Gunsmith is a very early access, gun themed entry into what I’m calling the assembly line genre. I feel like Factorio gets the credit for turning this niche into a proper category although my personal favorite is Production Line. Regardless, Gunsmith takes the basic formula of moving resources from station to station and adds some messy physics to the symphony. While the EA rough edges can make the game extremely frustrating if you’re not very careful and deliberate, the core is already addictive and satisfying once dozens of machines are humming and belts are conveying every which way.
You make military products by starting with a resource dispenser and then guiding the output through various machines as they cut and shape a finished product. Most items require two separate streams of resources. Combat boots for example turn plastic into soles and fabric into the body, each through various stations. Each stop takes a set amount of time to complete and so there are a lot of variables to line up for optimum production.
The second layer, and where you’ll spend most of your non-building time, is contract fulfillment. Countries have several branches of military and you maintain separate relationships with each. Rejecting a contract gives a relation hit, but failing one is worse. There are no employees to contend with, just automated machines and faceless customers.
The first draft of this review tried to explain how the various systems cause frustration at every level of the game. It was eight painful to read paragraphs that amounted to the game being very punishing when you make mistakes, and very easy to make mistakes with because of its grid and camera system. Not punishing as in you’ll fail, just punishing in clicks. Rearranging and moving a line takes an awful lot of mousework and the results can be slightly off in many non-obvious ways. Mistakes lead to parts being sprayed onto the factory floor and more clicking to turn things off, clean up the mess, move things around and so forth.
That sort of punishment structure rewards careful, well thought out building but the lack of pause and constant competing priorities urge you to build quickly. But again, because everything has to be so precise to work right, any rush will result in failure. I often thought I had the line perfect only to realize I forgot to add a zipper machines somewhere in the mix. Many dozens of clicks later you’ll get it right and once you do you’ll be loathe to change it ever again, even if your production doesn’t match the contracts on offer. So stock will gather. Stock that’s housed on physical shelves in your factory, taking up ever larger swaths of space.
I would enjoy this level of complexity more if I had the tools a real factory manager has. Autobuying of resources, shutting down whole lines, simple warnings about missed processes and so on. Barring that I’d take an active pause. Since neither is available at this stage you’ll end up just ignoring aspects of a real business. I gave up on managing my relations or my stock levels, opting instead to build massive banks of storage shelves. And when it was time to build a new line, I ignored everything for a solid 20-minutes (a week of game time) while I’d work out the steps.
The research tree is fairly traditional and already extensive, but wildly unbalanced. You start with the ability to make camo gloves. Two short research projects later you add backpacks, vests, pants and shoes. When you do, future contracts start requesting the new items, together. You can’t fulfill new contracts unless you have multiple items, in the right quantity, in stock. It’s a huge difficulty spike as a reward for completing a research project. And generally it happens just as you’re low on money, having spent your initial funds on glove-making machines. If you do manage to build enough new lines to put out the product variety you need to complete some of the contracts (while losing reputation for each contract you reject) money comes pouring in.
But then you need over a dozen research projects to get bullet manufacturing, your next new toy to play with. It makes for very uneven playing with a long stretch of just researching and collecting money. If the building system was easier you might expand the apparel lines with intent to replace them later with bullet manufacturing. The game is great about moving equipment instead of having to sell and rebuy it. But it’s so time consuming that I wasn’t willing to build anything I’d have to take down later. Every installation is permanent as far as I’m concerned.
When you work things out perfectly, so one plastic dispenser morphs and splits just right to join big banks of sewing machines, all spitting out combat vests, boots and backpacks, it looks and feels lovely. There are a lot of places to optimize and the frustrating physics engines starts to pay off as streams of individual bullet casings merge and shake and get primed and boxed. Maybe because of how finicky it is, you feel quite brilliant when it’s all moving at close to maximum efficiency.
And the physics puts a cap on throughput in a pleasantly organic way. On my second playthrough I over-optimized and some bottlenecks just couldn’t quite handle the volume. Great gob of vests and backpacks tried to jam into the boxing machines and some would spill off. After careful study I left it as is. Enough items were getting through, I just had to vacuum the shop floor every once in a while.
When things are humming, each glance at the contract boards brings another fulfillment. Cash pours in far faster than you can spend it. That usually irks me in business games but here I found it welcome. The piles of cash made it easy to ignore the fact that without a pause I couldn’t manage the entire enterprise the way I wanted to.
Should you buy it?
If these kinds of games are your thing, and you’re reasonably good at them, yes, go for it. It’s not buggy, just extremely picky with very little feedback about where your line is doing the wrong thing. You’ll have to figure it all out manually, sometimes by zooming in and following a single glove around. You shouldn’t have to debug that way, but it’s also oddly satisfying. And it works. You can produce a huge volume of goods from a very small area with smart layouts.
But I wouldn’t want to learn the genre with this game at its current stage of refinement. Production Line or one of the earlier champions of the genre are a much smoother, less punishing gateway. Those games actively help you find and fix problems without losing any engagement. I imagine Gunsmith will as well. They’ve nailed the core loop very early in release and have lots of time to add content and player assists.
I played for 11 hours, mostly enjoying myself but occasionally getting quite frustrated by the opaqueness. Not being able to figure out why my combat vests were going into the boxing machine perfectly but not coming out boxed was a particularly galling 10 minutes. A single zipping machine far down the line was turned off but nothing indicated the product was not correct. But even now I’m itching to restart and do things better. Like Tetris it’s the sort of game that has you dreaming of shapes.
Gunsmith is available from Steam. A review copy was provided by the developers.
For a different sort of engineering challenge check out our list of car design games.