Big ideas in a small world sim.
Before We Leave is a charming hex grid style city-builder from New Zealand developers Balancing Monkey Games, released on May 8th. The game presents a relatively simplistic management system that builds layers of complexity as you progress. This genre is well trodden, but there are enough original implementations here to make the approach refreshing. This is a non-violent game that Balancing Monkey intended to be about nurturing, rebuilding, and rediscovering. What they’ve come up with is an experience that looks and feels unique.
You start the game emerging from a bunker that your people (Peeps) retreated to long ago when the world collapsed. What killed the world exactly is unknown. It might have been partly down to attacks from hungry space whales — which become an issue later in the game — but a mix of overindustraliasation and hubris seems even more likely, as managing a balance between pollution-spewing facilities, and natural resources, is a core tenet of the game’s design.
The starting island is rich with forests, mountains, and resources you need to collect. You design your town from the first instance, with your bunker working as a home base. Early constructions include setting up a woodcutter, potato fields, a stone quarry, and huts for your Peeps to live in.
As long as you have the resources you can build on a series of tiles in just a few clicks. This is the core gameplay of Before We Leave, what you’ll spend most of your time doing, but thankfully, it’s also what the game does best. You need to think about placement carefully. Things like putting crops next to a well or an empty field so they grow faster, or arranging the huts of your village to maximize occupancy and happiness. It’s satisfying to think about the layout you want to create within these limitations, and then make it happen.
There’s a tactile feel to the world. Your peeps look like board game pieces, but it’s cute watching them waddle around. Among many likely influences it feels Catan-like. I want to just pick up each tile and hold it in my hands. Smoke puffs from chimneys, furnaces glow hot, and orchard tiles look lush and bountiful. Merry music and chatter spills out of houses when your Peeps are comfortable and happy. Cats and dogs appear in larger villages, and you can click on individual Peeps to see their name and what they’re up to. Moving around the fully zoomed out view feels especially good. They’ve hit on a unique way to display the planet, and the geometric clouds are a very nice touch.
When I started the game my instinct was to build everything as close together as I could, to maximize land usage, and in some respects this philosophy is useful — space is limited; it makes designing your town a bit of a puzzle. But when islands do give you the space, I would say the game encourages you to spread out your settlement from the beginning. Peeps get a happiness bonus when they have to walk past forests on their way to work, but they lose happiness around pollution. So do you space factories far apart to reduce chemical concentration? Or do you aim to build industrial districts, using pollution cleaners to reduce overall toxicity? As you gain more confidence and speed in expanding your towns, you can try new development strategies to see what works.
Decaying buildings and technology are scattered across the world. The adventurer’s hut is a key starting structure that once built will allow you to collect research from that advanced civ that came before. Once you also have a library built, you’ll be able to use that research to unlock new advancements along a lengthy skill tree.
Eventually you fix up a ship, giving you the ability to travel to other islands and colonise them. The island you start on will be the most fertile, being made up of mostly grass tiles. When you need to think about your little world functioning as a whole, it would be smart to think of this island as your agricultural centre. You can build the most farms here, and then ship the food you produce to islands less suited for this; as each island has its own climate, including desert, and snow biomes. Of course, these islands have their own perks too, being able to grow specialty foods and fibers.
When you build other ships you’ll be able to set up shipping lanes to transport resources, as you work towards the final goal on this planet: fixing up a spaceship. This is a big task and you’ll need to unlock some advanced tech to get there, while simultaneously improving the lives of your ever put upon Peeps.
If you can manage all this, you’ll blast off to a shiny new world. At this point in the game you get to start out from scratch again, but with the knowledge of your mistakes, and with a few new challenges to overcome on this more alien planet. There’s also less of a safety net as your intrepid crew of Peeps are exposed on the surface while you get set up. Ideally, before you left the first planet, you set up a well functioning society, but if not then this is a chance to try again. There are new objectives on this world, and even some potential threats to your villages.
There are no hard and fast rules. You can play at your own speed and advance the townships you want to, while letting another region stay provincial — but controlling multiple worlds is really an expansion of your original goals seen on a larger scale. In the early game, your goal is to build a strong base on your first island, producing lots of materials and storing them in warehouses will help you better support your other islands. Likewise, doing a good job on your first world will allow you to babysit them less when you start out in the new world. Of course, you’re not limited from going back to your first planet at any time, so this might not even be a concern except in harder difficulties.
In a single game you can colonise several worlds — five were on offer in the game I played. When you eventually unlock interstellar shipping you can connect them all into one magnificent trade federation.
It comes down to the individual whether this game will click for you. If you can get into the groove and familiarise yourself with the upgrade path (so you always know what you need to be doing) you’ll feel satisfied making some productive little worlds. The look of houses and farms as you evolve them is really pleasing, and when you incorporate more modern amenities like water fountains, gardens, and smoothie huts, your civilisations will start to look really good.
But for some people, the time it takes to get there might not be worth it. With the speed controls — an essential and well incorporated feature of the game — you can progress very quickly, once you know what you’re doing. However, the tasks can still begin to feel samey when you get held up. There are branching research paths for unlocking new tech, but to progress through each stage of the game you’ll basically need to be getting the unlocks in order from lowest value to highest. Because of this rather linear design the options available can sometimes feel inflexible. Another thing worth considering is that some players might find the strategy of the game overstated. Before We Leave is intended as more of a peaceful puzzler than a real strategic challenge.
On their website Balancing Monkey Games says their mission is to create peaceful, accessible, and culturally relevant games. They have absolutely achieved this here, but if the lack of in-game stakes is having you feeling too relaxed, there are difficulty modes you can set, as well as optional scenarios, that shake up the goals and playstyle from a normal game.
So, why should you play it?
● Tactile graphics in a delightful setting
● Really darn pleasant music. Think space westerns and high sea shanties.
● You’re looking for something to fiddle with that will not stress you out.
● Humongous space whales!
But why shouldn't you play it?
● Simplistic skill tree progression reduces replayability.
● Spacial limitations designed to encourage efficient placement and cute world-look might actually be too limiting to allow for any complex strategy.
Before We Leave is available on Steam. Review code provided by Team 17 and Balancing Monkey Games.
Fletcher is a writer and digital artist who often gets trapped in games for months on end. He gets most excited about open world fantasy and 3D platformers, but his favourite game is still Hollow Knight. On weekends you’ll find him playing D&D or gazing lovingly at his well-maintained aquarium.