When I spoke to Luke Hodorowicz of Shining Rock Software last year I was super excited for Banished, not least because Luke was obviously a developer really passionate about his game and the city building genre. Banished is not SimCity, though, nor is it Caesar 3 or Pharaoh. Instead, it’s a game about surviving and building a community.
Banished is quite simply a sandbox city builder: there’s no fluff, no massive tech trees, and not even a huge amount of progression. This makes for a gameplay experience that oddly manages to be both positive and sometimes frustrating.
The basic premise of the game is to take a group of outcast citizens into a map and start a new town as they struggle for survival against the elements, and search for basics such as food and shelter. Beyond that there is not much else. There is no combat, there are no invading armies: Banished is about population growth and resource gathering and management. There are also no missions; it’s a free-form game that allows you to play it however you want. There are, however, a number of Steam Achievements to aim for if you are looking for a challenge.
The game comes with three difficulty modes, but to get the most from the game it’s advisable to start on hard. The two easier modes give you more of a leg-up with resources which means there’s less of an overall challenge when trying to grow the population and acquire the different resources such as seeds and livestock. You also start with fewer people on hard mode, so it’s more of a struggle to survive that first harsh winter.
There are no artificial population numbers in Banished; citizens will be born and grow old as the years tick by and they need to breed for your city to expand. This can take quite some time at the start of the game, as population doesn’t increase quickly even at 10x game speed and much of the time will be spent nurturing and looking after the few citizens available. A population imbalance – where you have more old people than young – can also kill a promising game for you, and it’s something to really watch out for because it can creep up on you, leaving it too late for you to rectify the problem. Once the oldies die, there’ll be nobody to replace them and fill the jobs essential to keeping your population alive. Life can be cruel in Banished.
Because of the low population at the start, players have to carefully manage what each citizen does for a job and there are key requirements to keeping everyone alive. Shelter, heat and food are probably the most important resources in the game. Without these you’ll fail miserably, and chances are good that your first few attempts will see citizens freeze to death or starve. It took me a good couple of hours to get the balance right, but once you’ve got it figured out the game becomes a lot easier.
There is a real element of micromanagement in Banished, and you’ll be constantly watching the profession menu screen and shuffling citizens from job to job. This sounds quite mundane but it’s actually surprisingly fun. It becomes a real challenge at times, but building a town hall provides further information on population growth over time with all sorts of visual charts, and it generally makes managing professions a lot easier.
The town hall also allows players to accept nomads into the population and these travellers can help boost the population quickly. They don’t arrive in massive numbers but they’re enough to give the population a healthy boost. In fact, getting a town hall up as early as possible can be a real help – but building it is rather demanding on the old stone, wood and iron resources, so going straight for that may make things a little trickier in the short term.
Thankfully, there are no problem with map sizes in Banished. The maps are huge which means that there you’ll be there for countless hours if you really want to try and fill a map with a sprawling settlement. Even this is a balancing act, though: the more space you use to build, the less space there is to gather resources, and this balance is just as important as getting your job priorities right. Becoming self-sufficient – with quarries for stone, foresters to plant trees, and mines for coal and iron ore – becomes increasingly important as the population grows and less of the resources on the surface of the map are available. You need to think ahead.
Resources are key to being successful and they’re also the game’s main currency. A trading post can be set up, and resources you want to trade can be stockpiled there before a boat arrives with goods to trade. The problem is that once you’ve got your hands on livestock or seeds for the first time, you will never need to trade for these again, so trading is limited throughout the lifespan of a game. The barter trading system is pretty basic and could be greatly expanded on.
Unlike games such as Pharaoh there’s no tech tree or chain of events to work through to access buildings and this is where Banished falls short. Everything can be built at any point depending on resource availability. This open-ended gameplay may not appeal to all fans of the genre because after a few hours playing you will have seen everything the game has to offer, and then it’s just a matter of making sure everyone is working efficiently in their assigned profession. You can leave it running for a couple of hours with no major problems arising; buildings will not degrade and areas of cities will not improve depending on what’s around them, which is something I would love to have seen. This is something that can hopefully be modded in the future.
The flipside is that you can turn on disasters to add an extra element of surprise, but these seem to go a bit too far in the other direction. I watched a tornado rip through one of my towns and take out 90% of the population. It had taken hours to build everything, and with so few citizens left alive, it was impossible to recover and the game was eventually abandoned. This was really frustrating.
While we’re on the subject of things going wrong, there are other “disasters” to watch out for. Crops can catch infestations and you then need to rotate the crop type in the fields by changing to a different crop type on the damaged field. Welcome to the farming part of Banished, where it teaches you about crop rotation! Also keep an eye on citizens getting injured at work – my stonecutters kept getting crushed in the quarry and there as nothing I could do about that. Perhaps I should have educated them earlier at the school so they weren’t so clumsy.
Banished does have a lot going for it. The interface is excellent, and (with the exception of the trading window, which takes a little effort to figure out) for the most part it’s super intuitive. There are some really neat features such as being able to highlight an area and set it to a high work priority, causing citizens to stop what they’re doing and get on with the important task. Being able to highlight areas and instruct citizens to only take a specific resource also means you can be selective about what’s being collected. Luke has done an excellent job on the UI: it’s simple, easy to understand and uncluttered.