I have recently finished a play-through of the game Frostpunk. In this article, I briefly discuss what playing this game has taught me.
Frostpunk is a game in which you build and manage a small settlement in a post-apocalyptic world. The temperature has fallen drastically globally, and your group of people decided to head north from London in search of a better life (generally things get colder the further you go north on the northern hemisphere, so I would question this general approach to survival). All technology in this game is based on steam-powered machines, as is custom in the genre of ‘steampunk’.
Frostpunk is a dynamic, multi-layered game, and I believe there are plenty of things to be learned from playing the game. Some of the most important ones for me are the following:
Leadership is making decisions that not everyone loves
While on first glace Forstpunk seems to be a game about survival, it is actually a game about power. The condition for loosing the game is not the demise of your last inhabitant but being stripped of the office of the settlement ruler. There is a meter for the discontent of your people as well as their hope. If discontent rises too high, the people will rebel and strip all powers of the almighty mouse click from you.
I would say it is nay impossible to play the game without causing discontent. For instance, at one point in the game, I needed to stock up on food and was not producing it fast enough. Thus I had to ‘water down’ the food for the people and serve soup instead of solid meals. This did not make me very popular but at least no one starved (Of course, the only praise I got for this were complaints).
Discontent, instead of being avoided completely, needs to be managed and utilised like other resources at your disposal. It should never get out of control but there also shouldn’t be none of it – since that would indicate that you are wasting resources on keeping everyone pleased that could be used to fortify your settlement for the challenges of the future. More on that in the next section.
Things will go wrong
Frostpunk is designed around disaster. Firstly there are the disasters caused by your own incompetence. You may not allocate enough workers to mining coal, and your settlement comes to a standstill when your generators run out of fuel. You may order the construction of nice, fancy houses for your beloved people, and then have no wood left to build further sawmills. But apart from these self inflicted disasters, there are also those programmed into the game. Generally just when you have solved all your self-made problems and have a smoothly running and generally happy settlement, some event occurs that resets your progress.
I guess that is just like life. We try our best but we still put ourselves into all kinds of trouble and, in addition to that, unfortunate things happen over which we have no control whatsoever.
Ability matters more than action
In Frontpunk, like in many other games, it is possible to research technologies that unlock constructing new buildings or improve existing ones. As mentioned above, I made no shortage of decisions in Frostpunk that later turned out to be less than ideal. In that, not all decisions are created equal. Some wrong decisions mattered more than others, and generally those related to technology had greater consequences than other decisions in the game. For instance, I never researched advanced healthcare facilities that provide better isolation against the cold. Regrettably, temperatures dropped so far that the plentiful medical tents I constructed became nonoperational. This led to the unwell being left to their own devices which understandably upset the populace. So it did not matter as much how many medical tents I constructed or how I staffed them but it mattered that I did not unlock the ability to construct better medical facilities.
I believe there is a lesson to be learned here; that it is more important to build up long term capability that enables us to do things we otherwise couldn’t rather than just doing things we already know how to.
Overall Frostpunk is a serious and dark game. It accentuates some aspects of live by placing people in a very extreme situation. Thankfully we live in much better times and, as a matter of fact, we are doing our very best to keep our globe nice and warm for our comfort. However, I still think there are some important lessons about leadership and life that can be obtained from playing the game. As I wrote when discussing Crusader Kings 2, I believe this is the magic of games; that they can teach us in a way that is deeper and more contextual than a textbook could. I would encourage anyone with the means to do so to give this game a try.