City-building games are traditionally associated with being able to indulge oneself. Improbable motorway systems, vast gleaming edifices, skyrocketing wealth, reshaping the very land – that sort of thing. Banished takes a very different approach to the usual mayor simulator. This is about survival and subsistence, trying to keep a small community of medieval peasants alive in a cold and cruel land.
It’s a game about gathering wood to build houses, and farming crops to feed mouths, which sounds familiar on paper but in practice the focus is more on how wrong everything can go. Go into it expecting a genteel experience of slowly building bigger and better structures and you may well bounce right off Banished, as we did during initial forays. Go into determined to eke out a basic existence living off only what the land yields and at least you’re not in for a shock. You’re still in for hard graft, however.
People die rather a lot in Banished, or at least they do if you haven’t yet mastered most of its nuances. If you’re not generating and stockpiling enough food, from fisherman, from hunters, from gatherers and from farmers, your townsfolk will slowly starve. If there isn’t enough firewood and coal and coats, many of them may freeze when winter arrives. A few might fall prey to mining accidents.
Most, though, will simply perish of old age – and when they do, a crucial role may be left vacant. One less farmer or one less blacksmith can create a critical hole in your economy, so it’s vital that you’ve got a generation of youngsters ready to fill the weather-worn boots of their fallen elders. Trouble is, more youngsters means more mouths to feed and hearths to fuel, and so there’s a delicate and often stressful balancing act of trying to encourage your population to grow in order to provide new workers, but discouraging it from growing too early because you’re not yet able to keep a higher head count alive.
The placing of buildings oddly becomes the least aspect of Banished. Erecting a new structure never brings excitement or even satisfaction – partly because everything looks so similar in Banished’s primarily brown world, and partly because a new structure also means new stress about who you’re going to find to staff it. Expansion happens because you need, say, a third forester’s camp or a fourth potato field in order to meet the ever-growing demand, not because you fancy building something new.
Banished, then, is an odd fish. It’s all about the challenge and the difficulty, of trying to set down new buildings and allocate workers in the most efficient way possible. Some will find that a pleasure in itself, an impressively merciless simulation of harsh, unforgiving medieval life which demands a sharp and patient player. Others will find it too cruel and unforgiving, a world away from the atmospheric Lego set they were hoping for.
Both, however, are likely to find that once they have grasped most of the critical strategies – which buildings should go where and in what order – Banished loses its edge. With the early-to-mid game hump overcome, it then becomes a matter of repeatedly placing the same structures over and over, with no new challenge or reward on the horizon. In other words, it’s a game to play until you get bored, not until some endgame or new set of toys is reached.
It’s a bit of a let down after all that self-tutoring, after all that trial and error, and after all that death. So you’ve built a town which can essentially run itself – what now? Well, try again in a new ‘world’, with a harsher environment and more limited landmass, perhaps. But you’ll still be placing gatherer’s huts in the same place, still be allocating three farmers to each farm, still be building the same buildings over and over in order to stop the row of numbers which denote food, fuel, building materials and most of all lives from declining.
Updates with new buildings and new goals are inevitable, especially as Banished has been a minor hit, so there is hope for it ultimately to have a life beyond the first few days of challenging play. Right now, it feels a little like half of a game – but at least it’s a strong and proud first half, determined to buck conventional wisdom and turn city-building into something new and admirably stressful. Just steer clear if you prefer town planning to be more of a toybox than boot camp.