In between games of Madden 17, I need something to tide me over until the release of Civilization VI consumes my life at the end of October. As such, I did what I usually do in these situations, and I dove into my Steam backlog to look for something that's been sitting around, unplayed, for a couple years. Usually, I try to find some short games like This War of Mine or Papers, Please. I try to avoid the bigger games because they can end up consuming more of my time than I want them to, and if I jump to something else, then I may not go back to such a game to give it a fair chance. Sorry, Master of Orion, Endless Legend, and Endless Space 2, you'll all have to wait until after my upcoming Civ VI bender before I can give any of you a fair chance. That being said, I decided to take a risk and try out a city-builder that I've had sitting around for awhile. I love city-builders, and so this could easily have dragged on for weeks or months, but I hoped that the narrow scope of this game would mean that it wouldn't take as long to get my fill of it.
Banished is a game that offers unforgiving tough love. I feel like this game is the "Oregon Trail" of city-builders, and it's enjoyable as a challenging game of resource management. Unfortunately, it isn't exactly the best at explaining itself, and so it requires a lot of trial and error in order to get going. There's a lot of cycles of cascading success or failure, so you'll likely be restarting your games multiple times before you get anything remotely close to a sizable village. I would also advise that you try to keep multiple save states for your early cities so that if you make a small mistake that starts to spiral into catastrophe, you can reload and fix it without having to restart the entire game.
The tutorial explains a lot of the basic functionality of the buildings, but it never really addresses how to get the most out of these buildings. This results in an unnecessarily high learning curve and bar of entry as you try to stumble upon the optimal placements and uses of buildings. I kept making little mistakes that had big repercussions that forced me into restarting my very first game multiple times - even going so far as to save the random map seed so that I could restart in the same map and try different approaches to some things.
I had to iterate through some sub-optimal building placements before stumbling upon a viable city.
An example of a small misstep that crippled a game was that I built a farm that overlapped slightly with a single tree in one corner. Normally, farms are created as soon as you finish zoning them, and you simply have to select which crop to plant and assign workers to work it. But if there are any rocks or trees, then you must first remove them in order for the farm field to be built (like with any other building). So while I waited for some laborers to come chop down the trees (uncertain why nobody was bothering to cut down that one fracking tree!) spring passed and the window for planting closed. So the farm went un-used for the rest of the year, I had no crops saved up, and several adults and children died, leaving my village under-staffed for the following year. So I restarted and placed my farm entirely in an open field, planted during the first spring, and collected a healthy reserve of wheat to keep all my villagers fed through the winter.
That trial-and-error could have been avoided if the tutorial had maybe recommended that I build my farm fields on open terrain in order to avoid having to cut down trees or break down rocks, or if the game's interface would highlight trees and rocks when placing structures. I also could have avoided a couple more restarts if the tutorial hadn't lead me to believe that I needed to build all the resource buildings that first year, which caused me to run out of reserves of both logs and stone, leaving me unable to build the Blacksmith that was needed to replace all my breaking tools. Now I know that I can probably go a few years without needing a Gatherer's Hut or Herbalist. It's an indie game, so I can't really throw too much heat on it for not having a more polished tutorial.
But even outside the tutorial, the game revels in throwing curve balls at the player, and sometimes, it can be a little bit too unsympathetic. In the third game that I started, the poor town of Doverbend was hit with a tornado within just a few minutes of starting up the game. I was still in early summer of the first year, and had just finished building the first few houses necessary to house my tiny population. I was still harvesting nearby trees and stone in order to build up a stockpile to build my forester, gatherer, and hunting lodges. I hadn't even gotten my village's feet underneath it yet, and the game decided to kill half my population with a tornado. That's a bit excessive.
A tornado wiped out half my population before I'd even hit the middle of the town's first summer.
This also leads to the problem of the game having limited customization in some areas. You can toggle disasters on or off, but there's no setting (that I could find) to alter the frequency or severity of the disasters, or to provide yourself with any kind of buffer period to allow you to get your village up and running before a disaster is allowed to happen. Instead, all you can do is hope that things work out, since you don't even have the option to force everyone to stop what they're doing and take shelter. Admittedly, instances of a disaster happening so early seem pretty rare. It only happened to me that one time. On the upside, at least you don't have to worry about your hunters being mauled by wolves or bears, since hostile wildlife doesn't seem to be present at all. They can, apparently, be killed in accidents, such as a forester being killed by a falling tree.
