The Matt Column - As Far as the Eye
As far as the eye was a purchase I made because another game made me hungry for engine-building roguelites: No real outside conflict except a ticking timer and some resource setbacks. Instead of twitch reflexes, I wanted to plan ten turns in advance. As far as the eye delivered, but it took some persistence to reach it.
As far as the Eye is a strategy roguelite. You command a small group of units to travel a hex-tiled map and gather resources. Each individual map requires a payment of different resources to move to the next map, sometimes with extra caveats. There’s a flood of water slowly approaching, so you have to act fast and efficiently. Sometimes there are random events that cost resources or hinder your production. There’s also smaller events that can happen, like other caravans stopping by or ruins you can plunder. These usually are beneficial in the long run but cost short-term payments. This presents one of the core balancing mechanics in this game: time.
As Far as the Eye is somewhere between videogame and board game. There are many boardgame mechanics that are streamlined through the digital environment. Experience, food, events, and terrain layout all could be done on tabletop. However, the book keeping would be pretty tedious and so most board games with those mechanics try to simplify them. As Far as the Eye can be more complex or nuanced with some of those mechanics because the computer manages them. Pathfinding makes moving each pupil simple and procedural generation makes each halt unique, moreso than something like most hex-based board games could manage. But there are still elements that feel mostly the same as tabletop games because they don’t need to be complicated. The best example is the flood. Many cooperative and solo board games - that is to say board games without direct pvp - use a timer to force players to make risks and strategize. This is rarely an actual timer but instead usually some threat that slowly progresses. This can be settlers blighting the land in Spirit Island, the slow creeping of zombies and hunger in Dead of Winter, or of course the flood in Forbidden Island. While sometimes these timers can be slowed, there’s almost always the implication that if you wait too long or play too suboptimally you’ll just die. The flood in As Far as the Eye is unstoppable and always visible on screen. Its presence is always felt, so the player is aware of how fast they have to act. It’s also preceded by a major vagary, a large threat that doesn’t end the game immediately but is very dangerous. Its details don’t appear until about halfway through the flood timer. In general vagaries give you enough time to prepare for them if you stop what your pupils are doing just to address it. Vagaries are also the main source of damage to buildings and pupils, which means that stockpiling healing and repair materials is important. That in turn means you can be prepared for some vagaries pretty easily.
Having threats that are reactable is pretty common in strategy games. The vagaries are a combination of input and output randomness - they give you time to make decisions around them but they could have effects you can’t prepare for in time (say, if you have no medicine). When pupils are constantly eating food and you need to gather resources to leave, you might not have time to prepare for vagaries. This feeling of not having enough is pretty common for engine builders. In competitive engine builders, both time and resource scarcity force players to consider what they are actually able to complete. In a game like Terraforming Mars or Scythe you won’t have time to complete every objective, so you have to choose a few to focus on. As Far as the Eye has a lot of systems that improve your pupil’s quality of life - building upgrades, caravan knowledge, council upgrades - but I don’t often find myself using them. Maybe I’m not being efficient, but I can make do with only upgrading a few buildings (mainly food production) and a few caravan upgrades. Council upgrades are something I haven’t touched because the time and resources involved to even unlock the feature hardly ever seem worth it. As I add more pupils to the tribe I keep finding myself building more farms and making more food to support them, so I don’t often feel like I have excess workers to send to resources that aren’t required to progress. On the other hand, I’m willing to experiment.
As Far as the Eye has a scoring system based on how many pupils you have at the end of the game. Since food costs really add up with each new member, but pupils add extra production, this makes sense. When I play the game I feel inclined to try and recruit more than the previous run. That makes me want to think about better food engines, which makes me consider better opening strategies, and so forth. To me, that’s the sign of a good engine builder. I personally like engine building games where I can spend time outside of the game thinking of and developing strategies. While many people dislike memorization, and I understand why, to me I already spend so much time thinking about games when not playing them. Working on new builds or new openers is like solving a puzzle, and trying them in-game is enjoyable. It’s a gameplay loop that bleeds into its metagame time. The scoring encourages this but doesn’t require it either. I’ve been able to barely win by only focusing on basic food gathering and the immediate tasks to progress, so maybe it’ll be easier if I can optimize? The game’s straightforward resource production makes planning things out pretty easy. I can do math in my head over whether sending 2 pupils to wood on turn 1 is better than sending 1, or when those might be more or less effective. Most resources are gained in multiples of 10 but the most important upgrades cost multiples of 10, meaning the macro decisions are even easier to calculate.
Not every game needs to be designed around meta-game time. However, I think part of why roguelites and competitive games are popular is because they have that. I can look up other people’s strategies, watch streamers to learn how to improve, go on message boards or discord servers to discuss runs, and just talk to friends about the game. You can play these games solitary just fine, but the depth of breadth of information lends itself to communal strategizing. Personally I’m only sometimes good at developing strategies myself, so I’ll gladly take any help I get. Even then, I won my first run of this game once I actually spent time thinking of my first few turns and thinking ahead of what I might need. I was rewarded for meta-game time. Now, I’m interested to look up other people playing not because I’m unimaginative but because I want to see how others play them differently. Games are unique to whomever plays them. Watching someone else playing a game is different to playing a game yourself because they make different choices. Roguelites and roguelikes have a litany of small choices, and engine builders lend themself to having small impactful choices as well. That’s why I think As Far as the Eye works so well, and why I hope to see more games in the same genre-mashed space.