Medieval city-builder Foundation is a welcome escape from reality

On Monday morning, I struggled to get out of bed. I felt a strong need to conceal myself from a hostile world, where so many people are angry and scared; where the news is horrible and social media is a hate-swamp.

I pulled the duvet over my head, and thought about how I needed to spend the day playing a game — any game — that might ease my anxiety. I grabbed my computer, dug through my Steam library, and found the perfect little haven.

Foundation from developer Polymorph is an early access game about setting up and maintaining a peaceful, prosperous medieval town. It’s a SimCity kinda thing, but its layout is organic, rather than grid-like. Its systems feel more human and less numerical than most city-building games.

At first, I’m presented with a pretty landscape of verdant hills, full of bountiful promise. Forests are dotted with berry bushes and rock formations. This is a familiar vista to anyone who’s ever played a resource-gathering game, like Age of Empires. The trees are there to be chopped, the berries to be picked, and the stone to be quarried.

Foundation’s natural abundance doesn’t exist to feed military campaigns. They are the raw materials of creation, for building a place of safety and happiness. There is no conquest in this game, no complex hierarchy of soldiery to be upgraded, no acts of imperial violence.

Polymorph Games

I begin by constructing basic buildings, little more than huts, that are required to store primary resources. I assign my villagers to their jobs. Other villagers show up and I put them to work.

In time, the game unlocks new buildings that allow me to trade with passing merchants, and to create complex materials like clothing, foodstuffs, tools and luxury goods. These require more advanced buildings, such as a colliery and a tailor’s shop. They also allow me to build showpieces, like a church or a manor house. In turn, these unlock yet more upgrades.

I’m obliged to keep my people happy and well fed, and to maintain a healthy treasury. Meanwhile, messengers from abroad bring me requests for supplies, which are rewarded with grants of extra land. My fiefdom increases. My responsibilities multiply.

Foundation offers plenty of peril points for the incompetent town administrator, such as starvation, population flight, and bankruptcy, but the game is mostly happy to let me do as I please. It’s more about personal choice, creativity, and fulfillment than it is about winning.

Polymorph Games

I choose the parts of the land I want to use for housing, and those that I wish to exploit for industry. I’m allowed to be a generous custodian of nature, replanting lands that I’ve stripped. I make use of a paintbrush interface for district planning, rather than a grid. This gives the game a distinctive pre-industrial feel, which plays out as my town grows into a ramshackle, higgledy-piggledy warren of streets and shambles.

The building themselves, and the detail of them, have a lovely European medieval feel of rough-hewn rocks and wonky church-steeples. I have fun personalizing structures with gargoyles and other iconography.

My people are easy to please. If I wish, I can work hard to make them really happy by providing them with short commutes to work, or by making sure they have access to luxuries. But micro-management is beyond my downbeat mood right now. I let them go about their lives in a state of mild contentment. In general, they are an unfussy, undemonstrative bunch, and I enjoy spending my time with them.

Foundation was in early access for a long spell, and is still being updated. It demonstrates a smattering of annoying user interface quirks, including an over-reliance on multiple mini-windows and weird English syntax. But its main charm is that it provides a peaceful, relaxing world where challenge exists, but isn’t paramount. It is (and I say this without irony or malice) a safe place.

This week, I needed a game that could make me forget, or at least briefly ignore, the trauma of the real world. Foundation provided the answer. If you’re in the mood for a place of solace, it’s available on Steam.

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