If I have a weakness, other than being so unspeakably beautiful that I inadvertently make all other humans feel awful about themselves, it’s that I’m highly susceptible to games in which the primary purpose is to accrue money. That’s not the sort of person I want to be. I want to be the sort of person who helps people. Yet dangle a glorified beancounter in front of me and I’m lost. I still fire up Adventure Capitalist from time to time to see how many greenbacks have backed up during my absence, then exit it immediately with a faint, sick sense of accomplishment. These Cookie Clickerlike don’t even require me to do much of anything: they just feed more bottomless hunger for more. 19th century oil rush sim-ette Turmoil, out on Early Access next week, at least asks me to build crazy pipework before I can roll around in dollar bills.
If you’re hoping for corporate satire or even Daniel Day Lewis pastiche, Frontier’s straight-faced approach to frontier drilling might prove a disappointment. What it does do is apply the spend money to make money ethos of Cookie Clicker, Adventure Capitalist and co to a vaguely puzzlesome game of risk/reward. You lease a patch of land, send out a dowser to identify where, approximately, a deposit of black gold lies, drop a derrick and drill a big pipe downwards, hoping to hit oil before you hit rock, or before the money runs out.
Then you hire horse and carriages to ferry oil to corporations on each side of the screen (Left Co. and Right Co., cutely), depending on who’s currently offering the best price, or stick it all in a silo for the time being if both are being tightwads. All the while, the ground ever-so-slowly rises to fill more and more of the screen as pipes dig deeper. The pace is slow but not tedious; hypnotic, rather.
Your dowsing and drilling is imprecise and slow to begin with, as befits pre-digital industry, but you spend your earnings on upgrades – stronger horses pulling bigger carriages, dowsers who can detect oil further down, reinforced drillbits, caps on how low the corps’ prices will sink… In theory, every upgrade means more profit next time around, but about the only way chirpy little Turmoil lives up to its inappropriately melodramatic title is that it doesn’t take much to really balls things up.
Say you took home $10,000. You need at least $3000 kept back each round in order to lease a new tract of land and afford initial equipment, and that’s presuming none of the AI players try to outbid you for the land. So you’ve only really got $7,000 to play with, but most of the decent upgrades come in at $10k minimum. So you do it. Then you take a bank loan for a couple of grand, just so you can get back out there. You have a so-so turn, the land maybe turning out to be short on oil or there’s rock everywhere and you haven’t bought the drillbit upgrade yet.
Desperate to make more money and fast you upgrade the width of all the pipes, but you don’t have enough horses to ferry the resultant oil explosion around fast enough, so you wind up with a hefty spillage fine. That’s a few grand gone. Then there’s interest to pay on your loans and oh, look, you’ve wound up with less than $3k in the bank and you need to take out another loan just to keep working. Soon enough, as the number of available plots shrinks and bidding becomes fierce, you can’t afford to continue. You drank your own milkshake.
The ladder to the top isn’t as obvious as it first appears obvious one: you need to exercise caution, but you also need to take risks – signing up for loans so you can buy upgrades and keep pace with your opponents, gambling on where an oil deposit might be, splitting the vote across multiple oil wells rather than relying on one, constructing huge, mad, winding pipe formations to reach something hidden behind a layer of rock… As simple as it looks and is to control, there’s a fair bit going on in Turmoil. Its got its hooks in me.
This is because it a well-balanced and quietly exciting economy, rather than just a snowball effect. What begins as slow rope-learning and meagre forays into big business becomes a tightly-contested race, with a strong sense that the noose is tightening every time you make a major expenditure. In its initial Early Access form, out next week, it becomes repetitive within a couple of hours and there’s some stuff clearly missing (e.g. it just grinds to a halt when you run out of money, and it’s badly in need of a fast forward button), but the structure of something that I sincerely hope will become much larger and less predictable is there. It’s very much an increment game paired with low-level strategy, so I don’t hate myself for playing it: I feel kept cheerfully busy rather than simply a slave to a ticker, breathlessly waiting for the dollars to spike.
Turmoil is a simple thing, a time-passer with a pleasant sense of achievement rather than a grand, strategic opus. It’s the kind of game one can fit into the cracks around other things – endless combative hours in The Witcher 3, for instance – and I really do welcome that. As pleasant as it is though, I do wish that, given its subject matter, it had more character than whimsical guitar music and crisp, colourful art. But at least I don’t have to sit through endless irritating milkshake puns, eh? I can just be guilty of that myself instead.