Hey everyone, I bit the bullet and purchased Timber and Stone last week when it came out on Steam, and I wanted to talk about some of its gameplay/mechanics compared to Stonehearth.
Before I begin, I want to clarify that I really enjoy both games, and that I want Stonehearth to succeed in the most epic way possible. That being said, most of my points revolve around Timber and Stone (henceforth referred to as T&S), so please forgive me if it seems like I am trying to sell you guys on getting into T&S. Like I stated above in the topic title, I want Stonehearth to be awesome, and I’ve noticed a few things Stonehearth could definitely adopt and mold to fit its formula. With that all done, I will get into my points:
- Difficulty, Dwarf Fortress “Fun”, and Frustration
T&S is hard. I’m going to share a screenshot of my 1st town on T&S.
That’s Rickeman, one of my former townies; he was a lvl 8 (out of 20) infantry, armed with a club because I hadn’t spent any time really making weapons yet. He died to two skeletons, even though he had the help of two other infantry fighting alongside him. The town Rickeman lived consisted of 8 people to start; after this encounter I want to say it was down to 5. I had to abandon all of the crops, quit cutting wood, and dedicate all of my town members to digging a trench to keep out invaders. I’ve stopped playing on that town for fear of the inevitable; they are all going to die and I already know this so I decided to start a new town.
The difficulty in T&S is pretty steep; it’s not Dwarf Fortress but it certainly will challenge you. There is a real sense of challenge, and achievement when you finally make it. It took me almost 30 hours to build this and I’m very proud of it. That’s my 4th town, the one where had the sense to build a moat, had decent settlers, and was lucky enough to not get slaughtered by a pack of wolves on the 4th day.
While I really liked the difficulty of T&S I did not like the frustration of not knowing anything. T&S has complicated production loops, and while the mechanics seem similar to Stonehearth it included a mechanic I had no idea was present in the game; your early-game stone tools break.
No big deal you say, you can just make more! Yes, you are entirely right. I can make more tools. Oh wait, you need wood to make tools? You haven’t got any wood? Well that’s great, you can cut down another tree. Oh wait, your woodcutter doesn’t have an axe because it broke? That’s okay you can just…uh wait several days for a trader to come by…in the mean time all of your workers can uh…
This is precisely what happened to my 2nd and 3rd towns, within an hour the stone axes I was generously provided with while settling had been broken, and all my wood had been spent making pickaxes and hammers. I had no axes, in the only period of the game where you can freely explore the map gathering wood before the literal wolves come. As you can imagine, this completely crippled both of those towns; I had managed by blind luck to overcome this the first time by naively telling my crafter to make 5 of each type of tool, only to be defeated by monsters because I did not use my resources wisely. On my 2nd town when I tried to start building an army immediately, I quickly became trapped in production loops where I needed both a resource to make a tool, and to get the resource I needed the tool. Run out of both, or accidentally let your crafters use all of the resource to make other things and you are pretty much doomed. My 3rd town failed because I lost my stonecutter to a pack of wolves, and without someone to keep up my tool supply, I quickly ran out of tools. The new stonecutter immediately went to work, but because I had already queued up a large amount of bricks, he used up all of the stone, and my miners had broken their picks in the meantime.
This was incredibly frustrating, and what bothers me was that stone tools broke with use not immediately obvious. I’m sure it was meant to make T&S more difficult by making the player pay attention to his resources, but all it did was create a situation where I had to micro-manage any important resource. When I’m building a castle or fort to fend off wolves, goblins, and a fire-wielding necromancer, I do not want to check up how many stone hammers I have in comparison to how much stone I have. I want to build thick walls, dig a deep moat, and train men to man said walls. Stone hammers usually aren’t of concern when there are undead spirits roaming the woods that can catch people on fire, but I’ve lost two towns to stone hammers, and only one to a necromancer.
What Stonehearth can learn from T&S, is that there’s a happy middle ground between difficulty, fun, and frustration; combat. Make the combat hard, give the player a goal to work towards that is actually difficult, but under no circumstances allow the player to miss a relatively small detail that ends up killing their town. I know that some people may find losing a town to something seemingly insignificant might be fun, but I think the vast majority of Stonehearth players want a challenge, but that challenge needs to be legitimate in the form of monsters, environment, or even random encounters. If you have it to where the player can fail because of their ignorance of a minor game mechanic, you can very easily frustrate and isolate the player.
