I’ve built a lot of cities over the years, and I’ve given my citizens plenty of reasons to flee them. In Cities: Skylines, I “accidentally” flooded their homes in liquid poo; In Surviving Mars, I left them to suffocate in broken domes; In Anno 1800—this is the one that’s left me most ashamed—I failed to provide them with enough sausages. Airborne Kingdom, however, is the first city builder where I’ve lost people because the city was leaning too much. That’s just one of the issues you bump up against when you’re building in the clouds. My plan was to play an hour of Airborne Kingdom to get gifs of cute clockwork cities, but instead it ended up stealing most of a day, with me finally leaving my floating metropolis at midnight. I’m an easy mark for a city builder and rarely manage to escape their grasp quickly, but Airborne Kingdom lodges itself in its own niche thanks to some unusual experiments and its spectacular style. The basics are familiar and conventional: you build simple production chains and infrastructure to fulfil the needs of the city and its denizens, with the demands of both getting more complicated as you expand. Power, food, factories, morale-boosting diversions—there’s loads to build, but you’ll recognise all the categories. All this is happening in the sky, though, and that’s a pretty substantial wrinkle.
Airborne Kingdom doesn’t feature any combat or even a whiff of conflict, at least not with other people. The war against gravity, though, never ends. Physics is a constant obstacle, and more than anything else it’s that force of nature that determines your city’s layout. You start out with just a little town centre, like the one above, gently bobbing away in the sky, perfectly balanced. But once you start placing houses, hangars for your planes and towering minarets, it’s going to start sinking. You’ll need to generate more lift, and you’re going to need to make sure it’s all even. Too much tilt and your citizens will peace out. And who can blame them? Nobody wants to live in a place where they have to nail down their furniture, or where they’re greeted by a view of the ground, miles below them, every time they look out the window. They can stomach a little bit of tilt, but I can’t. It just looks like a disaster waiting to happen. And it only takes one little building to push it over the edge. Since you have to hunt down and recruit your citizens, their loss can sting, and you might end up left with too few people to work or explore, necessitating some unwelcome downsizing as you destroy buildings and try to plan your comeback. They’re a precious resource, but it’s coal that keeps your city aloft. All your most important components burn through the stuff, and unlike other resources it can only be stored in one location, limiting how much you can stockpile. Without that resource, the city’s done for—sadly it’s a bit too heavy to gently float to the ground. (Image credit: The Wandering Band)Physics ends up being an excellent replacement for terrain. Geography is a defining feature of a city, and thus city builders, but it loses its impact when you can soar above it all. You’ve got infinite space, but thanks to gravity’s desire to keep you down, you can’t just keep expanding in whatever direction you want. You have to build methodically, and then make lots of little adjustments. If the city is lying a bit low, maybe chuck in a new fan or some wings. If all the new buildings are creating too much drag, some more propellers could give you a bit more propulsion. All of these things require resources, workers and space, of course, calling for yet more tweaking. These limitations have forced me to spend a lot more time considering how my city should grow, and it means no section is ever really complete—I’m always redesigning them. The result is something dynamic and organic, constantly shifting to meet new needs. I had a plan for how I wanted my city to look, and it now looks nothing like my vision. Instead it’s something built out of my reactions to imminent disasters, my experiments, my experiments to fix the problems created by my previous experiments, and a few cosmetic flourishes. It’s a bit of a mess, really, but I love it. The world below still plays an important role, even if you’re not building on it. It’s where all your resources are found. Absolutely everything you need to build with, continue flying and keep your people alive is found below you, and you can explore the entirety of the map at your leisure. To keep your city fuelled and fed, you’ll have to constantly stay on the move, sending down workers in planes to gather up what you need. The world is presented as a literal map, which features little embellishments like curling, torn edges, and provides nearly as much eye candy as the city. (Image credit: The Wandering Band)Despite dabbling in survival management, Airborne Kingdom maintains a relaxing pace. There are complications, crises and plenty of ways to cock everything up, but the first biome has all the resources you need in abundance, letting you build up a nice stockpile. While scarcity can become an issue, you can return to a less challenging area pretty quickly and recuperate. For the most part, it’s light and breezy. Those aren’t typically adjectives I seek out in management games, but it’s really kept me too busy to notice that the challenges are infrequent and tension rare. I’ve just researched a bunch of new components that I’m eager to stick onto the city, making it faster and lighter; I’ve got a backlog of quests for potential allies to finish, sending me across a flooded section of the map that’s got a troubling dearth of coal; and I’ve just started painting all of my buildings to spruce the place up. It might have a casual, undemanding air, but I’m never without a list of things I want to accomplish. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to just slow things down to a crawl and stare at your magnificent creation. It’s constantly buzzing with life, from the narrow streets, to the skies around it. Even the buildings can’t sit still, and they have a tendency to flap and spin and generally make the place look like a madcap contraption built by an out of control toymaker. It’s hypnotic, though I suspect actually living there would be a lot like living in a carnival that never ends, a nightmarish existence perpetually surrounded by weird noises and arcane, intimidating machines.
Apparently it’s brisk enough so that you can finish it up in a mere eight hours, but I’m approaching that point and still have plenty to do. It’s brief, at least for a city builder, but I guess I’ve just been spending a lot of time repainting my city. I keep changing my mind. Sometimes I want uniformity, but then I get the notion to just throw random colours out there and see what happens. I’m probably a bad king, but in very mundane ways that probably won’t lead to an execution. I made every building bright blue once, but I’ve never let my people starve. Well, not for long. Airborne Kingdom launched on the Epic Games Store yesterday, and rather conveniently it’s also part of the holiday sale. It’s not going to keep you going for as long as something like Anno or Cities: Skylines, but it’s just right for a weekend of creative city building.