A boardgame that doesn't realise it's a boardgame
PC, iOS, Android
$24.99 on Steam, free via Netflix
4-8 hours long
Terra Nil is a strategy game where you restore polluted environments to pristine nature by placing high-tech buildings to transform the landscape. The four biomes – a river valley, tropical island, volcanic glacier, and flooded city – gradually increase the complexity of the restoration process, but the fundamental gameplay doesn’t change that much.
The game is self-described as a “reverse city builder”, which is a nice term but sets up the expectation that it’s like SimCity except instead of building a sprawling metropolis on wilderness, you’re doing the opposite. This is not actually what you spend most of your time doing, and more importantly, the gameplay is also completely different to SimCity. It’d be more accurate to call Terra Nil a “futuristic single-player rewilding digital boardgame” but that’s quite the mouthful and would probably put a lot of players off.
You’ll spend a lot of time in Terra Nil watching as the changes from your new buildings ripple outwards, like black wasteland being cleaned of toxins and turning brown, or a forest being seeded across grassland. This is very satisfying and pretty, and if you like that sort of thing then you will probably find the game worth playing despite all the many flaws I am about to describe.
One of the challenges with designing strategy games is how you map themes like sci-fi exploration or playing politics in medieval Europe onto specific game concepts like “this unit can teleport” or “this policy makes half of your population happier” in a way that makes them understandable, or even better, completely intuitive. Terra Nil has an exceptionally strong theme, which is great for marketing but leads it into all sorts of design problems that you see right from the very start.
Your first building in the first biome is a windmill. These generate power for nearby buildings. That makes sense! We’ve all heard of windmills and we know they’re green. It’s a little odd that you can only build them on rocks given that the platonic image of a windmill sits in the countryside, but that’s a small problem.
Next, you build toxin scrubbers. I would have guessed that in the real world this is an incredibly intensive activity involving lots of trucks and treatment plants, but a “toxin scrubber” building works well enough here. After that, irrigators enable plants to grow on clean land, but they can only spray water in two directions, so you need to rotate and fit them together efficiently, because all of these buildings consume some of your limited resources. Other concepts also fall into the “weird but fine” category, like the solar amplifier that sets land on fire to generate nutritious ash; one would have thought that a flamethrower would’ve worked, but the building does look pretty.
It’s toward the end of a level where things get confusing. To fully restore a biome, it’s not enough to introduce a healthy mix of plants, you also need to add at least three species of animals, all of which have their own special conditions; for example, timber wolves need forests and nearby prey. I thought I’d satisfied those conditions, so I did a sonar scan in one of my forests. Sure enough, the forest was there, but not any nearby prey in the adjacent grassland. I did another sonar scan in the grassland, which detected deer. So then I go to scan the same bit of forest again (the old scan now helpfully and suspiciously reading as “outdated” unlike other results) and yes, the wolves appear.
How does this make any sense?!? My sonar scans clearly weren’t detecting existing deer and wolves; they were bringing them into existence. Putting aside the fact that it’s weird to sonar scan for animals, wouldn’t it make more sense if I was, I don’t know, airdropping or releasing these animals, rather than looking for them? I’m not trying to be pedantic here, I struggled with this bit of the game until I realised exactly what was going on.
Games don’t always need to make sense or reflect reality, but if they don’t make sense according to the player’s understanding of the fictional world, which in Terra Nil’s case is meant to be pretty close to our own, they introduce a hurdle for players learning the rules. Any hurdle can be overcome or ignored if the rest of the game is fun enough – but if it isn’t, well…
Levels don’t end until you’ve recycled all your buildings. It’s a clever trick that leaves a finished biome completely free of any footprint or technology, which feels great when you’re done. But the process of tidying up your buildings makes little sense, and worse, it’s super boring.
In the first level, you can recycle buildings in two ways. The first is by constructing recycling silos that essentially vacuum up all nearby buildings into them. The second way is by using a recycling drone-boat to collect buildings vacuumed up by loading docks along waterways; it’s the best way to recycle buildings near water. We’re a high tech civilisation that can airdrop buildings but we still need boats to recycle.
All of this was a mindless task until I belatedly discovered the recycling silos I’d been building everywhere would also need to be recycled – not very eco-conscious of me, sorry. So who recycles the recycling silos? The loading docks, which recycle themselves after they’re used. Why do they get to recycle themselves? Good question. I only discovered this by searching online - a UI oddity or bug meant I didn’t realise loading docks could do this.
Unfortunately, I’d had to place many of my recycling silos out of range of any waterway – and therefore any loading dock. What to do? Use a building which I’d forgotten about and whose purpose I didn’t understand at first - the excavator, which can create a new riverbed but poisons the land around it. Yes: to recycle my final recycling silos, I would have to build several massive excavators to laser channels through the earth and poison it. At one point I lasered through the wolves and the deer I “introduced”. Is this really worth it to pick up one last recycling silo? Why can’t the game just dock me some points, or do it automatically?
It was at this point where I thought about abandoning the game. I decided against it because it seemed like it wouldn’t take all that long to dig the channels, even if it felt annoying and silly, especially as I’d had to build locks in rivers so my recycling drone could get up hills, then another loading dock to recycle the lock after I’d used it. Just typing this stuff out makes me tired.
