As a kid, I loved building things. Lego’s were my gateway. I remember making a bunch of little sculptures with Lego’s, with a bunch of mismatched pieces that ended up making whatever I was working on look like a unicorn vomited on it.
Eventually, though, I got tired of Lego’s. They were always a pain to pry apart, and God forbid I ever stepped on one. I also struggled to have the right components for the vision in my head.
Building stuff, making a massive town, city, castle, or anything else, was one of the coolest things I could imagine. One of the first base-building games I played - though it wasn’t, really - was Warcraft 3. I loved just placing the buildings, building up everything, and eventually building the strongest, most powerful units. I actually loved the building aspect so much that I completely missed the point of Warcraft 3 itself - to actually win the game.
It’s no surprise, then, that I quickly found myself playing the many and varied custom maps available on Warcraft 3. From tower-defense games to Island Survival, tug-of-war, RPG maps, roleplaying maps - any sort of map I could find, I tried it, and many of them, I loved to play.
But what do those have to do with base-building? The common theme here is the incremental progress, building up your character or base in each map, and having an objective to work toward or overcome.
It took a few years before I really started to see the first aspects of the genre. Dwarf Fortress came out in 2006, but I didn’t know about it for quite a few years, and even now I find it’s interface far too arcane to be worth the time to learn. Especially after the progress made in games using Dwarf Fortress as an inspiration.
With all that said, what exactly is a base-building game?
Generally, a base-builder has autonomous characters, often somewhat randomly generated, with skills of some sort that augment - or provide reason to prevent - their ability to do tasks. The player can place buildings to allow their people to create increasingly more complex items which can be used to defend them, to make their people happier, or to simply decorate their base. There are many more possible mechanics, but over time the genre has become much more varied than can be simply stated. There are survival base-builders such as banished, factory builders such as Factorio, a mix of both like Oxygen not Included, straight city-builders like Cities Skyline, though this one is a bit of a departure from the mechanics listed above, role-playing base-builders like Rimworld, and strategy base builders like the Stronghold series.
None of this is even taking into account the advances in the genre over the last few years or so, which begins to include even such departures as the incredibly immersive Valheim, and Subnautica. More than that, there are games like The Riftbreaker, a wonderful blend of Tower-defense and legitimate base-building, and Dyson Sphere Program, one of the biggest scale games ever imagined, especially when considering the player is literally asked to manage entire logistic chains that allow them to build a Dyson Sphere
We think there are a number of reasons. The first of those is the simplest. Base-building games are often relatively chill or relaxing to play. Not all of them, of course, but generally even the ones that are, do not allow you sufficient time to consider what needs to be done next. Almost all base-building games have a pause function, meaning the player can take as much time as they want. They’re also not built upon a massive commitment, and modern games can save and reload almost as often as they want, so that players can feel like every choice is not a massive commitment - if they feel like they made a mistake, they can simply reload. And if not, generally it’s easy enough to try again on another playthrough. Furthermore, they often have fast-forward functions alongside the pause. This lets players skip through some of the more bland aspects of the game which involve waiting on something to happen, or a building to finish.
The autonomous units in many of these games also simplify and streamline the gameplay in such a way that the player only needs to think about higher-level stuff such as planning or figuring out what they want to do. It’s simple enough to just tell the game what you want it to do, and if it can, it’ll do it for you. This makes the game feel approachable to nearly anyone, and allows the player to put as much effort into it as they want. If they like, they can just play on auto-pilot. Or, instead, they can decide to play through making careful decisions and optimizing every choice.
This leads quite clearly to another aspect we think is important: the complexity of the mechanics. A lot of base-building games have quite a few mechanics, most of which are simple to understand at a basic level, but which have the opportunity for players to take advantage of at a higher level, allowing some to do some truly ridiculous things. Some games are even built with the idea that players will learn so much about the game as they play that they’ll want to completely restart. I’ve definitely done similar in games like Oxygen Not Included and Factorio, where I get to a point where I see all I’ve done and realize it was poorly planned and it would be easier to just start over. The spaghetti is real (but it can’t hurt you).
This next aspect isn’t a universal part of the genre, but it seems to be present in some of the best examples of the genre. That is personalized problem solving. This means that the problems presented by the game are built in such a way that the player can choose how to overcome them, providing a lot of room for creativity. Oxygen Not Included, for example, has a lot of systems which emulate physics in real life, including the movement of fluids and the movement of temperature through objects. One major issue a beginner will encounter is the management of heat, which can cause a base to overheat and all of their crops to die - thus killing off their base. There are quite a few ways to solve this, and players can often choose whichever is their favorite - build their heat-producing buildings in a colder biome, build a steam engine to absorb excess heat, or even just make some ice and hope it’s enough.
In Rimworld, there isn’t even necessarily a primary problem to solve - it’s up to the player to choose what they want to do. Build a giant base? Carve out a mountain? Roam around destroying everything in their path? Players have almost complete freedom. In fact, Rimworld has an entire DLC based upon this idea, where the roleplaying aspect of a colony has been expanded to the point that a player can, from the Rimworld Ideology DLC description:
Make your own story of pirate nudist cannibals, blind undergrounder mole people, charitable ranching cowboys, machine-obsessed transhumanists, or rustic peaceful tribes who link with curious tree creatures. You can build mind-bending temples with colorful drug motifs, terrifying sacrificial altars clad in skulls, winding mazes of underground tunnels full of technology, or beautiful orchards with drifting leaves.
Base-building games are often moddable. Players can extend the gameplay, if they’ve already played through all of it before and want to mix it up. Factorio has complete overhauls of its crafting system to make the game require significantly larger amounts of ingredients for a recipe, taking parts of the game which were beforehand only a small task and making the complexity orders of magnitude higher. For some players of Factorio, mixing it up like that is all they could ask for, allowing them to get another hit of that sweet, sweet new factory smell, without making the same basic factory all over again.
Mods don’t just let you mix it up, though. Mods allow the player to adjust the game to their taste, such as by changing the difficulty, or adding tools to make the game easier and more interesting to play. This means some players can, and will, end up playing a single game for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands, of hours!
Another appeal that base-builders have is the feeling of incremental and specifically chosen advancement. Many games have a research system, which lets players decide what upgrade or technology they want to obtain next. This allows the player to not only choose what to focus on, but also to have a sense of agency over the priorities of their base. In addition to this, players can plan out small changes to their base, or even slowly ramp up the size of their base. Almost every decision regarding the players’ base in this genre is driven by the player. Games like Oxygen Not Included, Factorio, and Valheim show this quite well. Every building placed will generally be for a purpose, whether to expand production, or make it easier to set up an outpost. Ultimately, it just feels good to build something and make it bigger, better, and cooler. Building a base up is just fun.
Finally, the base-building genre often lets the player experience ideas they couldn’t get elsewhere. Endzone - A world apart let’s the player imagine rebuilding after a nuclear war. Dyson Sphere Program lets the user imagine the complexity of building a logistics hub which obtains the resources capable of building a Dyson Sphere around stars. Subnautica lets the player build an underwater base, whether to survive against nightmarish creatures, or to enjoy the view from deep underwater in an alien environment. There are an endless number of possibilities, and games exploring new ideas come out all the time.
Base-building games provide a lot of room for players of any level, and any commitment, to relax and have some fun. They provide a lot of freedom in how to play, generally, and have an interesting premise to emulate an experience a player wouldn’t be likely to have the opportunity to imagine in any other way.
Have we missed any? What’s your favorite Base-building game? Let us know in the comments!