Strategy games, particularly when set in space, tend to be complicated, stressful, and packed with huge learning curves. Not so with Rymdkapsel. It’s a beautiful minimalistic game of base building mixed with Tetris, skipping all that intimidating micro-management in favor of something more pure. It’s both brilliantly straightforward and just plain brilliant.
Rymdkapsel is a real-time strategy game simplified and streamlined down to its base-building core, a spatial puzzler, and a basic tower defense game all wrapped into one. It has goals — or rather missions — but these need not necessarily match your own.
You build stuff, in space, starting with two minions — little white rectangular dudes — and a tiny supply of three key resources — food, building blocks, and particles. These are generated by certain kinds of buildings — a kitchen for food (by way of a garden), a reactor for blocks, and an extractor for particles. Particles are a finite resource that you mine from particle fields; everything else is theoretically infinite.
I say theoretically because you still do need to have the requisite buildings active, and to have minions assigned to carrying supplies around. Every item must be carried individually by a minion. They do this automatically, provided there’s something to transport and they’re assigned to the task. You have to juggle your minions between Engineering (speeding up the reactors), Food Service, Construction, Defense, and Research.
To make this production and supply line run as smoothly as possible, you’ll need to think carefully about how to build out your station. It’s here that Rymdkapsel works its magic. Buildings are tetronimo — you know, like those pieces in Tetris — shaped, with a random shape queue in the top-left corner showing what’s up next. And every building must be attached to a corridor.
Building out the base; every building type has its own color (there’s a colorblind mode, too).
Highway to Hell
Corridors are like roads; minions use them to get around. They’ll only enter and exit buildings from the one position, so it pays to get a kitchen and quarters near the gardens — since these are all related — and to always keep as direct a path as possible open to anywhere and everywhere. You don’t want your minions walking a few dozen squares to get to something just two tiles away, but this can easily happen.
Much like in Tetris, you find enormous complexity and variation emerging from this challenge of laying tetromino-shaped buildings on a grid — finding some elegant way to make the T and L-shaped pieces play nice with 2×2 squares and 4×1 long pieces. The grid itself is always the same — your start point, the half dozen particle fields, and the four monoliths are always in the same position. It’s you that changes. You live and die by your choices, and these stack up over time.
Now we’re getting big; you’ve got to be careful with pathways.
A Space Odyssey
The Monoliths, meanwhile, are important for two reasons. One is, quite simply, that you chalk off one of the missions if you “research” them all, and another if you research them all in under 45 minutes; the other is that each provides a special bonus — improved efficiency somewhere in your supply chain, for instance, or perhaps more time to prepare for an enemy raid.
You have to build your way to the monoliths, making your base more vulnerable in the process due to sprawl. Enemies don’t destroy buildings or resources, at least, so it’s maybe not as risky as it sounds. But minions move slowly, and waves come increasingly faster and stronger. The more spread out your defenses are, the more shots the flying invaders will rifle off.
“Yes, we’re ‘researching.’”
You have just one defensive building type, which will arm two minions within its walls. Minions assigned to this building shoot at any baddies within their range, but the enemies are smart enough to focus their energies on picking off unarmed minions outside the protection of any weapons. You really don’t want minions dying, because they take a lot of energy to replace.
This results in a constant tension between expanding your base — in terms of both size and population — and protecting it. It only takes one wave going badly to ruin your best laid plans and decimate your forces. The other problem with sprawling bases, you see, is that minions are stupid. They’ll grab food from far away instead of waiting two seconds for the next bit to generate where they are. Sometimes they’ll surprise you with things even more idiotic.
Spread too thin, even just one time, and it could spell the end.
You can’t build things too tight, either, or you’ll find it impossible to expand — especially when you run out of particles. Rymdkapsel lures you into constant expansion by always putting something just beyond your reach. You’re always close to a monolith or another particle field, except when you’re worryingly far away — which isn’t very far at all, but enough to make you freak out because you’re low on resources.
There’s a logic to the game, but I’m not yet convinced that any one strategy will trump all others. Rymdkapsel trades the hectic chaos and micro-management of a typical strategy game for a more relaxed and methodical design that pervades through its every orifice. Its minimalism extends beyond the visuals and sound to affect the pacing, scope, controls, and rules.
Stripped Down for the Better
Its depth, challenge, elegance, and beauty all emerge from its simplicity. Rymdkapsel is one of those games that proves that less is often more, and that a compelling experience owes more to what you took out than what you put in. The one exception here is that the minions’ intelligence could use some tweaking, or perhaps a manual override, to stop them wandering off on suicide missions during or right before an attack because they prioritized the wrong thing.
You can slightly reduce this problem by prioritizing one construction over the others, but that doesn’t help when it’s food or defense that the offending minion’s assigned to.
There’s also perhaps a valid concern that the end-game is a bit too hands-off — once you’ve built a solid base and expanded to the point where you’re able to research every monolith and exploit all the resources, it becomes a game of cat and mouse with the endless waves of enemies that come thicker and faster. But for me the challenge there becomes an engaging one of survival.
In that sense, Rymdkapsel is just like Tetris. You build yourself up for success, then watch in horror as best-laid plans fall apart around you. Only here your fight against the inevitable is likely to last an hour or two, and it actually has something approximating an ending.