Developers of city management sims have to make a choice. Either create a super-complex ultra-detailed capital-S simulation of a settlement - which will become a cult-favourite among a relatively small group of gamers - or create something more basic and accessible, in hopes of reaching a wider audience.
Now, I’d argue that by setting the game on distant worlds and wrapping it in a traditional sci-fi story, Aven Colony has already jammed itself into a niche. So making the actual game with, shall we say, app-level complexity may not have been developer Mothership’s best decision...
...until you realise this is a multi-platform release, also available on Xbox and PlayStation. And that explains everything.
Because this game has to play on a TV, there are no screens full of hundreds of tiny icons and labels. There’s limited granularity - colonies can enact various “policies” (like rationing, martial law etc), but individual colonists are entirely AI-controlled.
Aven also has an odd pace. It’s a pausable, real-time simulation, and it’s possible to accelerate time, but the game-world experiences one full year every few minutes. As the colony grows, the pace of the player’s clicking accelerates as constant crises, large and small, internal and exeternal, crop up.
About a third of each year is the planet’s brutal winter, where solar power plants produce less electricity, and farms produce less food. This means injudicious building during summer can leave the colony without adequate power through winter. This is one of the primary strategic considerations during colony design.
The other, strangely dominant, consideration is the connection of buildings via tunnels. The game-world is a grid, and buildings can be placed flush against each other, but colonists (perhaps understandably) don’t like having to walk through a geothermal power plant to get to their greenhouse job, or to a retail centre.
A smart manager will position buildings one square apart, and fill the gap with a tunnel. Colonists prefer to travel in tunnels, and an adequate tunnel network will prevent “commute penalties” sapping colony morale.
Of the various resource levels - water, food, power, air quality, crime, entertainment, commute - it’s morale that can end a game with the most capricious speed.
Seemingly at random, the colonial governor (ie the player) must survive a referendum. Morale translates directly to votes. Keep morale above 50%, and the game continues. Drop below, and it’s scenario over.
In some ways, Aven is more of a tactical colony management sim, rather than strategic. There’s little scope for working toward a grand plan. Each map of the campaign (the same maps are used for sandbox mode) is relatively cramped and has various geographical features that limit expansion - giant tunnels, rocky spires, lakes, weird alien crystals and such.
After playing a few maps, it becomes clear that each scenario is laid out to encourage colony growth in certain directions. Geothermal vents provide much more power than solar panels, so tunnel networks snake toward the vents. An alien crystal called Zorium can be mined to provide enormous amounts of power, so once all the vents are covered with geothermal generators, the next phase sees expansion head toward Zorium deposits. Along the way, various lumps of ore provide sites for metal extraction. Metal is converted into “nanites”, which are both the game’s currency and raw building material.
The other element that limits expansion is the range of constructor drones. These drones live in specialised structures, and fly out to build or repair buildings on command.
The necessity of a drone network puts the brakes on the speed of colony expansion. But the process basically goes: extend tunnels, build drone hub, build mines and power plants, build accommodation so workers don’t have to walk far to get to jobs in the power plants and mines, then build air conditioning systems, then build farms to provide food, then build entertainment complexes, then build increasing numbers of solar panels to boost power output for all this new stuff.
There are existential threats, of course, including “shard storms”, lightning storms, and weird alien spores that infest buildings and spread “the creep”.
All of these can be summarily dealt with via defensive structures such as lightning towers, plasma cannons, and “scrubber drones” which remove the creep.
There seems to be a bit of a problem with the way these external threats affect the colonists. In that they don’t seem to, at all. Sure, each threat will break buildings, and the lack of power or food will impact morale, but you can be desperately building plasma cannons to fend off an incoming shard storm, only to get an alert from your political advisor pointing out that the colonists want better shopping options.
Aven Colony will not be difficult, for the right kind of gamer. For the player who intuits how all the different resources interact, victory is a simple matter of slowly and methodically building up the colony piece-by-piece. Don’t build advanced structures until the power network is solid and there’s plenty of nanites coming in. Ignore tier 1 structures and wait until there are enough nanites to build straight to tier 2. Once there’s lots of income, get into the habit of building something, surrounding it with tunnels, then building a tier 3 solar power plant.
And yet... there’s something almost meditative about how Aven Colony plays. Yes, it’s basic for a sim, but if all you have is an hour or so, it scratches that city-building itch. There’s no scope for grand design, and it’s rare for the player to get into a situation where a plan is thrown completely off the rails by an unforeseen event. But there’s still satisfaction to be had in keeping these ungrateful, retail-therapy-obsessed colonists happy.
Aven Colony is not destined to be a classic of the genre. But it looks good thanks to Unreal 4, and if Anno 2070 just seems like too much work, this city-builder-lite will keep you distracted.