TFC: The Fertile Cresent - PAX Australia Preview
“Your eyes are bigger than your stomach,” is something my parents said to me a great many times, definitely at the all-you-can-eat Sizzler “salad” bar (which had ice cream) in the early 90s, and other places. Obviously, this turn of phrase means that you have accidentally apportioned yourself more food than you are able to eat. I have said it to my children.
The Fertile Crescent relies on players having a childlike appetite for abundance. It is a real-time strategy experience, but one in which food drives play. I first played this on the pandemonious show floor, at PAX, so it was surprising to be suddenly lost in a deep state of flow. Now, after engaging with more of the early access build, in the quiet of my lounge room, I can better appreciate why this is so immersive.
Let’s begin with how food moves, in and out. Most importantly, starvation is a fail state, and fast, so you’re immediately paying attention to surrounding berries. I experimented with how many villagers should be foraging and found that (probably) two-thirds needed to be doing so, for most of the early game. There are also animals to hunt, even if some will put up a fight.
Because starting resources are not replenished, switching to agriculture early is smart. Farms are placed on more, or less, fertile ground, which affects the speed with which crops are generated. Each farm is worked by one villager, giving a sense that this is more efficient than foraging, even if explicit information about the movement of your most precious resource is kept under the hood. You can see how many villagers are allocated to finding food, and how many pieces of food are being consumed every 10 seconds, but not how many are coming in. Villagers also have to transport food, and other resources, to a collection point before they are counted.
I asked designer, André Read, for more insight and he said, “A higher level of food surplus also provides bonuses to villager training speed and an increase in knowledge generation, which rewards you with knowledge points, to spend unlocking village improvements in the technology tree.” I don’t think I understood this so much as I felt it. When you have a lot of food, things just work more smoothly. If I have one criticism of the system, it’s that berries, at least, could deteriorate over time, or past a maximum cap.
Feeling how food works contributes to immersiveness, but many other of the game’s aspects do, as well. I love that scope is clear at the outset; you can see everything you’ll be able to build and research, yet organising game pieces effectively requires practice. There’s no pause, or slower speed, including in single-player games, so learning is more a wash of less successful attempts, rather than immediate perfection.
After food, you’ll secure a steady supply of clay, wood and metal, used for higher-tier buildings and units. Villager total is capped based on available housing, but you’ll need to expand cautiously because every new mouth needs to eat. This is especially relevant when creating an army, who don’t forage or farm, but does hunt. Interestingly, if your opponent raids, normal villagers are a surprisingly tough addition to your military defence.
The combat part of the game involves building incrementally better units, and researching their upgrades, forging gear for them, and so on. It feels like unit type and positioning matter a great deal, as well as defensive advantages provided by towers for ranged units, even if perhaps too many higher tier units are unlocked together with the palace.
As your population reaches the hundreds, it’s challenging to make sure everyone is busy and the balance is right. The UI has a few neat solutions, like allowing the selection of all idle villagers in one big clump, but the complexity and scale of the late game demands all of your attention. I tried to prioritise and cycle tasks, like first making sure my army was prepared for a raid, then tasking idle villagers, building more farms, checking no one was foraging too far from home, improving pathing, and so on, but the bustling energy, by this stage, requires merely waving one’s hands roughly over the chaos of creation. Like a God, who has bitten off more than she can chew, if you will.
The Fertile Crescent is an immersive, food-focused RTS that you have to feel, rather than understand. On harder difficulties, practicing how to direct these intricate pieces, in the most optimal manner, may just give you an edge, whether your aim is to build a wonder or survive waves of attack. There is also an online multiplayer option.
Read was inspired by the real-world location; The Fertile Crescent, in the Middle East, specifically, “the development of urban centres that happened from the Chalcolithic Age to the Late Bronze Age.” Future builds will feature, “campaigns, more civilizations, and water-based maps that include fishing and naval warfare.” I’m hungry for more.