They came from the sea. And I only have a poet to blame.

When I sat down with the fine folks from Gaslamp Games to see Clockwork Empires for the first time, I wasn't sure what to expect, but a mer-people attack had never crossed my mind as even a remote possibility. Villagers chopping trees and farmers putting a hoe to soil--those were the sights I expected (and found) in this management simulation, which finds an intriguing middle ground between the city building of SimCity and the emergent anxieties of Dwarf Fortress. But terrors from the deep weren't on my radar. Nor, for that matter, did the town residents expect them. Some villagers panicked while others beat the fish people with their fists, and eventually, the local militia gunned them down.

Clockwork Empires Video Preview

What did a poet have to do with the fishy invasion? He was exploring the seaside, searching for inspiration for his poetry. In doing so, he stirred a hornet's nest. Or a mermaid's nest, as the case may be. Wait--do mermaids live in nests?

Regardless, I now know to expect the unexpected in Clockwork Empires, which mixes eldritch horrors and quaint colonial pioneers into the same melting pot.

The horror wasn't immediately obvious when I first saw Clockwork Empires in action, however. No--what struck me was just how much the citizens loved their booze. David Baumgart, Gaslamp's Chief Creative Officer and the game's art director, tells me that this is one aspect in which Clockwork Empires will mimic colonial life in the Victorian era. The people loved their alcohol, as well as their opium, as was evidenced by the huge numbers of poppies my citizens were planting. So many buckets of raw opium accumulated, in fact, that the people ran out of space to store it and forced me to build more storage lots.

Pescetarians have it hard in Clockwork Empires.

Ah, yes, booze and drugs, the people's perennial panaceas, and killers of long-term memory. Swilling alcohol might make your villagers happy, but it will also make them lose specific memories. That may not seem like such a terrible thing for little digital workers, but those memories are what drive their wants, needs, and dispositions. Says Baumgart, "alcohol will cause your characters to forget random memories that they have formed, including traumatic events like the death of a loved one, an attack by fish people or otherworldly influences such as being a cult member. So through providing sufficient quantities of alcohol, you can ensure that a character doesn't even remember being in a cult. But on the downside, they will be rather less effective in their day-to-day work due to being hung over."

Gaslamp wants to keep their interface as clean as possible, and has shied away from reducing the game's mechanics to graphs and charts. The developer wants you to get to know your citizens, to learn about them as individuals, to visit them at their graves after they've returned to dust, to learn about the cults they belong to and the weddings they've witnessed. Hearing this had me initially excited, but I also worried: what if I changed my policies or adjusted my construction priorities based on the desires of a few citizens that did not reflect the population's needs at large? Would I need to click on a bunch of individuals to determine my priorities?

Not necessarily. "If the player constructs a bureaucrat's office and has a clerk in their colony to occupy it, the clerk will sit at their desk and compile status reports that present high-level status updates to the player," Baumgart says. I am still not sure that status reports should be a reward for building a particular structure, rather than a core game mechanic, but this particular decision's success rests on context, and an hour-long demonstration just doesn't provide an idea of how all these systems interact.

Land squid!

But let's get back to those seapeople. Sending a poet to be at one with the waves is not the only way to lure them from their watery habitat. "Overfishing, for example, in certain coastal environments may provoke the fish people into attacking your colony," says Baumgart. "The player can react by reducing their impact on the fish people's home by fishing less or they may set up machine guns on the coastline to fire upon any fish people that approach." But fishy foes aren't your only worries. Says Baumgart, "Say a character finds an artifact while mining; one of their fellow workers notices this and reports it to the authorities. If you let the discoverer keep the artifact, the ground near the character may become increasingly corrupted and poisonous growths will begin to grow. If you don't let them keep the artifact, you can destroy it, but that character may now be obsessed with researching the source of its power to try to reclaim their lost glory. Or you may simply send it back to the empire and make it someone else's problem, thereby opting out of most of the risk and reward an artifact provides."

No graveyard? Just store your dead next to the veggies!

And so you should expect the unexpected in Clockwork Empires, though Baumgart tells me not to expect major tragedies like SimCity's city-smashing monster attacks. Rather, the game will keep me constantly on my toes, giving me enough warning of unusual events that I will have time to react.

Until then, however, my eyes will be on my drugged-up colonists, who chatter with each other in gibberish that bears more than a passing resemblance to Simlish, the language of The Sims. I was disappointed that Clockwork Empires is not more of a looker; the animations lack fluidity and the art doesn't emphasize the steampunk feel Gaslamp seems to be aiming for. I don't worry, however, that the game will lack complexity. For that matter, I suspect that I’ll need to create more space for all the raw fish steaks that remain after my militia rids my colony of the pesky intruders. I’ll need them if I want to keep my villagers from eating each other, which is an actual possibility in Clockwork Empires.

No word yet, however, on whether Clockwork Empires will feature fava beans or Chianti. Maybe it’s best to just avoid the human flesh and stick to seafood.