When I see ads for those doomsday-prepper shows, I wish I could ask them some questions. Like why build an ugly tin dwelling if you think you’re going to need to live there for years? Wouldn’t it be nicer with some furniture, or books to pass the time? Also, why default to MREs, shouldn’t you be learning how to cook good canned food? And finally - what comes next? Have they been practicing agriculture, collecting seeds, and irrigation techniques? While I still don’t have my answers, Before We Leave takes a good crack at seeing what it might be like to restart society after some time hiding out in earth’s core.
Before We Leave is a non-violent colony simulation game. The basic premise is that humanity has been underground for generations, but it’s time to get back above ground and spread out over the stars. This familiar structure is pretty reminiscent of other 4X games (like Civilization). If you don’t know much about this genre, let me break it down for you. The “X”’s are each of the core elements found in these games: Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate. Fun fact, the name comes from a 1993 review of Master of Orion which the writer rated “XXXX”. While this game definitely has its own take on each of those elements, they make a good template to dive into each facet of the game.
When your people (inexplicably called “peeps”) emerge from the ground, they don’t know how to do anything other than grow potatoes and build simple structures. Fair enough, probably not too many homesteading opportunities underground. You start off on an island with plenty of land to grow crops in and some room to spread out. Your exploration and newly discovered construction can be done however you like, with a few constraints. All the buildings need to attach to roads, which keeps things organized as you expand outwards and gives some logic to the flow of workers through the island. The planet is made of hexagonal tiles, and most buildings take an entire tile, or two for certain large structures. The buildings snap into place, no fiddling with rotation or lining up doors necessary. This system gives everything a clean and nicely spaced look, and makes it quick to add new areas or remodel existing ones.
Early game resources are pretty plentiful once you poke around the island a bit to find them. Some will be close to where you started, like trees and rocks. Others like iron require a little more effort as you’ll need to climb high to reach the decaying remains of buildings to scavenge. But as it goes, eventually you’ll start needing more than what your starter island can provide, which brings us to the next phase: expansion.
If you want to start doing exciting things with your new colony, you’re going to need more than what a single island can provide. Not long after starting, you’ll be able to build boats to explore the rest of the planet that you’re on and launch some offshoot colonies. The other islands that you find will have different biomes, which means new resources and new challenges. With this expansion comes the introduction of what I consider essentially the core of the game: shipping lanes.
As the islands may not be well-suited for sustaining life, and they certainly don’t have the magical tool forge your first island does, you’re going to need to transport items between islands to keep everyone alive and productive. Ports on each island stock the ships up, and warehouses store designated goods. Once you have a good system keeping both islands growing, what’s one more? Or two more? Or how about another planet?
Within the first few hours of your game, you’ll get a mission to repair a decrepit rocket. Once completed, you’ll be off to the stars to colonize some planets, expanding your reach further and further into the stars. Your shipping lanes become all the more important as you now need to manage your resources across the colonies, taking into consideration who can produce what.
Before We Leave has a different perspective on the “exploit” portion of 4X. Instead of encouraging you to strip mine the planets you land on for all they’re worth, the game highlights the importance of treating your people and places well. Pollution from factories needs to be kept far away from people’s homes and balanced out by trees for those who need to work at them. There’s an importance placed on not repeating the mistakes we made the first time around, and it’s reflected in the mechanics through systems that steer you towards taking better care of the planet.
People need to be looked after too. Even before you get your people clothed, you’ll be planting luxury crops like tea to make sure your peeps are having a good time while they rebuild society. Hitting different population milestones means new happiness requirements, as living in cramped quarters is uncomfortable for anyone. As far as I could tell there aren’t any actual game-halting consequences for not making everyone happy, but being that they’re the last vestiges of humanity I think it’s fair to throw them a bone and plant some fruit.
Exterminate (or not)
Before We Leave is a non-violent game, which is pretty unusual for this genre. Before I played I was worried that it might get a little stale without the lurking danger of coming under siege, but what I found was that this opened up my focus to things I actually enjoy worrying about. Instead of building defense systems and military units, I got to fine-tune the shipping and production lines. The removal of the time-sensitive pressure that war brings on opened up so much of my energy for reorganizing and building the way I wanted to, not the way I had to. That’s definitely not to say that everything in the universe is helpful though. Aside from environmental hazards your peeps will encounter, there are also space whales. Which, as you can imagine, are at least somewhat of a damper to your efforts. They don’t hurt anyone, but they will definitely eat some of your lovingly tended crops. Learning to coexist with them (and according to the achievements list, maybe even work with them?) is just another new challenge that comes with the adventures of living in space.
EXTRA, The fifth “x”
When restarting the world from scratch, there are a lot of systems involved. Unlike a lot of other games though, Before We Leave wants to you feel comfortable understanding and using all of them. The tutorial system is less of a quick rundown that throws you into the deep, and more like learning to ride a bike. You start off with very specific hand-holding (click this button, build this building), move to training wheels (“research and build a school”), to then freedom with some general goals (“repair the rocket”, which requires a handful of new technologies and buildings). Personally, I loved this approach, as it helped me figure out where everything sat in the hierarchy of your priorities. You’ll be starting new colonies over and over, so understanding how to do it efficiently is really the bedrock of the game.
Even though there are quite a few menus, the user interfaces are all clean, easy to understand, and simple to navigate. This, combined with the extensive tutorial, resulted in a system where I think people who are new to 4X games could have a pretty easy time getting into this game, but also one that had enough depth to keep genre veterans entertained. The ease of navigation and straightforward rules for placing objects made me actually want to work on optimizing my colony instead of just accepting whatever I had placed down as good enough. The ease of expansion and focus on efficiency gives this game a lot more in common with things like Satisfactory than I was expecting.
The “main game”, as in time to get the achievement for finishing the game, takes in the neighborhood of 13 hours. In reality, there is basically as much game as you want since you can continue tinkering with your fledgling colony. At US $14.99 I think this is a great value for a really polished experience. I had a great time organizing my peeps and working towards perfectly efficient shipping routes, space whales be damned.