To me, the best moments of a city-building game are always the beginnings, when there’s nothing but potential ahead of you. Things are manageable, the world is unspoiled, the pace is slow. To me, that’s idyllic. And if ever a game understood that, it’s Farthest Frontier.
It’s a game about a group of working class people fed up with being shat on by the rich, in the big city where they live, so they strike out for the literal farthest frontier to make it on their own. It’s that fantasy. The era is the birth of the Industrial Revolution, maybe – it’s not explicitly clear. And that’s how it begins: a dozen people and a caravan and an endless wilderness around them to tame.
What I love about what comes next is how unhurriedly it happens, and how small-scale it continues to be. Farthest Frontier is not about going from dozens to thousands, from village to sprawling metropolis, and that zooming out you then feel as the person in charge. It’s about staying small and staying close to the people you’re caring for. It’s probably wrong to call it a city-builder at all but rather a town-builder, because even many hours in, from what I’ve read, settlements are still only a few hundred people big (apparently the game struggles performance-wise past that, but it is Early Access).
This, then, is a game that wants to hold onto that opening moment feeling. In my first hour – three years in the game – I did little more than build four houses, a fishing hut, a hunting lodge, a forager hut, a graveyard, a smoke house and a storage yard. I survived the seasons on a diet of foraged berries and a bit of meat, killed two wolves, had one villager bitten by a bear and die of rabies, and welcomed three new babies to the world. That same bear came back to terrorise my village, forcing everyone to run inside and hide, but it went away again and so my idyllic way of life continued. My settlement is 16 people big.
There’s no hurry. It allows you time to let the tranquillity of the game wash over you – the gentle music, the sprawling natural world, the simplicity of surviving. It gives you time to lean in and take an interest in the small lives playing out in front of you, to watch them go about their daily work, to know their names, to check their needs are being met. It’s a warm and relaxing place to be.
But that’s only an hour – how long it can hold off the inevitable complications for, I don’t really know. I do know some are coming, particularly in the form of raiders who want to pillage my town. And the game is showing me I will eventually need guards and soldiers and lookout towers to defend against them. The game is also showing me I will eventually want schools and soap makers and all kinds of things that seem far too luxurious in my current predicament, but nothing too advanced to completely alter the way of life here. There’s always a sense that Farthest Frontier will try to be the fairytale place the workers ran away to, not a recreation of it. And I like it. It’s off to a great start.