Thankfully, the second level sees recycling drones travel along monorails, the construction of which is less damaging than blowing up the land, but only by a little. Monorail stations can only be constructed on rocks, which are quite rare and often not in the places you need them to be. The good news is that you can build “rockhoppers” to launch rocks to better locations. This is, of course, entirely ridiculous within the fiction. Launching rocks hither and thither to blanket the island with monorails is easy, though it does leave behind a trail of rockhopper buildings that, you guessed it, also need to be recycled.
My resulting monorail network took a circuitous route around the island because I was being a good ecologist and not overbuilding, for which I was duly punished: the recycling drone took 30 seconds to reach the end of my network and pick up the stuff there. I had to do this 20-30 times, and while it got faster as the network shrunk, it still added up. Quite why the game makes you watch the drone trundle along the monorails is beyond me – it’s not like Terra Nil is a real time game, this could’ve been shown instantly.
“Tidy up before you go” is a brilliant concept. It’s just awful to play.
I abandoned the game at the end of the third level, an arctic biome. It introduced novel concepts like using seismic charges to create lava flows, which could be used by power stations and then later solidified into rock, which could then be seeded with algae, and so on. All of this struck me more as hardcore terraforming than actual ecosystem restoration, but regardless, it was visually striking and the land transformations were delightful. The overall gameplay wasn’t much different from the previous two levels, which was both bad (since it could’ve done with being more fun and interesting) and good (because I didn’t have to learn anything confusing and could zone out).
The problem came right at the end when I noticed I was running low on resources. You need resources to construct buildings and perform various actions, and you earn resources by performing activities that restore the environment (let’s just ignore precisely how that makes sense). I’d forgotten that recycling buildings provides resources, so I was trying various other things when I ran out of resources entirely, at which point the game ended. It didn’t let me undo my latest action or rewind to an earlier save point (there are no save points, it seems); I could only restart the level completely, having lost almost an hour of gameplay.
This was so demoralising that I decided: no more. I’m not a huge strategy gamer, and I’m certainly not a very good one, but I have played a fair number and I can’t remember the last time I was ejected this abruptly upon failing, with so much time and progress lost. It’s plain bad game design.
SimCity isn’t just a strategy game, it’s a real time strategy game. When you build a school or create a new residential area, it takes time for education rates to change and houses to be built. These effects and thousands more are all unfolding and interacting simultaneously to produce a living simulation of the real world. Sure, you can speed it up and slow it down and even pause it to catch your breath, but you can’t – and wouldn’t want to – move it forward step by step, it’d take too long and it isn’t how the game is designed. That’s what sets it apart from strategy boardgames like Terraforming Mars or Puerto Rico, which are just as well-designed and fun, but are turn-based rather than real time.
And so: I don’t have any problem with Terra Nil being a turn-based rather than real time game. My problem is that Terra Nil is a boardgame that doesn’t realise it’s a boardgame. If it did, it might adopt some of their good practices, like:
Explaining all the rules at the start. I get it, you don’t want to overwhelm new players with endless instructions, but Terra Nil constantly makes you regret your choices by revealing new game mechanics and saying, “I bet you wish you didn’t put your combustor there, now there’s no space for a monorail line!” While this makes replays more interesting, it confuses and demoralises new players. If you really don’t want to give new players all the rules, at least make things feel fair!
Game mechanics that fit with the theme. Strong themes like Terra Nil’s are usually good – they make the game distinctive and can help people understand and remember rules if they’re congruent with the theme. If they aren’t, you only get more friction. Does it really make sense that you can move buildings via monorail? If I can place buildings anywhere, why can’t I recycle buildings from anywhere? You get used to it eventually, but I was never comfortable.
Chance. For all its lush visuals, the game left me cold because it was so deterministic. Boardgames have dice rolls and shuffled decks that can surprise you, Terra Nil had no surprises beyond what’s already programmed in. Given it’s a game about restoring nature, it’s odd not to see feedback loops and chaos.
Meaningful and considered decisions. Most boardgames, if they have a map or playing area, will only have a few dozen tiles, low hundreds at the most. The world is coarse but the decisions are big. Terra Nil’s biomes are thousands of tiles big yet your decisions feel smaller and inconsequential. There are usually only a few sensible places to put buildings so your task becomes limited to picking their precise locations. The game helpfully shows you the number of resources you’ll get before placing a building, but I often felt I was just stabbing around in highlighted regions to see how high a number I could get.
Sid Meier, the creator of Civilization, says a good game is a series of interesting decisions. But Civilization’s first couple of iterations had a lot of busywork like building hundreds of tiles’ worth of roads and railroads and irrigation, none of which was interesting beyond the initial decision. It was satisfying but repetitive. Meier would automate or streamline these systems in later iterations, mostly for the better. Terra Nil could’ve done with some of that streamlining.
Terra Nil is an impressive achievement given that it was made by just three people, and many will enjoy the game’s unusual theme and beautiful visuals. But those things can’t rescue a design that mistakes cleverness for fun. If you’re going to make a good turn-based strategy game, you should stop thinking about SimCity and start thinking about boardgames. And if you’re making a game about restoring ecosystems, don’t make players blast lasers through forests in the name of recycling.
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