Nieuwe Aarde

Explore, Expand, Exploit... Escape

Free Download
Mandible Games

Nieuwe Aarde was created in 48 hours for the "islands" Ludum Dare contest. The developer describes it as "inspired by Desktop Dungeons and Seafarers of Catan." The narrative premise is very simple: your world is dying, and you must expand and accumulate enough resources to fight off rampaging monsters while slowing accumulating enough surplus magical energy to escape to a "new Earth" (Nieuwe Aarde is Dutch for "new Earth" or "new soil" -- the same double meaning as earth in English).

This thin but sufficient plot is like a fantasy version of Creeper World, but Nieuwe Aarde isn't tower defense -- instead, it's a focused and original turn-based 4x game. Each turn, you take one action, building cities (which provide manpower and collect natural resources), scouting, sailing (establishing sea lanes), building expensive but essential mana-generating lodestones, or issuing a "work" order, which increases productivity in cities. You can also raise unwanted structures and, when you're ready to win the game, click the "Escape" button to do so.

Not enough games have a "win the game" button. Of course, there's a hitch: you need a fantastic amount of magic to "Escape." And every so often, a monster attacks. This is where the game's originality and appealing abstraction shines. There are no combat units in Nieuwe Aarde, and no micromanaging (don't get me wrong, I like micromanagement -- some of the time). When a monster attacks, you have two options: fight it (spending enough metal and mana in combination to defeat it) or just stay out of the way and let it rampage. All of the structures that it will destroy if you let it run blink red, so you have to weigh the cost of fighting versus how expensive and how long it will take to rebuild.

Each monster is about twice as tough as the last, so as you explore and expand, you move inexorably toward peak resource production in the face of ceaselessly increasing "demand" -- a "game for change" about global demand for fossil fuels could easily be built on this chassis. Initially, food (for scouting) and wood (for shipbuilding) are especially important, then you hit the crunch of needing lots of metal to forge lodestones and needing to save as much mana as possible in order to Escape, but also needing to spend Metal and mana to defeat monsters. As a 48-hour project, the balance isn't perfect -- running out of food late in the game is a real threat -- but I've never had to worry about having enough population (provided by cities) to crew my ships and tend my lodestones.

The game's developer has said that he'd hoped to capture the aspect of Desktop Dungeons in which "almost every single move is critically important," and failed -- but the game still has some of the same puzzle-y feel of Desktop Dungeons. Building a city is a substantial use of resources, and lodestones are terribly expensive. Most of the strategy in the game is in deciding what to build where, and when. When you know that there's a monster attacking in a few turns, the game's simple decisions can become tense.

Being a 48-hour game, Nieuwe Aarde lacks the replayability of Desktop Dungeons, but it does capture the same quick-play, turn-based feel, and I've played through it several times -- which I rarely do with compo games. It would be great if the developer decided to add a few features, such as a less click-intensive way of adding resources to a battle against a monster, and possibly a "blind" mode in which the player doesn't know exactly when the next monster attack will be -- but the game is playable and replayable right now. It's solidly better balanced and more interesting than some strategy games I've spent good money on (Legio, for example, was particularly disappointing). I'm going to have to take a look at Mandible Games's archive - he's got quite a backlist of "monthly" projects.