Original article publish on http://www.oldgrizzledgamers.com
Stonehearth caught my eye when it first launched on Kickstarter five years ago. It caught my eye again last week, when Radiant Entertainment finally released their charming city-builder and a five year old switch flicked in my head. It was time to cash in on the fifteen english pounds I’d pledged long ago – time to get medieval.
Starting with just five settlers, your aim is to establish a township that will shelter, feed and comfort your growing population. Over the course of a game, a tiny hamlet of two oak houses will become a sprawling city, a huge castle built into a mountainside or maybe remain quaint, like a cosy english village. It’s a relaxing and quirky little sandbox in which everything from harvesting to building flows smoothly.
If you’re looking to buy, the first thing you need to know about Stonehearth is that it’s slow. In similar games you might place a ‘Dining Hall’ and watch it instantly construct. Some might use a subtle puff of smoke to conceal the magic or cater to construction nerds by sending in workers with hammers. Not in Radiant Entertainment’s playground, kids. Every block and piece of furniture is handcrafted and delivered by one of your loyal ‘Hearthlings’.
The second thing to know about Stonehearth is that this definitely isn’t a bad thing. Watching your newly appointed carpenter slap together a chair and happily haul it over to the building site is a little reward in of itself. Even more pleasing is when shortly afterwards he wanders out and brags about his new chair in the form of a Sims-style overhead speech bubble. Most people will join in to celebrate the recent work of carpentry art and laugh along, but not Kiran. For no reason whatsoever, Kiran the Mason despises wooden chairs.
Power to the people
Hearthlings are the most important and most interesting resource in this game. Kiran, who has ‘The heart of a crafter’ but is also ‘opinionated’, was appointed as the town mason from day one. Since then, all she’s done is create beautiful stone lamps and complain about anything else. They each have their own stats, likes and dislikes, quirks and passions and don’t always work well together. Take Kenna, for example; she is a passionate mason, but her crafting skill left a lot to be desired. I appointed her anyway, as a sort of lacklustre apprentice to the much better and much angrier Kiran. Naturally, the two butt heads on a daily basis.
There are plenty of jobs that your people can undertake. Workers are the bread-and-butter labourers and general folk of the town. It’s their job to dig, haul, place and generally exist. The rest could aspire to be masons, trappers, knights, weavers, farmers, and pretty much anything else a fledgling village might need. No writers, though, so I’d be out of luck in Winterfell.
How does it feel?
I need to take a step back here. It’s easy to forget that what you’re writing about is a game when it’s so immersing, despite being made primarily of cubes. The menu and the interface is barely there at all. There’s a handful of buttons at the bottom that are all self-explanatory, and everything has a handy tooltip. It makes getting started very easy, which is convenient – because the tutorial happens to be rubbish. You’ll become good friends with the ‘building vision’ option, which gives you cutaway walls. That way, you can see what all of your little people are doing in their homes like a friendly, medieval intelligence agency.
Visually speaking, the game does quite well. The simplicity and art style means that there’s not generally a whole lot to look at, but you can tell what’s a tree, what’s a house, and what’s an angry mason. The cubular nature of Stonehearth means that when you’ve got a decent settlement going, it’s satisfying to behold from a distance as all of your minions run around fulfilling their various purposes. Unfortunately, it also means that by the time you’ve got more than ten settlers you will inevitably get a few lookalikes. In the time of direst need, you don’t want to accidentally send Tom the friendly Chef to defend the town from wolves instead of Bryn the brave Knight.
Just like the graphics, the audio fills its purpose and nothing more. The musical score is surprisingly relaxing as a soundtrack to constant hauling, placing, crafting and eating. Even more surprising is the tension it creates when invaders come to town. Even if they do sometimes look like ridiculous clay models.
So all said, the game looks, sounds and runs well. But the real problems titles like these tend to face aren’t normally technical. The question most people will ask is ‘what am I aiming for’? Technological advancements come in the form of upgrading or unlocking jobs. Archers end up as knights. Blacksmiths become engineers. Trappers can unlock the secrets of shepherding, and while it’s definitely cute it’s far from inventing steam engines. Beyond that fairly shallow area, there’s little room for advancements.
