Wot I Think: Clockwork Empires

Could it be that Clockwork Empires [official site], a town management sim concerning a life of toil and struggle against nightmarish entities on a strange new frontier, is so dedicated to its theme that is has deliberately conspired to drive me mad? The thought occurred to me often, as I gibbered and bellowed at my screen in frustration. Was I, too, becoming like one of its colonists, their psyches fraying as they behold death, monstrous transformation and yet another fungus-based dinner?

Alas, not for me the sweet embrace of carefully-designed insanity. My struggles strictly relate to how powerfully frustrating Clockwork Empires is to play.

Clockwork Empires employs similar What If? Victoriana to Sunless Sea/Fallen London. A mid-point between steampunk and eldritch horror, with a maudlin tone and a certain expectation of suffering. In this case, it entails a rag-tag band of imperial colonists founding a settlement on a new frontier. Food must be gathered, trees must be felled, stone must be mined, houses must be built, workshops and public services must be established. Each building must have amenities and furniture individually built in order that resources can be processed and comfort improved so that more settlers are attracted.

As you do all this, you will be harassed by Fish People, risk losing your settlers to strange cults or angry spirits, try to keep the home empire happy in order that they send you more people, and generally manage the well-being of your workforce.

Much was made a couple of years ago about how your colonists would have personalities of a sort, built up over time and affected by the events of the game. Talking to a friend might appease their fear or frustration, or they might break away and form a sinister cult, or seeing a dead body might result in life-long trauma. All of these things would lead to changed behaviour. Every settler would be an individual collection of memories and knowledge.

I look back at our exciting 2014 interview with the developers, and little they promised then is actually absent. It’s just that almost none of it matters.

Yes, you can click on any settler and see a long list of events they’ve faced, friends they’ve met, complaints they have or traumas they’ve experienced. The game is, without doubt, cataloguing almost everything. But it all boils down to, essentially, two things: how much of the day they are willing to spend working, and whether they’ll sporadically flip out, which again impacts upon working hours. If you’ve come here looking for the gonzo unpredictability of Dwarf Fortress and its infinite micro-stories, you won’t find it.

The critical exception to this is an assortment of eldritch events, some of which you have some control over via easily-missed text pop-ups, others of which are essentially random nuisances to be waited out. Weird meteor showers, ghost attacks, and, most commonly, raids from neighbouring Fishpeople.

The sporadic formation of dark cults is probably the headline act though: one of your settlers might run off to found a sinister order in the woods, and will recruit more to it unless you take action, via the military or your own church. Failing or choosing not to clamp down on things can result in the arrival of big ‘orrible monsters, as indeed can trying to clamp down on it.

Though disaster frequency can be abated by building one of everything, Clockwork Empires’ ethos is that shit happens, and if you’re not equipped to deal with it, you’ll lose a few people and a few buildings may need repairing afterwards. The empire will ship more settlers from home, workers will fix buildings, bodies will be buried and normal service will be resumed.

The key to success/survival is not any individual’s needs, but to gradually build more and better services in a relatively familiar town-builder fashion. I’m not telling Clockwork Empires off for that – I like town-builder games – but simply trying to adjust expectations. This is a building game, not The Sims On The Mountains Of Madness.

Frankly, the real Clockwork Empires is exactly the kind of tiny acorn > mighty oak prospect I enjoy. The critical problem is it suffers from a killer combo of a heinous user interface and a generous smattering of bugs. These two factors regularly combine into buildings not getting built, and it’s not always clear whether it’s the player’s fault or the game’s.

If I was to sum up Clockwork Empires in a single observation, it would be that this is exactly the sort of game where, before you can replace them, you have to wait for someone to starve to death because they’ve got stuck inside the scenery.

This leads me onto a key design decision in CE that has most harmed my psychological well-being while playing it. You cannot force anything to be built. Settlers – divided fairly pointlessly into Overseers and small squads of Labourers working under them – will choose which of whatever orders you’ve given they will work on next. You can’t directly order someone to go work on a specific construction, but have to hope that they’ll get it to quickly. Yes, you can cancel all other requests in order to artificially make one particular thing a priority, but this is inelegant and disruptive compared to the more obvious choice of assigning an Overseer to a new build.