The game also lacks certain other conveniences and functionality that I might expect from a larger production from a bigger studio. You can't build on diagonals. The underlying terrain is often diagonal or irregular, so being unable to align buildings with these terrain features is very frustrating and leads to a lot of wasted space. Even games that have been around for 15 years have supported diagonal roads and buildings! There's also no terraforming of any kind. So if there's some tiny little hill on the map, you can't level it to build a structure over it, which can completely screw with the layout of your city. This game could also be a bit better at conveying the current status of your town. There's an overview widget that shows your population count, overall happiness and health, sums of stored resources, and current weather and season. It's helpful, but it only shows how much of everything you have and gives no indication as to how much you need.
Is this enough supplies?
OK, so I have 900 units of food stored up for the winter. Is that good? I have no idea because I don't know how much food an average person or family will consume. Same goes for tools and clothes and medicines, and so forth. Will one coat last a single person an entire year? Will it last multiple years? What about tools? How many coats and tools do I realistically need to store in order to adequately supply my population? The game doesn't tell you. This is all stuff that you'll eventually figure out through trial-and-error.
I guess they have to hold back some statistics so that they can make the Town Hall building worth constructing. This building provides some more detailed charts and graphs. Some of the data is useful, as it does contain a breakdown of how much of each resource you actually produce and consume in a given year. But I see no reason why the game couldn't give the player some rough estimate how much of each resource you're expected to need; or to highlight each supply in red, yellow, or green to indicate whether you're under-supplied, adequately-supplied, or over-supplied (respectively). It doesn't have to be precise.
Community through adversity
So this all might sound pretty negative so far, and initial impressions can potentially be very damaging. But once you get past these initial hurdles, restart your settlements a few times (on the same map or on different maps), and get a firmer understanding of the fundamental mechanics, then you'll be treated to an exceptionally-solid (if somewhat limited) little city-builder.
The underlying simulation is pretty solid. The limited population and infrastructure means that Banished isn't terribly taxing on the hardware. Every single citizen is an agent, and all of the resources and supplies are objects in the world. You can literally watch a single person go out into the woods, cut down a tree, carry the logs back to your stockpile, then see the woodcutter pick up the logs and take them to his shop, where he'll proceed to chop it into firewood, which he'll store in the barn, from which someone from each household will come to take the necessary firewood that they need for the winter. Crops need to be planted during the spring and harvested during the fall, and if cold weather comes early (or you're late harvesting), then a portion of the crop will be killed. Animals in your pastures can reproduce and get slaughtered for meat, and they can even catch and spread disease, which can decimate your livestock if you don't plan ahead.
Individual citizens can be followed as they go about their daily activities.
The core gameplay is also fairly simple, straightforward, and elegant. The bulk of the game consists of managing your small work force as the year progresses across the different seasons. You gather resources, harvest food, create manufactured goods (such as tools and coats), and construct new infrastructure. By default, each adult citizen is a "laborer". Laborers are tasked with miscellaneous activities such as chopping trees, gathering masonry stones, moving resources around the settlement, building roads, and so on. When it comes time to build a new structure, you'll need to assign some population as Builders. They'll take the resources that the laborers collect and use them to construct new houses or buildings. Once a building is constructed, you'll have to assign some people to work it. Jobs include farmers, woodcutters, hunters, blacksmiths, miners, teachers, herbalists, and so on. These jobs are all pretty self-explanatory, but (as mentioned above) you'll probably need to experiment with the buildings a little bit in order to find the ideal placements.
I wish I could permanently assign this
educated citizen as my blacksmith.
Any adult can do any job, so you don't have to worry about training a blacksmith, and you won't be left without any blacksmith at all if your blacksmith dies. There is, however, a generic school house building that takes some adults out of your workforce, turns them into students, and educates them. Educated adults get a bonus to their productivity, regardless of what jobs they do. So you won't be managing the employment of different social classes. I do wish that the game would allow you to permanently assign a specific individual to a specific job. That way, I could guarantee that my blacksmith would always be a more productive, educated worker. Instead, your citizens love shuffling around their jobs seemingly at random, and trying to micro-manage who does what (once you start getting educated workers) is a nightmare.
I guess that since all these people are banished exiles, they have a strong sense of community, and there's a certain degree of progressivism about the game. Everyone works for a common good, nobody is too good for any particular job, women will work the same jobs that men do, and everyone is equal. The only difference is that children don't work, and educated adults perform better (even though they work the same jobs as uneducated adults). You won't be creating educated classes that will only perform skilled jobs, while your uneducated are forced to work difficult manual labor jobs. You won't have a select few elites living in mansions or castles sipping wine and eating cake, while the masses huddle in freezing shacks subsisting off of scraps. That sort of city dynamic is simply impossible in this game.
