Strategy Forge’s Punk Wars is a tactical 4X set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Four factions, each based around a unique retro-futurist technology, battle scarcity, barbaric Wastelanders, and of course each other for control of what little is left of human civilization. Players who enjoy games like Warhammer 40K: Gladius will find a lot to enjoy in Punk Wars, and the slow build of the economy means that each decision matters even in the late game.
The main draw of Punk Wars is, of course, its factions. Each has their own campaign mission, and all four are playable on skirmish maps as well. The Steampunks, resplendent in handlebar mustaches, top hats and goggles, seek to build a clockwork utopia and bring humanity out of the new dark age. Their flying unit, the Combat Zeppelin, is available much earlier than the flyers of other factions, making them excel at exploration while their technology tree allows them to efficiently exploit the lands they discover.
The militaristic Dieselpunks serve a monolithic corporation eternally seeking new profits. Their playstyle sees them spreading slowly but implacably across the map, their soldiers extracting resources while not fighting, and their unique Stock Market building gives them more versatility in their resource management.
Fans of Fallout will likely swoon over the eccentric Atompunks, a mad science-based faction with atomic rayguns and deeply questionable ethics. In addition to being able to rush along the tech tree quickly, the Atompunk can keep enemies at bay with their Watchman starting unit, who has a longer range than those of other factions. Lastly, the tough-as-nails Steelpunks just want to survive in the unforgiving wastelands. They favor a defensive playstyle, making powerful use of overwatch attacks to punish anyone who threatens their position.
In addition to the basic resources of food and water, each faction has a unique resource that only they can extract or use; steam, oil, uranium and iron. These unique resources appear rarely on the map, and outside of the odd bonus from an event or technology, there is no way to boost their production once your extractors are built and upgraded.
This means that spending it wisely is crucial regardless of which faction you’re playing, especially in the late game when powerful units and buildings require large quantities of it. Even though factions can’t use the unique resources of their rivals, the tiles that have them are visible to all. This makes resource denial almost as important as resource acquisition, since the player who can extract the most of their unique resource will have a distinct advantage.
Punk Wars’ gameplay gives it an RTS feel despite its turn-based nature. Players will seek to gain advantage by moving their position forward, building unit-producing buildings closer to the front lines, and keeping multiple production queues going at once. This makes it a good option for players who might be interested in games like Age of Empires but don’t want to worry about things like actions-per-minute.
Units slowly level up as they fight, allowing the player to improve them with perks; this, combined with the relative scarcity of healing, creates one of the game’s crucial decision points – should you keep an experienced unit on the front lines and risk losing them, or return them to base for healing and in doing so have them out of action for several turns? Tense stand-offs with one or more enemy factions over no-man’s-land are commonplace, and troops who get isolated out in the wastes aren’t likely to come back.
Each faction has two unique tech trees – one for military endeavors and one for civilian improvements. Both are critical to success, and many of the technologies force an either/or choice, locking the unselected technology permanently. Many of these branching options force the player to choose between an ability for a specific unit type, or a more general upgrade like a small stat buff or economic boost.
Civilian units such as scientists and spies, along with their upgraded abilities, are available to all four factions, but appear at different places along the tech tree. Scientific progress doesn’t require too much work on the part of the player; tiles that can be exploited for science can do so automatically, and building science labs helps the process along. Scientists can be sent into the wastes to collect data from ruins for a research boost as well.
Some maps (notably the Steelpunk campaign) see the player start without any science production whatsoever, which can be a big disadvantage if allowed to continue for too long, but otherwise the tech tree only requires the occasional selection of a new research project and a new lab here or there.
The game has a happiness system that requires the player to build entertainment structures and make event decisions that will keep the populace in line, but overall it doesn’t seem that important. Even the loading screen tips say it’s probably more efficient to just put down the occasional rebellion than to invest too heavily in happiness. While this honesty is appreciated, it does raise the question of why the happiness system is implemented at all. Much more important is the Manpower limit, which restricts the number of units – civilian or military – the player can have at a given time. This limit can be affected by events, and the buildings that increase it are moderately expensive, especially since builder units are sacrificed whenever they create a structure.
Expansion in Punk Wars is a game of inches – settlements grow by placing expensive towers, which exploit the terrain around them and allow for building on nearby tiles. These towers can only be placed at the edge of your existing borders, but there are abandoned towers scattered across the map which can be used to start a new settlement – provided you can escort your builders across the wasteland to fix them up. Most units can only move two to three hexes in a turn, and that’s at a full march without stopping to fight or fortify. This means it takes a while to get to any given destination, so players who plan in advance and seize on enemy weakness will be at an advantage in Punk Wars,
It’s clear that Strategy Forge has put a lot of love into their game; each faction and their corresponding units and buildings are wonderfully conceptualized and designed. Unfortunately, since most of the gameplay is in a top-down view all that hard work doesn’t get to be seen very often. The player needs to zoom in and play with the camera to see the lovely unit models going about their bloody business. The terrain is much more visible, but it’s largely just a beige expanse. This may be thematically appropriate, but it makes the game less visually appealing than it deserves to be. The soundtrack has an ominous, industrial feel that is perfect for the game’s setting, but the unit sound effects – hammers on steel, revving engines, and so forth – get repetitive quickly.
Ultimately, Punk Wars stands out as a fun game with a rough-around-the-edges indie charm. It could do with some polish; some map and texture packs would be a welcome addition in the short term, and a fifth faction could drive interest further down the road. For right now, it’s definitely worth playing through at least one of the campaigns, especially at the low price point of $20 US. There is also a free demo available called Punk Wars: Prologue if you’d like to try it first. The full game is available for Windows and Mac on both Steam and GOG and, at the time of this writing, is 10% off on both platforms.