I say this because assigning Overseers is a system used by all other functions of the game – you assign one to command soldiers in the barracks, or grind out planks in the carpenter’s shop, or man the bar, or work in the barber’s shop which, mysteriously, heals hurt units rather than cuts their hair. Assigning Overseers is one of the key mechanics of the game, but you can’t assign Overseers to construction, which is the key mechanic of the game.

My foremost anecdote from Clockwork Empires is not the time a walking obselisk invaded, or when 25% of my settlers turned into Fishpeople, but of regularly screaming “WHY WON’T YOU BUILD IT?” That is the Clockwork Empires experience. So long as it’s not a bug – and too often it is – an ultimately logical answer can be found. You’ve got too many other tasks on the go, your people are so unhappy that they take afternoons off, you’ve run out of planks or stone or bricks or iron or maize or bric-a-brack or or or or. For me, the trouble is that the UI buries too much vital information too deep.

There is not, for instance, an icon to show that a requested building isn’t being made because you lack x, y, or z. You have to notice that it’s not happening, manually click on it, see what it needs, switch to another menu and compare that to what you have in your town’s inventory, then switch to another building and request that more of x, y or z is made. Often, x, y or z require first making u, v or w in a different building entirely. And that will first require harvesting r, s or t, or trading for it in a building which first requires v, s and y to construct. In most circumstances, the game does not alert you that r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y or z are missing.

That’s the sort of game CE is really – using a Minecraft-style dependencies crafting system, extrapolated into complex arrays of workbenches, desks, stoves and kilns split across various specialist rooms, each of which need people assigned and kept happy by having other specialist rooms with people assigned and cranking out crafted products from a complex array of workbenches, desks, stoves and kilns.

Every object in every building has to be ordered and built individually, and none of it happens automatically. For example, labourers will not build a bed you’ve requested in a house unless you additionally go tell the carpenter’s shop to make a flat-packed bed kit, and if there is not enough wood to make that, no-one will go gather that wood without your specific directive to.

Even if you do, it’s a total gamble whether a workforce will take it up in favour of something else that needs doing. Making almost anything involves just a few too many steps for my tastes, or rather it’s that each of those steps involves burrowing into fiddly sub-menus and then a whole lot of waiting to boot. Even then, bugs mean it may never happen.

I like the game at CE’s heart, but interacting with it is simply unpleasant. Were it slick and reliable perhaps I could bear its extreme micro-management and unhelpful UI, but the fact is that it’s currently strewn with technical errors, most of which boil down to, once again, build orders not happening. Meteor storms, cult outbreaks and merman invasions are its highlight, yes, but ultimately they are just colourful interruptions to a deeply frustrating normality.

Updates have been promised, at least. It’s not at all impossible that UI updates and excising a few of the construction stages could give it the flow and fluidity it so desperately needs, but after quite some time in early access, the road ahead of Clockwork Empires still seems so very long.

Clockwork Empires is out now on Windows via Steam and Humble for $30/£23/€28.


  1. Fade says:

    ” work in the barber’s shop which, mysteriously, heals hurt units rather than cuts their hair.”

    This is likely a reference to barber surgeons who performed medical treatments, most notably amputations, as well as haircuts and shaves.

    • Matt_Ceb says:

      And tooth-pulling.

      • Punning Pundit says:

        This is exactly the sort of lovely historical flavor that makes me hopeful they’ll fix the other problems listed.

        • pepperfez says:

          Dredmor came out as a similarly lovable, intricate, largely busted game. The updates they put into it addressed all the things that bothered me, so it’s not too much to hope for the same here.

          • malkav11 says:

            That said, Dredmor didn’t spend ages in Early Access, what with that not really being a thing at the time.

    • Mags says:

      Indeed, the classic sign of a barber, the red and white striped pole, stems from this, symbolising red for blood and white for bandages. The pole itself was apparently the pole gripped by patients during blood-letting.

    • foszae says:

      Good grief, it’s like the British no longer see Sweeney Todd. Go find the 2006 BBC version.

      • pepperfez says:

        the 2006 BBC version
        Wow, I didn’t know there was such a thing. That’s exciting!

  2. vorador says:

    Too bad, since i was interested on the game. But bugs like that after around two years on Early Access is unacceptable.