Citizens are greedy, and residents of a fully-stocked house won't share food or supplies with starving neighbors.
That sense of community is somewhat undercut by the greedy algorithms that the citizens employ. Each citizen will take the necessary amount of food and firewood and coats that they need for their house to survive the winter. This can be a problem if some houses have excesses of resources while a house next door is starving. Citizens won't share food or supplies from their own inventories with each other, and there's no effective way for the player to ration out food or supplies. So, while everyone has equal access, whoever pulls the stuff out of the warehouse first gets to keep it - first come, first serve!
The dedication to its theme of survival means that Shining Rock Software focused almost exclusively on practical matters. Banished, thus, lacks some of the expressiveness that you might be accustomed to from other city-builders. Obviously, the medieval time period means that you won't be building sky-scrapers or even trains. It's going to be wood huts everywhere. You also won't be building parks, or plazas, or community gardens, or statues, or monuments. Despite the medieval setting, you also won't be building castles or walls, or faire grounds. And the lack of diagonal building means that everything will be packed into a grid.
This could turn off some players who might want to go in and make the prettiest medieval farming village that they can. But these sacrifices work well to augment the game's central concept and theme. Your focus is strictly on survival and managing your dwindling resources. Much like with Cities: Skylines, the terrain of the map is, thus, very important, and you have to carefully plan how you use the space. Fortunately, you can lay the footprint of a building and pause its actual construction until you're ready to commit the resources and manpower. This allows you to precisely plan out your village's layout in advance, which helps for optimizing space.
You can lay the footprint of a building and pause construction until you're ready to commit.
As your city grows, you'll naturally be cutting down more and more of the forest, which destroys your source of lumber, limits the habitat of hunt-able deer, and destroys the herbs, berries, and roots that provide variety in your villagers' diets. These environmental concerns have to be balanced against the necessary growth of your settlement, and every action feels like it involves some significant trade-off. Admittedly, the limits of the map do feel a little bit contrived. Realistically, your laborers would be able to simply go further away to get more resources, but this game has a hard edge to the map, beyond which your hunters, gatherers, and foresters cannot pass. Eventually you'd hit the same barriers regardless; this game just cuts you off sooner than would happen realistically.
Every building is available right from the start of the game, but most won't be practical to build, since you'll always need the core gathering buildings first, and won't have the excess resources to build the other buildings right away. You usually also have the ability to start up farms, pastures, or orchards, but the crops or animals that you can raise will be limited. As the game progresses, you'll open up the ability to trade, which will grant you access to new crops and animals, as well as give you the ability to sell excess supplies in exchange for ones that you can't produce locally. There is no single currency though (e.g. money), and so every trade must be done via barter, which means that you have to set aside some subset of your precious supplies in order to be able to trade for something like a new crop seed or a pair of pasture animals.
As your village grows, the available resources will start to recede, and map size will limit overall growth.
The thing that will probably be the end of my Banished play-time will be the lack of goals and long-term objectives, for which the game has none. Surviving the next winter is the only goal that the game ever provides, and (as far as I can tell) you can play a city indefinitely. This isn't much different from other city-builders, but even sandboxy games like Cities: Skylines provide milestones, monuments, and so on to keep you playing, and other games like Caesar IV and Tropico have campaigns. Once I boot up the game, it's hard to put down. But there's very little to keep me coming back for more once I've mastered the art of building a village.
A unique survival city-builder
The combination of city-building and survival puts Banished into a novel little gaming niche. If you like survival games, and you like city-builders, then this is probably right up your alley. Be advised though that this game has more constrained play than other city-builders, while also lacking the structure and sense of progress of yet other games. If you want to be able to just create a pretty city in a sandbox game, then you will probably be disappointed. If you expect to "win", you'll also be disappointed.
This game is tough, and it requires pretty strict attention to detail from the player. Heck, even the achievements are difficult to obtain! There's no simple "survive your first winter" trophies-for-participation here. But it's complex systems make it addictive and rewarding, which is always the thing that separates a good city-builder from a bad city-builder. Banished is definitely among the good ones. It's one of the best indie titles out there, and I highly recommend giving it a shot.
This game is more concerned with simply surviving the winter, rather than building a pretty metropolis.