Version tested: PC
Pretend that you are a world famous artist, and that I am the King of France. Knowing your unique ability to capture the rawest essence of your subject, I have commissioned you to draw a 100ft tall portrait of me to celebrate my 70th birthday. The special day came - all too quickly, as they do in a man's later years - and you have unveiled your picture in front of a crowd of twirling courtesans and the very top levels of the French aristocracy. The room erupts into outrage: your drawing is a childish - and gigantic - sketch of a dog turd. Calmly, you explain yourself.
"Your Majesty, I said I would capture your essence. And I find you to be odious waste. I have drawn smell lines to signify your self-serving motives and desires, and the flies are the people who surround you, suffering your repulsive nature to extract whatever nourishment life has failed to already draw from you."
"Well that's fair enough, obviously," I reply. "But I've also got arms and a big face. It would also have been nice if you'd put a crown on it, or a couple of elbows."
A similar - I'll admit, not identical - situation must have faced the makers of Eufloria, when deciding which elements of a strategy game to extract and reproduce for their minimalist, ambient game. Developed from the award-baiting proof-of-concept Dyson, Eufloria builds ever so slightly on the themes of space exploration and culture expansion. So much has been stripped from what an experienced gamer expects from the genre that it becomes interactive artwork rather than a full game: beguiling, with its stark procedural graphics and movement, and mellow wind-chime soundtrack. Elegant, with its one-handed gameplay that lets you rest your chin in your other palm and drool yourself into a unfocused reverie about the last time you went outdoors. But the self-imposed limitations do make Eufloria something of a curate's egg.
Let me take you on the journey that Eufloria asks you to follow. In the first of 25 story levels, you learn to move seedlings from asteroid to asteroid. Seedlings are your currency, your foot soldiers, and your resources. But for now, we're just moving them around, using a remarkably clever drag-and-drop system. Left-click on the centre of an asteroid with your seedlings on it, and a green orbit appears. Move the mouse from the asteroid to this orbit, and you'll select anywhere between one and all of the seedlings. Cross the green line without letting go of the mouse button, and you'll move them all. You can select a single unit with a right click - useful for scouting missions. It's an elegant and intuitive system - if the Eufloria team wrote an operating system, I'd want to use it.
But, I can tell what you're thinking. You've played a few strategy games in your time, and only having one unit is instantly alarming. But there is some variety. Seedlings inherit properties from their asteroid, and there are three properties. Energy determines a unit's physical size, its HP, and its ability to sap an enemy core (more on that later). Strength is the ability to deliver damage: not much good without energy unless you're attacking an unprotected asteroid. Speed is obvious, but the difference between slow and fast is the difference between drumming your fingers and feeling like an intergalactic plant commander. This is all represented by the size and shape of your seeds, when you're zoomed in: zoomed out, they're a pixelswarm.
Level two introduces us to colonisation, and the limitations of where you can send your seedlings. A colonised asteroid adds to your explorable area, and larger asteroids provide a larger radius in which to travel. This leads to some interesting opportunities: you can cut off over-adventurous units, leaving them unable to move. You should also be careful using a giant asteroid's range, as it could easily be a one-way journey. Finding bottlenecks and using this range to your advantage is one of the more interesting parts of the game, and it quickly becomes second nature.
Level three brings on the Greys - a mindless, angry threat, whose aggression upsets Mother Tree, your narrator. "They are mad with violence and anger. Why do they fight us?" Her answer comes in level four, where other seedling empires are ushered in. Upon meeting them, your seedlings instantly attack. Who knew that seeds are basically aggressive pricks? It also shows the limits of your interaction: all you can do with seeds is tell them where to go, and to build trees.
Attacking an enemy-controlled asteroid is a matter of overwhelming it with seeds, destroying one of their trees, and barrelling down its roots to infect the core. The lack of control is frustrating: you can't focus your attack on a particular tree, so your seedlings might destroy a tree with a flower - something you'd obviously prefer to capture. You inherit the surviving trees on the asteroid, but the destroyed tree is always replaced by a seed-producing Dyson. This means you have little say in the loadout of your asteroids, as you can't destroy and rebuild, either. Still, it's a spectacle - once the tree is destroyed, and the path to the core opened, your seedlings gain a sense of urgent purpose - hurling themselves at the impassive asteroid like the over-excited gametes they are. The asteroid only accepts one seed every so often, so a haze of rejected seedlings bounce from the surface. It's one of the most comical and charming uses of swarm AI I've seen.
