In Punk Wars, the world has ended after a war to end all wars that—needless to say—didn’t achieve its goal. In the face of its failure, four competing factions battle for dominance over a dusty and featureless wasteland, while taking inspiration from the sci-fi ‘punk’ genres—the retrofuturistic Atompunk, the interwar-inspired Dieselpunk, old-fashioned Steampunk and hardware-oriented Steelpunk. As a premise, it’s drenched in style and suggests tricky resource wars—but it doesn’t pull through.
Despite pulling from heavily aesthetic genres, any sense of thematic cohesion falls apart as you begin a 4X-style campaign. For instance, the dieselpunk faction are initially depicted in art with a symbol reminiscent of an iron cross—which is a powerful image to even imply—only for their introductory cutscene to immediately flavor them as only seeking financial dominance, making violent euphemism about red ledgers.
Across every faction, there’s this odd dissonance where loading screen lore facts will drop in tidbits about “corporate fixers,” but the in-game dialogue only refers to military domination. The concept of business parks is explicitly referred to as where “once people moved imaginary things from one place to another, for some reason,” making it clear that this new world has little time for such abstract concepts—lost, along with art and history. Still, the language of rival corporations remains, as if you’re meant to be Steelpunk Inc.
Even within the factions, there’s a disinterest in who—or why—they are. I’d struggle to argue that the game would be better for committing to the Dieselpunk’s nazi-inspired imagery, but each faction suffers from the same lack of follow through. The Steampunks similarly evoke early British imperialism, but leave it at some snobby dialogue. The Atompunks, morally detached and apparently intent on mass experimentation, ultimately share the same goal of mass extermination as everyone else. The Steelpunks are… Scottish.
No matter who you play as, you’re tasked with a fight for total control of the map, by destroying everybody else’s watchtowers—but there’s little to drive you towards that goal, other than ‘this is how you win the game.’ Much like the incohesive style and narrative, the game’s own systems are sparse and disconnected.
In a 4X game, you typically explore, expand, exploit, and—of the most interest to Punk Wars—exterminate. But there is almost no sense of infrastructure to Punk Wars to push you towards smaller, more immediate plans.
Any resource you exploit is completely independent from another—to build a pigsty garners one food per turn, and nothing else other than building upgrades influences that. You can build it on top of a ‘food’ tile—but you could also build anything else on top of that ‘food’ tile, and still get that additional food per turn.
There’s also no rolling upkeep. You essentially ‘purchase’ tiles, with one-off spends, rather than ongoing maintenance, so there’s no sense of scale. It doesn’t cost water to run a pigsty, or food to run an army—which means there’s no sense of whether your army is proportional to your base size until you use it.
Without the ebb and flow of the demands of economy and infrastructure—that I might need more food to keep my soldiers fed, that I should expand east to capitalize on a food tile, that another settlement has a resource I might want—decision fatigue, paradoxically, sets in quickly. I promptly found myself feeling drained by it all as I churned out new tiles and units just for the sake of it, knowing that on the next turn I’d have to make decisions about what to do with those tiles and units. (Mostly, using them to make more tiles, and more units, until my army felt arbitrarily ‘big enough.’)
Punk Wars skimps on its other systems in favor of war, but there’s less tactical combat than it would like to suggest. While scaling up the technology tree unlocks new units and new abilities, combat is dull and repetitive, relying largely on either getting a hit in and moving out of range, or getting a hit in and fortifying for counter-attacks. ‘Having more units than the other guy’ is the most effective tactic—particularly when specialized units are undermined by the game often under-delivering on the promised damage range. Tactical choices end up slimmed down from the turn order and actions of your own units to simply picking targets to gang up on, en masse.
In the end, my campaign ended at a stalemate. I couldn’t breach the frontline of the Atompunks, whose base was so thoroughly built up that their nearest watchtower was entirely inaccessible. Any building I destroyed was immediately replenished, along with new units from an untouchable backline. Of course, the same was true of my base too: heavily built up and aggressively defended. With my tech tree long maxed out, I could spend tens more hours in the Sisyphean no man’s land and gain no advantage—my error was simply not having won the game earlier.
Perhaps the worst part is that Punk Wars isn’t a game that is oblivious to the details. Each faction has its own unique military units, its own buildings with their own flavor, and the plip-plip of a raygun is distinctly different from revved up explosives. Idling on the start screen even lets the UI fade away into a moody flyby of the world you’re playing in. The designers thought about this world and how to present it. The problem is that the details of the game never work together in a way that feels satisfying.
I wanted to like Punk Wars. Its promise to be a stylish 4X style game about warring punk factions intrigued me, and it only really needed to strongly hit one target for me. I’d have happily taken a vapid but immersive tactics game; a thoughtful exploration of post-apocalyptic punk with bland combat; an all-style-no-substance experience that carried the game on vibes alone. Instead, I got the worst of all worlds: a dull, poorly balanced game that doesn’t commit to its ideas.
Punk Wars was developed by Strategy Forge S.A. and published by Jujube and Strategy Forge. It is available for PC.
Ruth Cassidy is a critic and reporter who’s written for outlets including Fanbyte, Rock Paper Shotgun and Unwinnable. You can find them talking about RPGs, strategy games and the odd musical at twitter at @velcrocyborg.