For the past month, I’ve slowly been building out a massive colony of insects in the web browser game Swarm Simulator. I have no idea what they actually look like, because the game is basically just text, numbers, and a few buttons. Even old-school text adventure games and MUDs would usually have some cool ASCII art dragon or something at their start screen. Swarm Simulator gives you none of that. It’s also probably my favorite game at the moment.
At heart, Swarm Simulator is just you watching numbers go up, hatching more drones so you can hatch more queens so you can create more nests, and so on, until you’re hatching bugs like the neuroprophet, a common bug that anyone who studied [checks Google] entomology would recognize. Along the way, you also pick up the ability to use things like wasps and other scary insects to capture territory. Or gather energy to cast spells (again, common knowledge that insects can use magic). Eventually, you can put together one huge swarm and ascend to a new planet (how do you think bugs got here in the first place?). But this is probably making it sound more exciting than it really is — really you’re just watching a spreadsheet run formulas in real time, and then clicking on a few buttons.
Here’s the first episode of a Let’s Play I made about the game (please like and subscribe):
The game is one of the growing genre of “idle” games — games where you progress mainly by not playing the game for a long period of time, and then checking in, clicking on a few things to get everything moving along again, and then stepping away to let the game idle for a few hours (or a few days). There’s some strategy in Swarm Simulator about how you spend resources: upgrading lower-tier bugs isn’t really worth it after a certain point, and you have to carefully manage how you spend the “mutagen” you carry along with you to the next planet.
But mainly I like it for two reasons: It appeals to the rat part of my brain that just likes to accumulate stuff, and it’s really impossible to play for long periods of time. You could just manually manage your ever-growing swarm, but really that’s a drag. It’s much better to pop in for three minutes, see that you now own 309.779 octodecillion drones (I have no idea how big or small that number actually is, but it sounds impressive), upgrade a few things, hatch a few new bugs, and then close the window. As someone who has the tendency to get trapped by the Skinner boxes of really dumb games, it’s pleasant to have one that still gives you that little cycle of upgrade and reward and then basically kicks you out for a while.
I remember feeling a similar appreciation for Desert Golfing — it’s anti-addicting nature was one of its real appeals. After I conquer a few more planets, grow my swarm as large as it can possibly get, and see myself get like 247.214 novenseptuagintillion of something, I may grow bored and wander off. But for right now, when I get a few minutes of down time, I’m looking at my little spreadsheet of insects, delighting at how my bugs are doing, and closing the tab.