- Progression, Pacing and the Blacksmiths
T&S is not only hard, it’s painfully slow. That picture of the half-completed fort? Took about 30 hours of in-game time. An in-game day takes an hour of real time on the normal speed. Add in pauses for monster encounters, any planning you might want to do as far as resources or construction on pause, and a productive day might take an hour and a half to two hours. One of the very cool things about T&S’s pacing is how its very much a build up to a massive leap forward. You will spend 4 days collecting enough stone for a castle wall, another 2 days converting the stone into bricks, but only one day to put the wall up.
Compared to Stonehearth though, it makes sense. I got on Alpha 12 today, and in one sitting of about an hour and a half (granted, I played mostly at double time) had a town of 14 hearthlings, a blacksmith at level 5, had unlocked every profession, defeated the goblin chief and was building for pure aesthetics.
Remember that half-completed fort I showed off above in T&S? Compare that to this castle I made during Alpha 11.
I really like this castle, but I’m much more proud of my T&S fort. Why? Because it took a lot more time and effort to build a moat and half of a wall in T&S than an entire walled fortress in Stonehearth. However, I don’t think that slowing everything in Stonehearth down or making it more of a grind is a good idea; there’s a better solution.
One thing I’ve learned in strategy games is that you are often give short-term gain versus long term gain dilemmas. In Civ games, you can spend your limited resources (production and time) to build troops to conquer your neighbors, or you can build an economy which allows you to increase production. Spend too much on troops, and you are crippled when your enemies can raise an army twice as fast as you; spend too much on production and infrastructure and you have no army when the barbarians come. Stonehearth and T&S are both strategy games at their heart, and while they are not turned based, they can add dilemmas by allowing players to tweak game pacing. Tweaking pacing in key places, such as food production can create interesting dilemmas and mechanics. In T&S it takes a while to grow crops, so I had a few fishermen I would convert to farmers during harvest/planting time to get the work done faster, and I would turn most of my farmers into other crafters during growing times. There is also a dilemma in T&S about training your citizens for combat; any time spent training for either the archer or infantry skill means they aren’t being productive elsewhere in your town. If you are desperate for a crafter or job immediately, you can forgo training but they be absolutely worthless whenever they get in a fight.
The only somewhat slow pacing in Stonehearth and its only real strategic dilemma so far is building up your blacksmith to where they can make steel. It takes time to mine enough copper and tin to get your blacksmith to an appropriate level to where they can make iron, but if you are like me, many players want to save their iron for making steel further down the road. This is an interesting dilemma; you can either save your iron for superior steel down the road and wait longer to get there, or you can use your iron to boost your blacksmith faster, wasting precious steel. However right now, you can kind of have your cake and eat it too by turning your bronze into weapons/armor that boost your blacksmith’s experience relatively quickly and do not take away from your future steel supply.
The pacing and progression of the blacksmith in Stonehearth is similar to T&S blacksmith; you can either bide your time and save the most important resources, or you can blow through precious goods to get something inferior much faster. T&S takes this a step further by actually allowing you to refine copper (their lowest ingots) into bronze/iron level, then from there into a steel level by adding refining ores. Basically you can use 2 copper to make a low ingot, and from there upgrade it to a medium ingot by adding tin. Once its a medium ingot, it can become high quality ingot by adding coal.
T&S attempts to prevent you from having your cake and eating it too resource wise by making the lowest ingots a possible prerequisite to high level ingots (similar to the iron/steel dilemma in Stonehearth but extended all the way down) but also drops the ball by having their blacksmith level up fairly quickly even just making ingots. An interesting way to force players to make the choice between having to level their crafter or save their resources would be to actually minimize experience gain on ingots or other semi-finished goods; basically forcing the player to take a very long time to level their crafters if they want to save their resources for the higher-end gear or forcing them to make sub-optimal gear with their resources to level their crafters faster. Dilemmas like these create differing strategies, and can create situations where if the player makes the right or wrong choice, it can help or hinder their next moves.
Speaking of semi-finished goods; I know that Team Radiant isn’t a huge fan of them (specifically bricks.) But they really do a great job of making players consider their resources better. It’s much easier to make the dilemmas I’m talking about when there are bricks, timber, and ingots that are useful in multiple recipes and scarce versus just giving the player almost unlimited resources. Scarcity drives the world’s entire economic model; let it drive your video game economy and the player’s choices.
TL;DR for this section, slow down the progression, but allow players to make strategic decisions that allow them to influence pacing for better or worse.
