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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

Early Access Check-in: Havendock gives a playful spin to survival and base building games

Early Access Check-In provides brief updates on Early Access releases and shares impressions of what's available to play today. Often, Early Access games don't feel like Early Access in the way I remember it. They present more like extremely polished chunks of a game that just cut off after a point, instead of a game actually in progress coming to life in front of your eyes.

Havendock manages to blend both, serving up a unique survival/base building/colony management experience with a decent amount of polish and cheeky panache, while offering players the opportunity to get messy behind the scenes with experimental unfinished features that are still being tinkered with. And let's just put it this way: more games should be like Havendock.

An in-game screenshot of the early access game Havendock. It depicts a close up shot of the player using the dining station, where they make meals out of fish and lettuce, for the colony to eat. Houses are just to the side, along with a plastic flamingo just behind the player and a gazebo with a nice light to his side.

​Just the Facts

Developer: YYZ

Publisher: Different Tales and IndieArk

Platform(s): PC

Price: $16.99 in Early Access

Release Date: April 20, 2023 in Early Access, 2024 full release

Review key provided by Evolve PR.

Havendock comes to us out of the hotbed of Southeast Asian indie devs, this time a solo effort from the developer known as YYZ. After years of working on mobile apps, small experimental games, and even a web-based snow globe builder, YYZ is making a big push into the indie scene with Havendock. Part base builder, part survival game, part colony management, Havendock has an ambitious scope and even in its early state, shows potential to achieve all of its lofty goals.

The game begins with you waking up on a stranded island in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but a few bits of wood around you to build a singular wooden deck that serves as the central building block of your eventual wooden empire. Once you've got that under your feet, you gather up resources floating by and find out how to appeal to other survivors to expand your colony. There's a light plot about all these folks being stranded under similar circumstances, some mysterious pieces of tech, and some greater conspiracy to be uncovered, but it's minimal in its current state.

Expect Havendock's plot to not take itself too seriously though, as the game is full of cheekiness in every bit of its design. For starters, it's got one of my favorite kinds of game design quirks: features that are functionally useless but narratively hilarious. For example, when you hop into character creation, you'll have the option to give your character a quirk and a unique accessory.

These include things like Procrastinator, which will make your character "so good at procrastinating, you make others feel good about themselves." Or maybe you want to be a Music Lover, which makes "the background music in this game more interesting to listen to. Or maybe less, depending on your tastes." Accessories can give boosts like -5% social anxiety, +5% glow in the dark, or even... +5% chance to inflict diarrhea.

None of it has an actual effect on the gameplay experience, as the game states as clearly as possible several times over, but it's just one more thing this game does to make you smile — and what's better than that?

That cheekiness floats through the rest of the design too, making for a constantly lighthearted experience in all the right ways. If you build out your decks to an island where a giant penguin awaits, you'll be able to feed him fish to get bits of his poop, which I can only imagine is used for fertilizer. Once you unlock intense machinery, the game will poke and prod at you for "destroying the environment." Each new member of your colony that you bring aboard has their own silly quirk: like a cape-wearing superhero, a fully equipped army man, or a penguin-translating zoologist.

Havendock is silly just for the sake of it, and I appreciate a game that embraces its own absurdity in all the right ways. It even comes through in the full audiovisual experience, with the simple dot eyes of every human character, the surprisingly effective lighting effects, and the ability to turn on "Singlish," which gives your otherwise quiet villagers the ability to drop silly one-liners about just how tired they are. It all works in playful harmony.

It stands out as one of the reasons I kept pushing through, just to see what kind of weird bits waited around the corner as I progressed through the game's deep research tree. (There's a human cannon that launches you to different islands. FUN!)

An in-game screenshot of the early access game Havendock. It depicts an example of one of the game's island colonies. There are houses off in the background, a dining table for food, farms growing food, and bridges to other docks.

Actually playing Havendock will be familiar for any kind of base building or survival game fan. Through a fairly comprehensive in-game tutorial, you'll learn the basics of gathering resources as they float by in the ocean surrounding you and refine those resources to be used in more complex crafts or use their base forms to unlock new crafting recipes at your research table. All the while, you're continually building out your island of dock pieces to reach the islands you can see in the horizon. You'll build stations that require someone working them to create an output. Your goal is to have a crew of people working across the entire dock to churn out resources — which, in turn, fuels some other station that provides materials for another — until you have a perfect cycle of machines doing your bidding.

Havendock's core experience feels as if it's trying to bridge the gap between intensive colony-building games like Dwarf Fortress or Rimworld and more common survival games like Raft, linked to Havendock by a similar "gather the resources that float by" mechanic and a more hands-on control than colony managers. It feels like Havendock might be a more approachable Factorio (caveat: I haven't played Factorio much myself) or a more intense Raft.

While its perfect endgame is one full of automation, perfectly tuned colonists, and a machine that works even without any of your input, I do hold that Havendock's version of that experience remains unintimidating from end to end.

