving materials between planets, so your next big goal is likely going to be setting up launch and landing pads for spacecraft. This is Before We Leave at its most challenging an un-chilled, but even as you consider where things have to be sent it’s never stressful in the way other strategy games can often be.
With the more relaxed style however, comes a few potential problems for genre veterans. There’s a lack of micro control in the sense that you can’t dictate specifically where a Peep works or how you can’t specify how much of a material should be allocated for a specific building. And it can be hard to figure a few things out, like how you’ll be told some workers are idle due to hunger or thirst but aren’t given a way to figure out exactly where the problem is. There’s also no statistics to figure out how much of something you’re producing versus its actual demand, instead there’s green or red arrows telling you if the amount is going up or down.
But honestly I don’t think these issues are going to damage the game much for the majority of players. I do, however, think that the loss of combat coupled with the simpler gameplay style can make the game feel a little hollow. I don’t feel a strong urge to go back and fire up a new game, even with the randomized nature of the maps. It could do with something to fill the hole left by the combat. But then, at just £15 there’s nothing wrong with Before We Leave giving you a fun dozen hours of colonizing and leaving it at that.
There are some other issues worth talking about, a couple of them being familiar to strategy fans. There’s going to be some periods where you’re just waiting around like a chump for resources to arrive by ship or for your Peeps to hurry up and finish making the steel you need. And getting to the end of the tech tree feels…anti-climatic.
Visually there’s no technological boundaries being pushed in Before We Leave, but there is an adorable art style. Your little Peeps wobble around the map as they go about their work, and I especially like how the hexagonal clouds pop in and out of existence as you bring the camera in closer or move it farther out. Further into the game you get a tad more variety too, like snow environments. Hopefully we might get to see more biomes introduced in updates.
I’m actually surprised by how disarmingly cute, charming and engaging Before We Leave really is. I’ve always been able to fire up strategy games and wind up losing a few hours before I’ve realized what’s happening, but Before We Leave is especially good at it. It’s the perfect lazy evening game for when you kind of want to build up a colony and watch it grow but don’t fancy all the moral schtick of Frostpunk or the complexity of something like Cities Skylines. Balancing Monkey Games have done a terrific job.