- The T&S Storage Mechanic
T&S and Stonehearth approach item storage in two very different ways; in T&S you have specialized storage containers for different products; weapon racks hold only weapons, tool crates only contain tools, and hay stacks hold only wheat. You have a town-wide storage need for the categories based on how many of those resources you have, but the inventory is shared across each of the same storage containers. While you can fill up across the whole town, you can’t have a particular container fill up.
What this effectively means is you can have a masonry storage area in a mine, and your miners can deposit stone into this mason storage piece that can hold stone, dirt, and bricks. Across the map at your stone mason’s crafting bench, your mason can walk two feet over to a 2nd masonry storage and pick up the same stone your miners just threw into the masonry storage in the mine; the inventory is collective to that type of storage, which prevents your workers from hauling things around all day.
This is both awesome and overpowered when compared to Stonehearth’s system. I have a group of miners in my mine that have a tool chest, food crate, metal storage, and masonry storage. If I sealed those miners in the mine, and sealed off my town to outside contact via a moat without a drawbridge, my miners could still teleport materials via these storage containers. If you think that’s a bit OP for a game that otherwise has been extremely unforgiving, I completely agree with you.
But, Stonehearth’s system is frustrating. You can put a crate down in a mine, and let your miners fill it up, and even better tell them to move the full crate into town for your blacksmith to use, preventing countless trips back and forth. But do you as a player actually want to do that? That requires micro-management, and while it certainly works, I’m personally of the mindset that unless your mine is very far away, its not worth paying attention to.
So, there must be a middle ground right? My idea is to have some sort of bulk hauling device, like a cart or pack mules or whatever Tom and Tony decide would be cool. A priority storage system (a thing I’ve seen people mention a few times on the discourse) where storage crates can be designated as having priority over others could be used to encourage trips back and forth by this cart, and allow the player to focus on more pressing issues. If you want an example from another brilliant game, Prison Architect’s logistics system where you can designate which kitchens serve which canteens would be a good guideline. Having some crates feed into others via a hauling service would be very cool and encourage the player to make roads, bridges, and wider tunnels for carts to travel more efficiently. Having something like this would eliminate the OP item-teleportation, while making taking very little micro-management and adds mechanics to the game that could be interesting.
*Side note on T&S’s storage; I thought having specialized storage objects, such as the weapon rack that only served one type of item was very cool for aesthetics and design reasons. I had weapon racks on top of my fort walls so my soldiers could refill their arrows during an attack without leaving their posts, and my farm looked way cooler with giant hay stacks next to my barn. What’s even better is that these storage have a legitimate purpose, as opposed to just decoration.
- User Interface
This is my final point, and the one where Stonehearth really takes T&S to town. The UI in T&S isn’t bad. But it’s minimal, and there’s no master commands. If a necromancer came knocking on my door, I can’t mass draft my citizens into my army. I can’t tell my settlers to wear armor across the board, so I have to find them and pick them out individually and tell them what to wear. I like that I can do that, but I don’t like doing it twenty times. I especially did not like the fact there was no master list of my settlers; I was unaware I had acquired so many settlers until it displayed the amount on my save file. Until I saw this, I legitimately thought I had around 30 settlers in Orsina, my most recent save.
Stonehearth features like the upcoming Hearthling Therapy, tools like the town defense mode, and the crafting menus really make the game much more user friendly. I am absolutely fascinated by Dwarf Fortress, but I never got into it due to the UI; I think Stonehearth’s UI is great, and I really want to commend Team Radiant for what they have so far and what they have hinted is coming in the future.
T&S’s lack of master control menus, places where I could quickly figure out which of the 40+ settlers I had trained for combat when the wolves growled at the door really frustrated me, and really took me out of the moment. If there was a town defense button where all of my citizens immediately turned into either archers or infantry based on which skill was higher, fights would be a lot more fun and fast paced. Manually clicking on the 5 closest settlers to turn them into soldiers, and watching in horror as my woodcutter decided the perfect time to go cut wood was when a pack of 12 wolves sat on the drawbridge was not fun, and I was pretty upset when I had to bury that woodcutter because of a lack of good UI.
I’m not going to give any suggestions besides what you guys are already doing; keep giving the players the power to easily make master, town-level decisions, while keeping the features to allow us to fine tweak our individual settlers.
It’s pretty late here (3AM) and I have an interview tomorrow, so I think I’m going to end it here. I really would like to hear from everyone what they think. If anyone else has tried T&S, I’d especially like to hear your thoughts, since you might have gotten entirely different views out of your experiences playing both Stonehearth and T&S.