You're almost always running around accomplishing some goal, gathering and creating resources, and doing everything you can to keep the colony running in tip-top shape. It may not be as daunting as something like Rimworld, but it can certainly be overwhelming in the early going.

With the sheer number of resources you can find, refine, or consume, some of the experience can become the equivalent of scrolling through a game's Wiki to track down exactly what you need, how to make it, and what machine you'll need to do it all. In a way, it feels like part of the game's overall appeal, but it certainly could scare off some folks.

As a weird little freak who loves managing things but struggles to keep up with some of those more intense colony game experiences, Havendock settles nicely into a cozy spot within my game-enjoying brain. In my current playthrough, I have 20 colony members and 405 buildings, have researched 40 new things, and have been playing for well over eight hours. I've accomplished all of the goals in the game's current "main campaign" and am right against the wall of the final bits of the game's research trees. I feel pretty good about my place in the game.

Even still, my colony is regularly desperate for food, I rarely have a second of rest when asked to run around, and I couldn't even begin to tell you how to optimally set my colonist's priorities to avoid these issues. Havendock allows you to thrive even without the perfect tactical brain and I appreciate that. Some of the best moments I've had with Havendock are when I realized my floating wooden colony had a very immediate need and worked overtime to not let it hurt my crew's morale.

An in-game screenshot of the early access game Havendock. It depicts the late-game underwater section, with tons of power-generating turbines, a giant drill mining for resources, and refineries processing materials gathered by said drill.

What's most interesting to me is, in its current state, Havendock is a pacifist experience. Melding base building games and colony sims, it emulates two genres known for frequently having some kind of defense against hostile forces, either in waves of enemies that come every few days or in a near-constant annoyance like Raft's shark attacks. But Havendock is removed from that completely. When you're freed from the stress and worry of dealing with an imminent threat, you're allowed to focus on just running the colony and gathering resources. YYZ may eventually add some evil rival colonists or some rabid pack of penguins or something, but I appreciate its current calmer base-building experience as something different for the genre.

Speaking of different for the genre, as I said before, Havendock does Early Access a bit differently too. YYZ peels back the curtain and lets you fiddle with unfinished experimental features regularly. This can sometimes cause issues — and even when playing just the base content bugs are prevalent — but YYZ is refreshingly upfront about it in nearly every way possible. Warnings about bugs pop up in-game and are littered across the game's Steam store page. Solutions to issues are documented across all of the game's public-facing pages.

I sincerely respect its "as-is" mentality and think that it's an important reminder for gamers to see what goes into making (and constantly breaking, remaking, and refining) a game on its way to launch.

And while buggy at times, Havendock never fully broke on me, which is better than can be said for some of those more "polished" Early Access games. Sure, hitting E sometimes brought me into the late-game submarine even when I was nowhere close to it, but eventually Havendock seemingly realized its mistake and fixed itself by the end. Of course, if you are thrown off by any bugs, you may want to hit pause on playing this, but know that YYZ is aware and constantly working to improve it — that's what this stage in their game's development is for, after all.

There's even an entirely experimental 16-player multiplayer mode that completely changes the way you play that is far from ready for primetime. The fact that they understand people want to give this a try in multiplayer and delivered a way to do it, as rough around the edges as it may be, is commendable.

One of the things I look out for in these check-ins is what kind of support the developer is giving the game and, just a few weeks since launch, the team is a cut above. Havendock is getting nearly daily content updates and fixes, sometimes with major drops coming twice a day plus bug fixes related to the new content coming just a day later. Since I first started playing the game for coverage, I've seen tons of additions, almost all of it related to player feedback. It's just about the best-case scenario in Early Access.

An in-game screenshot of the early access game Havendock. It depicts one of the late game mechanics, the ability to navigate the waters in a boat. There's a giant dock-based civilization ahead of them and a merchant in a boat off to the main character's side. In the distance, other islands and docks can be seen.

Havendock is an Early Access game whose developers don't just ask you to "pardon the mess," but sometimes encourage you to get down and play and the dirt with them. This creates a collaborative experience that emulates the core theme of its actual gameplay: where a group of people come together to make the most of building up from almost nothing, and, piece by piece, create a thriving experience in the middle of a wide, empty expanse of water.

Halfway between an overwhelming and a cozy base-building experience, Havendock is a game I'm keeping tabs on as it heads for release in 2024. If you're interested in seeing the ways a game may drastically change its look, mechanics, and overall design, I have a feeling YYZ will provide that if you give this Early Access gem a look.

Havendock will run you just $16.99 in Early Access and will see a fairly long development cycle, so if you have any interest, now's the time to hop in.

Havendock's key art depicts the game's logo, which features line art of an island with a lighthouse and a dock, above the name of the game. Underneath that is line art of shimmering water. To the right of the logo is one of the game's simple shaped characters, with dot eyes and a half-circle smile, scratching their head as a parrot rests on their shoulder. In the background of it all is the game's wide-open water setting and the beginnings of a small civilization on the docks.


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