    • Shuck says:

      Yeah, I was intrigued by this ever since RPS first mentioned it, but this isn’t something I could contemplate playing. I’m baffled that its time on Early Access didn’t help straighten out these fundamental issues – it tends to reinforce my notion that the kind of feedback one gets from E.A. isn’t all that helpful.

  3. Xan says:

    Yes. Yes. You nailed it: “interacting with it is simply unpleasant”.

    2 RPS articles ago I was intrigued by the promise of this game, bought it (and a quick gift to a friend too). Less than an hour later, I judged the game irredeemable in its micromanagement madness, refunded the gift (but not my copy) and tried to forget the whole thing.

    The premise? Fantastic. The execution? Someone is way too oblivious to fundamental problems.

  4. colw00t says:

    This is a shame. Their weekly development blog updates have been a source of great interest to me for a year. I hope some of the more glaring issues are fixed in post-release.

    I was actually quite surprised when they announced it was going gold – from the devblog they seemed a few months away. They were attempting to grapple with their obtuse UI even last month. Money problems, maybe?

    • BluePencil says:

      Me too. I can’t remember how I first heard of CE but I ended up on the mailing list for the changelogs and I had quite a few good chuckles and was really interested in buying it. However, every now and again I would search for a recently uploaded video of gameplay and saw that it would be a risky purchase at that moment in time. Now that it’s properly out I was very keen to see reviews and really hoping for good ones. Such a shame. I wonder whether they had a big enough team for such a complex game?

      • syndrome says:

        As a developer, I can tell you that embiggening the team wouldn’t solve these issues. For such things you need diamonds, not another truck of coal.

        And diamonds are rare for a reason.

  5. April March says:

    Aw. It seemed like a promising game. But what you say isn’t a great deviation from what I’ve heard about the game as of late. Sad, though.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Malarious says:

    It’s so unfortunate. The guys over at Gaslamp Games are clearly talented, but are simply unwilling to compromise on their “design”. These are the _exact_ same complaints I’ve been reading since Early Access launched and it’s clear they consider the way the production system is set up and the way the construction works to be a core part of the game.

    CE has a much more interesting setting than Rimworld, and some of the mechanics are very interesting, but there just seems to be so much friction. I feel like someone needs to force the Gaslamp devs to sit down and play 5 hours of Rimworld. There are just so many common-sense UI/design decisions that CE sorely lacks.

    • Harlander says:

      Rimworld’s UI is so much more ergonomic than Clockwork Empires’, it’s almost hard to believe, especially considering that both have you manage the same kinds of things in very similar ways.

  7. Palindrome says:

    I have never seen a bug where modules/buildings don’t get built. This is almost certainly a case of missing resources rather than broken code, although the game really should make that clear. I also haven’t seen (recently at least) bugs where workers refuse to do tasks, perhaps you simply have a huge number of tasks queued?

    CE could certainly do with some automation though, that much is clear.

  8. xyzzy frobozz says:

    Hopefully Folk Tale turns out better.

  9. amblingalong says:

    The biggest problem I have with the game isn’t actually the bugs or UI, it’s that it’s not able to tell the types of stories the original pitch envisioned. It’s missing a ton of the flavor, for one thing; there are no giant factories of brick and brass, no pneumatic tubes and voltaic lines connecting strange steampunk machinery. The mechanics that would allow you to use eldritch artifacts to power industry, in exchange for (presumably) some later disaster, are gone. The strange flickering lights in the wilderness that your naturalist wants to investigate? It’s (spoiler) always fishpeople, who are palette-swapped bandits. The dynamic missions, evolving world map, and terrifying mini-biomes? All missing.

    What makes or breaks games like Rimworld, Dwarf Fortress, or even Civilization or Tropico or Stellaris for me, is the ability of the game to tell an interesting, dynamic, unique narrative. And what excited me so much about Clockwork Empires was two things: the steampunk-meets-Lovecraft theme, and the narratives the Gaslamp team wrote out to give a sense of what a colony might experience.

    Neither of those things made it to the final game.

  10. HeavyStorm says:

    A pity! I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, but reports of gameplay issues kept surfacing, and now that’s out, a disappointment.

    At least I got Rimworld.

  11. iMad says:

    You know, I’ve been loking forward to this game since I first heard of it. Was expecting a nice colony management game with a healthy dose of Lovecraftian horror survival. Pity how’d it turn out, here’s hoping there’ll be future patches and community mod that might fix that.