Back in the ancient times known as the 90’s the city-builder genre was the shit, and we had loads to choose from. Pharoah, Caeser, Zeus, Stronghold – those are just a few examples of these games, and over the years these ideas have been built upon, modified and occasionally even thrown out the window, giving rise to a whole host of new and awesome titles. But there’s always that urge to go back to the roots of our nostalgia, and that’s exactly what Nebuchadnezzar aims to do.
Just have a look at the screenshots and you’ll see Nebuchadnezzar successfully captures the look of its inspirations. The isometric view lets you gaze down on nicely detailed buildings, although sadly the environments look quite bare and dull. While the game lacks much environmental noise to help bring your city to life, the music is excellent.
The campaign offers up 12-missions and each one provides a nice, detailed historical context for what you’re doing, which I really appreciate. You’ll start by plonking down some housing so that people will start arriving, all eager to live in your (hopefully) flourishing city. Houses can be upgraded by meeting their various requirements, which in turn means more people can live in the building. So farms to produce wheat that can be baked into bread and cattle farms for milk are next on the agenda, and that means building warehouses to store everything in and markets that can dispatch couriers to travel around the city, providing houses with the goods they need. These couriers actually need their route marked out for them, a weird little dash of micromanagement that adds absolutely nothing to the game.
When you get down to it, Nebuchadnezzar is actually more a game about building up the various supply chains required to upgrade the different classes of citizens. The basic peasants are happy with bread and milk, and then water and ceramics, but the next class of citizen demand finer things from life such as pretty views and a steady stream of fish and dates, a dietary combination I assume makes for some horrific smells. And to upgrade those villas into spacious villas you’ll need to acquire copper to make fancy jewellery and start sending out door-to-door priests, kind of like door-to-door salesmen except instead of selling you a vacuum cleaner they’re selling you God with the bonus promise of life after death or your money back, guaranteed.
Supply chains themselves are frustrating due to the incredibly small transportation ranges of production buildings, warehouses and marketplaces. Production buildings won’t carry their goods very far, and so you end up having to have warehouses absolutely everywhere, and that in turn forces you to wedge things together in awkward ways unless you want to build a lot of caravans to transports good from place to place. Since warehouses don’t hold much, either, you need to limit each one to a single type of produce to ensure transporters carry the maximum possible load to them or risk awkward bottlenecks.
And that’s mostly the game. Although inspired by classic titles like Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar is actually missing a lot of features from those titles such as any form of military, crime, disasters, fires and so on. The only other thing to consider is a very basic trade system where you can send a gift to another city to initiate contact and then sell or import good as required. So most of your time is spent plopping down buildings and making sure the supply chains are linked together properly. By time the fifth or six mission of the 12-mission campaign rolls around you might start thinking that you’ve seen everything Nebuchadnezzar has to offer – and you’d be right. Each subsequent mission introduces some new buildings or citizen classes, and they all play out exactly the same; build up another supply chain by plonking down buildings and occasionally cursing because the production building is one square too far from the damn warehouse.
I started playing Nebuchadnezzar like I would any city-builder, with careful planning and optimizing workflow and managing my population. But then I quickly realized none of that matters. Nebuchadnezzar is a city-builder that lacks any mechanics that drive the player to expand, to build or to do anything. Allow me to explain, starting with money. Typically, a city-builder would handle money by having you pay every employee you have, and may also have some sort of taxation system in play, too. This makes you keep an eye on your workforce or risk losing cash faster me when I’m drunk in a bar that has a dukebox and pool table. Workers in Nebuchadnezzar don’t require paying, though, nor is there any form of taxation, so you end up in a situation where the only possible way to run out of money is to spam buildings, and even then your generous people will fumble around in their pockets to bail you out once.
As for making money, that’s a doddle, too. You can simply setup the most basic trading route, perhaps exporting bricks, spam a bunch of production buildings and then just wait. Your trading partner will happily continue to buy your goods forever and ever, and since there’s no drain on your money or anything else in the game that can go wrong, you can simply wait for the cash roll in. The only reason to expand and open up more trade routes is to speed up income, but again that’s nullified by the fact that time is never an issue – hit the fast forward button.
People are also a never ending resource. Your city doesn’t care about unemployment or living conditions, so if you run out of workers you can spam heaps of houses, creating a slum that people will nevertheless happily move into and then go to work. It’s an infinite supply of workers without a single repercussion! You don’t even need to feed them or provide them milk or anything. They just turn up and work, and once you’ve gotten things sorted you can even delete the entire slum.
Even farming and space aren’t problems. Maps tend to be big, and you change the dry desert into fertile grassland by spamming water pumps and building irrigation canals, neither of which cost much or require workers. There were times when I turned the entire map into a lush, verdant grassland.
Because unemployment, population, money, space and even fertile farming land are non-issues you end up in situations where completely overloading your supply chains works perfectly. Just build loads of farms etc. until your warehouses and production buildings are filled to the brim and it won’t make a difference. Since food can’t spoil and you don’t have to pay your citizens and you can make more workers appear by slamming down houses, it makes sense to over-develop your supply lines.
Buildings can’t catch fire, there’s no crime and no natural disasters, so again there’s no consequences for creating horrendous slums. You never have to worry about a possible military invasion or your trading partner changing their needs. Your people won’t kick you out because there’s a 95% unemployment rate. It is nearly impossible to fail in Nebuchadnezzar, and without that there’s no sense of motivation to improve and expand. The consequences of your actions don’t need to be disasterous, but you do need something to push you forward.
The one upshot is this sense of laziness makes Nebuchadnezzar a very chilled-out city-builder. If you attempted stuff like the Tropico series or Cities Skylines or Frostpunk and found the constant pressure a barrier to your enjoyment then perhaps Nebuchadnezzar’s relaxed attitude to just about everything will be exactly what you’re looking for. Personally, though, a sandbox style like Nebuchadnezzar feels like it wants to be needs to have plenty of options for creating my dream city, and Nebuchadnezzar lacks this. There isn’t much flexibility to decorate your city or create amazing layouts.
Well, there is one exception: the temples and monuments. These big projects are a source of pride for your city, massively boosting your renown and thereby opening up new trade routes, even if those trade routes, as we’ve discussed, are largely pointless. You can happily plonk down a temple, set up some brickmakers and then leave the whole thing alone while the vast construct slowly pops up from the desert sands. But there’s also the option to design and build your own temple using a simple block system, which is really cool, I reckon.
Sadly, though, the big temple projects end up being a prime example of how Nebuchadnezzar never quite comes together. These massive monuments should be a big moment in the game, and in other examples of the genre typically wouldn’t even be attempted until you’d built a rock-solid economy so that resources could be poured into the construction. But in Nebuchadnezzar that’s not the case because you can chuck down a couple of houses for extra workers, a few clay mines and a few brick makers and that’s it. They’ll sit and churn away until the temple is done. Hell, you can start building one right at the start with a single mine and brick maker and leave it slowly building away while you get on with other things.
Outside of the main campaign there’s a weird lack of a sandbox mode or anything like that. You can’t just hop into a map and start building a city. But you do get some scenarios to play around with, and there’s mod support so we might see Nebuchadnezzar get fleshed out via industrious folks who use the foundation to build something even better.
I love how Nebuchadnezzar looks, and I love its core values of recapturing the feeling of classic city-building games. But I don’t think it succeeds in going up against either those classic games, or the more modern versions of the city-building genre. The lack of consequences damages almost every element of Nebuchadnezzar, and it doesn’t have the breadth of creativity needed for it to be so chilled out. So unless you’re really desperate for a new Impressions style city-builder, this isn’t worth checking out.