Back when WarCraft, StarCraft, and other real-time strategy games were all the rage, I could never actually play them against other people. Even playing against the computer, I might only eke out a victory through dumb luck or an opponent’s huge mistake.
The problem was, I was never ready to attack until I had my base perfectly in order—until the workers carrying oil or crystals or whatnot had the most efficient route from the mine to the base or until my buildings were arranged for optimal use of the revealed land. I just needed one more little guy, one more tower. OK, maybe two. I’m a turtler’s turtler.
Against the Storm, which releases from Early Access on Steam for Windows today, has been a deeply satisfying outlet for this pent-up need to build and prosper—in a delightfully WarCraft-ian manner—without the messy business of war. There is still adversity: an ever-advancing “Impatience” meter, hostile spirits you uncover in the woods, and the typical constraints of resources, supply chains, and worker morale. Plus the rainstorms in the title, which occur both in-level, slowing you down, and at a macro level, washing away your little towns to make you start again.
And yet Against the Storm feels engaging without the stress of a real-time strategy game nor the aloof drift of a full-fledged city builder. The game’s individual parts feel familiar, whether from other video games or board games in the “worker placement” or “engine building” category. This combination feels new, though, and fun.
You play as a viceroy tasked by your queen with developing villages in a dark-ish fantasy realm overwhelmed by torrential storms. The woods are alive, too, and will push back against your efforts to develop them with indirect hostility or sometimes straight-up worker murder. You finish each village by delivering the things requested by the queen and generally improving your village’s reputation at a faster rate than her impatience builds up. Village by village, you expand outward on a world hex map, until … I’m not quite certain because I haven’t gotten that far on the big map yet. Each village takes a while, and the game’s tutorial arc is long, as it should be.
The rogue-ish random generation of Against the Storm happens at nearly every level: the buildings you’re offered, the layout of grounds and trees, the workers that show up, the deliverables asked by your queen, and how various forces affect each village on the world map, to name a few. It makes the game replayable, and it also means no one defeat is the end of your campaign or even necessitates a reload.
A big part of the challenge and fun is being asked by the queen, or a newly discovered evil spirit, to deliver something that your village is entirely unprepared to offer, based on how you built it so far. You can try to get the needed goods from a trader, advance on other goals faster than that unfulfilled goal drags on you, or simply hope that the next reward or building you’re offered can get it done.
Even when you’re supposed to be challenged, you might find yourself blissfully relaxed. There’s something about this game that puts me at ease, even though it’s a huge pile of nested tasks. Maybe it’s the “Vikings, but they’re nice” visual style. Perhaps it’s the ethereal but melodically inclined soundtrack, heavy on the single piano lines and forest-minded woodwinds. Probably, it’s both of those, plus the way the game moves at a pace that gives you time to think. It offers a range of difficulties and random problems but is easy on the punishment if you can’t make it work. It’s more of a rogue-ultralite or a rogue-featherweight.
Against the Storm can be played on a Steam Deck, but it’s a make-do scenario: you want as much screen space and a mouse for this game’s multitude of buttons and tool tips. I’m in my ninth hour and still discovering little mechanics, especially around worker happiness, build priorities, and fruitful chains of workshops. It runs well on a Steam Deck, however, and you can get by with the trackpads, especially once you’re comfortable with the controls.
“Cozy” doesn’t quite describe Against the Storm, but there’s a reason I’m thinking it. It’s a real feat, honing a game to offer layers of depth, infinite strategic options, and replay value while not making it intimidatingly sharp. There’s a good chance you’ll find respite from the interlocking systems that run your life inside those of this complex, calming builder.
Listing image by Hooded Horse