So far, still so very simple. The remaining elements are drip fed. Defence trees - the second and only other form of tree - are introduced in level five. Level six tells you how to select seeds with a certain quality - double-clicking on a asteroid lets you select from strong, fast, or energetic seeds, and move them individually. A strange note, though - seeds can possess all three qualities. If all your seeds are strong, and some of them fast, there's no explicit way to leave the fast ones behind. An option to right-click to exclude certain seeds would be useful - at the point when your army is attacking the core, you really want to send non-energetic seeds away, and there's no way to efficiently do so.
The last thing you'll learn about is flowers. Produced without any discernible pattern by mature trees, flowers can be plucked off and planted on any asteroid to dramatically enhance a single Dyson or Defence tree. They also cause trees to grow the occasional mine - a strong weapon that can be despatched to defend or attack asteroids, delivering tri-lasered death to enemy seedlings.
And that's it. As immersive and engrossing as it can briefly be, the simplicity of the gameplay hobbles the game. Take a mission in which you're given a novel win condition: protect the greys. At first, it's a welcome change. But because of the unchangably hostile seedlings, this simply involves retreating when the greys attack. It's not a satisfying level at all, suffering the whim of swarm AI.
The way your units attack asteroids can be frustrating. Ideally, you'd want all your seedlings to arrive at a heavily fortified planet at the same time: overwhelm the mines, destroy a tree, and infest the asteroid's core. But because your seeds may have been produced by different asteroids with different speeds, and will leave from wherever they were in their orbit, they can form a tunnel of easily picked off loners. This is only really noticeable on despatches from larger asteroids, but it's another factor that encourages you to simply wait and grow your army.
A second, crippling weakness - and one that I discovered by rubbing my eyes, and going to make a cup of tea - was that going to another room for a few minutes solves all your tactical problems. Each planet has a seed cap, after which it'll stop producing new ones. But there's no meaningful limit to how many you can move to an asteroid (I started getting rejected orders at 687 - in a rare moment of poor communication, the game didn't explicitly tell me it was failing, the orders were simply not obeyed).
In the first 20 levels, at least, the steady production of your Dyson trees and the lack of thoughtful hostility from enemy empires mean you can play a couple of rounds of Civ and come back to Eufloria for an easy seed-rush win. The simplest and almost inevitably successful tactic is to wait and overwhelm. It's so simple to do that any other tactic is only employed to make yourself feel less cheap.
There are exceptions: in Hide and Seek, the idea is to avoid direct conflict. I came back to the PC, with my thirteenth cup of tea, to find my Dyson trees subdued with enemy mines, and no surviving seedlings. I was being kept alive purely for the entertainment of the turquoise empire, who still couldn't understand why I butchered them so senselessly in level three. In level 23, Collision Course - and some of the Skirmish levels - you'll find yourself beseiged and fighting a war on multiple fronts. At these moments, suddenly it matters how you've distributed your armies. Suddenly, waiting isn't an option. Respect becomes finally due: but this just doesn't happen enough. Even in Dark Matter mode, an even prettier version where the AI is supposedly tougher, the mental challenge is rarely more than extreme patience.
It says something about Eufloria that I've written 1500 words about it, and the only thing stopping my writing another 1500 is consideration for you, the reader. For a game with so few rules, it manages to generate a real desire to talk about every decision made by the developers.
Let's go back to the King of France. I wouldn't want anyone to get the impression that I was suggesting Eufloria is a dog turd, because it's a beautiful, thoughtful curiosity. But somewhere in getting at the essence of strategy gaming, Eufloria has become a sketch, a distraction, a showcase, and a toy: it's an experience that you'll enjoy, rather than a coherent and satisfying game. And how do you give that a score? Those who'll love it - and there'll be a vocal many who do - will be fuming at the 4 I want to give the game. But those who despise imagined pretentiousness will queue up to call me a pseud bell-end if I give it a meaningless pat on the head with a 7. The sad answer is this.
5 / 10
Eufloria is available to buy from the developer's website.