Sim City for the age of TikTok and Tesla, T-Minus 30 is a quick-bite city-builder which reduces the form down to its bare essentials, and turns up the heat.
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The goal? Get as many people off Earth as possible. An unspecified catastrophe has left civilisation in ruins, and the planet will explode in 30 minutes. It’s the pickle to end all pickles. The stakes can’t possibly be higher. There’s only one thing for it: some high-octane town planning, and more daft rockets than a Richard Branson fan club.
T-Minus 30 eschews the genre’s usual formalities. There is no elaborate FMV opening sequence, or tutorial disguised cannily as a helpful civil servant. It boots, you click ‘play’, select one of nine scenarios (ten if you count the tutorial level, which we won’t), or opt to randomly generate a map with its streamlined yet surprisingly comprehensive level conjuring tools.
Each session starts with a citadel and some meagre resources to get you going. Plonked in the middle of a post-apocalyptic grid map with limited visibility, your task is to build rockets, and keep building rockets until the timer runs out. To do this, as in real life, you need raw materials and infrastructure. An ever-present counter on top of the screen reminds you how many human lives you’ve ‘saved’ – this is a running total of your ad-hoc space program’s seat capacity. To the right of it sits the eponymous timer. The equation is deadly simple: make the first number go up while the second number goes down.
It won’t surprise you to be told that its simplicity is its strength, that it’s easy to learn and difficult to master, because those are tropes. But listen – they’re great tropes, and T-Minus 30 is a joyfully near-perfect example of them.
Simple rules, complex outcomes. What Dejobaan Games and Grey Alien Games has done here is take the spirit of the long-form city builder and give it the lunchtime immediacy of Solitaire. And, much like Solitaire, your success in each session comes down to roughly the same ratio of player skill to random seed pot luck.
There are three kinds of rockets: a crap one, which carries just 400 people but can be built with the crudest and most abundant resources. A futuristic biodome one which carries 6,000 people and looks nicest to live in, but is much more of a faff to get the bits for. Finally, there’s a really big one. Capacity: 12,000. Cost: NASA laughed out of congress.
It’s a valid strategy to lay all your roads to quarries, stock up on rocks and duct tape and simply build as many cheap rockets as you can, but you’ll soon start to run out of squares to put them on, what with the roads, power stations, workhouses, farms, and everything else.
After a few sessions you’ll start to finesse your prioritising. Food, for example, is vital for your workers, but it’s fairly easy to stock up on while you’re in the early game. By the last 5-7 minutes, crops are just taking up valuable rocket space.
In the baby steps stage, you’ll be putting up wind turbines all over the place, but then you’ll twig that combining solar panels with energy transmitters is a much more space-efficient way to ensure your activities have enough juice. A similar mechanic exists for water.
Initially, it feels as though the setup makes any sort of planning redundant – a 30 minute window surely requires seat-of-the-pants thinking without too much headspace for efficient municipal zoning. Eventually, you’ll have learned the hard way where not to put stuff, so you don’t do yourself mischief later. It is hugely satisfying to watch little lightning bolts bounce around the map to where they’re needed, on a rudimentary national grid that leaves plenty of space for roads.
It takes a while before you gather enough stuff to start building the big boy rocket, but it’s worth holding out, and immensely satisfying to watch your survivor count start flying up past the 100,000 mark as your map starts to look like a missile silo. So far the most I’ve managed to save is roughly the population of Swansea (246,217 in 2019), but this is a high-score game. There’s no end screen. The only goal is to get your number bigger. Sweet serotonin.
This is a game of constant iteration, and there’s a glee to be found in refining your approach, like discovering you can cook, then figuring out not just the what to put in the casserole, but the why, and when.
It’s not quite as perfectly formed as it deserves to be – some quality of life improvements wouldn’t go amiss. A drag select tool would save a lot of clicks, as would the ability to just prevent the incessant “Farm needs replanting!” message from repeating itself when you’re in the endgame and quite unconcerned with tilling more barley.
Minor gripes aside, this is a terrific and timely release. In the work from home era, seven quid for an endlessly compelling sandwich companion that keeps the doom-scrolling at bay is quite a bargain. It’s remarkably flexible, too: sessions don’t have to be tense. Generate a small, bountiful map and turn off the timer? It’s no longer a frantic scramble, but an uplifting endorphine spiker about a go-getting little community building a new civilisation that runs on renewable energy. Kind of. There’s still a load of rubble everywhere.
Sometimes a piece of art comes along that so deeply reflects the zeitgeist, it deserves to be dug up in thousands of years to form the basis for some future academia’s entire understanding of our time. This is a piece of short-form entertainment about the environment imminently collapsing, and the last people alive strip-mining what’s left of it to build spacecraft. To go where? To do what? You mean they’re just doing…stuff? And assuming it’ll all pan out in the end?
That’s right, future academic.
T-Minus 30 is available now on Steam. That’s where we played it, obviously.
T-Minus 30 is an almost perfectly formed lunchtime chew that will regularly moisten your city-builder palate for the price of two meal deals.
- A compact & clever city-builder
- Simple to get started
- Endless replayability
- Some UI tweaks would be welcome
- Light on hand-made scenarios