City building games are a lot like open world and sand box titles, as whilst they might contain some form of over-arching narrative much of the true story of the game emerges from your interaction with it. I’ve avoided the truly open ended games for the most part, primarily due to their seemingly endless beta states, but that’s not to say I haven’t been intrigued by the stories they generate, far from it. Thus when the tales of people’s experiences with Banished started to percolate through the Internet I was intrigued as the punishing mechanics led many to give up in frustration, only to come crawling back the next day. I feel much the same way and the lack of a pre-determined win condition only made it worse.
Exiled from your home town you find yourself in charge of a group of villagers who need to make a new life for themselves. You start with little more than a pile of resources, somewhere to store them and a desire to not die in the first winter that will come soon enough. Over time however the challenge shifts from simply surviving to keeping your town functioning, making everyone happy and ensuring they have everything they need to keep subsisting. The longer you play the more intricate and delicate the equation you need to balance becomes as a mistake in one area can have effects that ripple far beyond where you think they did and, if you’re not well prepared, devastate your town.
Like most games which have a tendency to generate a lot of on-screen elements as they drag on Banished’s visuals are a relatively simple affair although they do look particularly nice when zoomed all the way out. Many of the buildings have a very similar look and feel about them, even though there is a bit of variation in the house models to break it up a bit, which can lead to some confusion when your town is tightly packed with numerous structures. It’s relatively easy to remember where you placed important buildings though and often you won’t need to hunt around for them anyway. That being said there does seem to be some notable slowdown when you’re scrolling around, even in the early stages when there’s not much on screen. This may be due to my preference to playing on 5x speed, however, although I neglected to test that out.
Banished is a city building game, one not unlike Anno 2070 where you’re on a never-ending quest to find more resources in order to grow your population so you can…get more resources. Compared to other city building games that come with tech trees and other intricately layered mechanics Banished is actually quite simple, mechanically speaking. You can essentially sum it up as needing to provide life’s basics to a group of people (food/water/shelter) and doing so in a way that allows the town to grow and prosper. Typically this revolves around finding ways to overcome particular resource shortages with the most forgiving of which just prevents your town from getting bigger whilst the worst could see everyone dead within a few short years.
In the beginning you’re focused on 2 primary resources: food and firewood. Building enough houses usually doesn’t take you too long however getting up a store of firewood and establishing a renewable food supply is one thing that’s likely to kill your town in its first winter if done too late. There are several methods to getting this done although my favorite was by far the quad placement of a forester, herbalist, hunter and gatherer which provided a bevy of resources that kept coming in continually. After a while however you begin to notice that the amount of resources required to build other buildings, the ones that will enable you to do more things, can’t simply be gathered anymore and you start needing more people to accomplish certain tasks.
This then pushes you towards the dangers of increasing your population at a rate that you can’t currently sustain, quickly showing any flaws you have in your city planning. Typically the first hurdle you’ll face is food as the surplus you generated over all those years starts to quickly evaporate. Then, not too long after, your workers complain of their tools breaking and they start to become inefficient at performing their assigned tasks. Considering one of these tasks is making more tools this can have devastating consequences down the line, wiping out a good chunk of your population because it was all predicated on things getting done in a certain time frame. Once you’re past those initial hurdles though the problems you’ll face become much subtler and can easily go unnoticed for decades of in game time.
Indeed my first town that made it past the 20 year mark, which suffered all of the problems I described above, seemed to be struggling to make use of the vast resources I had put before them. No matter how many more people were born I just couldn’t seem to provide enough of everything for them, the parable of Sisyphus running through my head. A quick bit of research showed that my entire town was uneducated and thus would be incredibly inefficient at performing any of their tasks. Including a school now wouldn’t solve the problem for years to come and, with an aging population and a declining birth rate, it was unlikely that would even save my poor town. Sadly I closed that game file and started again.
What followed has been a mildly successful town, reaching 300+ citizens in under 50 years with a surplus of food at almost all times with maximum happiness and a mostly educated population. The same problems propped up again of course however this time around I was able to head them off before they became too much of an issue. However new problems arose simply from the size of the population I was now dealing with and small decisions or events, placing a house in the wrong spot or a teacher dying, had effects that I couldn’t fathom. There are solutions of course but these are the sorts of things that you just don’t think about when you’re starting out and solving them can sometimes be more costly than just living with it.
For the most part Banished avoids some of the more major issues that have plagued other city building games however there still seems to be times when things go awfully wrong for no apparent reason. The screenshots above shows one of my population (one of many, unfortunately) taking a trip down to the bottom right corner of the map for no particular reason. This wouldn’t be an issue, tyipcally, however many of the people who embarked on this trip would come back cold, hungry or simply die on the way. Additionally whilst you’re able to dictate a number of people to a job you have no control on who does what job, sometimes leaving you with people travelling long distances to do work. You can fix this by removing all your workers and re-assigning them every so often but it feels like a solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist.
I was really surprised by Banished as when I first looked at it I figured it would be a couple hours of fun figuring everything out and that’d be it. However the initial simplicity belies the greater complexity that lies underneath everything, something which is only revealed to you the longer you play Banished. It has its flaws and once you get past a certain stage there’s a definite feeling of “playing the waiting game” so you can progress to the next stage but it’s hard to fault Banished for that when it managed to draw me away for so long. You’ll definitely need to enjoy the city building genre to really appreciate Banished but that’s about the only barrier to entry I can think of.
Rating: 8.5 / 10
Banished is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total game time was approximately 15 hours with 17% of the achievements unlocked.