Trials and tribulations
The first thing I did in Winterfell, my shamefully unoriginally named settlement, is build a shared sleeping quarters. Six beds for five people meant that, surely, by the time it was done there would be a roof over everyone’s heads and room for a new addition. How long could it take?
Six nights passed before I’d even built this first abode. During that precious time, as my civilisation took its baby steps, there were many hurdles to overcome. First, everyone disappeared after I’d sent them digging for stone. A full day of confusion passed before I realised they were all slowly starving while sitting in the bottom of a quarry pit. I missed the memo about manually placing ladders for their freedom.
Then construction was inexplicably halted due to a nerve-wracking red exclamation mark. Eventually, I deciphered the riddle which turned out to be the house missing some small and fiddly stone bits. I never actually placed the Mason’s table that begins in your inventory. Kiran was, rightfully, livid.
Finally, on the eve of Sleeping House #1’s final tile being placed, the town came under attack. Thankfully, the squad of undead spawned up on top of a nearby cliffside, and couldn’t get to my village without ladders or natural hills to clamber down. Instead, they simply leered down at my people and made noises. Much like in reality, construction was generally slowed down by the people involved. Hans is a talkative man. Every roof tile or floorboard placed required a self-congratulation and a quick chat about said floorboard, the weather, or the ominous dead standing atop the nearby hill.
By and large, it’s satisfying as hell to watch as your army of labourers march around, drag blocks, and slowly build their own town. In Stonehearth, you’re not really building to gain numbers. It’s always either population, coins, resources with these gigs. Sure, you need to chop down trees from time to time or dig up rocks. But that’s really a means to an end. The real objective is just to build up. There are no targets to meet, other than those you set yourself. Every now and then, a trader might swing by and ask you to craft him 10 window frames in exchange for 4 bolts of cloth, but that’s really it.
Once I started to care about the Hearthlings, I found myself building a new home so that the farmer had somewhere close to his fields to sleep. I found myself expanding the mason’s shop, so Kiran and Kenna had more space and less arguments. At around 3am, when I should have been resting ready for work the next day, I found myself planning out a massive tavern. Somewhere for my Hearthlings and I to rest, ironically.
Not everything comes from a list of templates. Sure, there’s the basic house, dining hall and crafting place du jour. But if you want your medieval town to be the talk of… well, the valley, then you’ll have to design your own buildings. In a few minutes I managed to create a hovel that was passably nice and didn’t stick out too much.
With time, practise and patience I can see some real masterpieces coming out of Stonehearth. The trailer shows enormous player made cathedrals, castles and cities far bigger and better than anything this decidedly average man could devise. Now that it’s out for real, the ‘Let’s Plays’ will pick up, the Stonehearth community will grow, and we’ll see bigger and better things each week.
Should I buy it?
I sincerely hope the game does well, considering how the developers nurtured it so carefully for five years. After playing it for most of the week, I’m satisfied with the results and could quite easily keep going for a few more days just to see how large Winterfell can grow. The experience is what I was promised back in 2013. I got to watch as buildings slowly rose from nothing, unique folk interacted, and a natural medieval community began to flourish.
Playing on the standard mode and not hardcore, it’s been a lovely stroll down easy street. Being able to switch off from my life of constant engagement and just enjoy the simplicity was truly my most cherished part of it.
If you’re looking to manage environmental policies and bus routes, then play Cities Skylines. If you prefer to watch lots of pixely miners die in hilariously brutal ways, it’s Dwarf Fortress. For sci-fi fans who want to settle new planets (and also die a lot), play Rimworld. But if, like me, what you’re after is a relaxing and satisfying way to spend a weekend, then Stonehearth may just be the game for you. My advice would be to pop Lord of The Rings on in the background, shut the curtains and see what kind of settlement and story form in a few hours. The results will put a smile on your face.