Banished is a game with an incredibly simple premise: You control between four and six families of people that have been exiled from their previous town and have to start over somewhere in the wilderness. Banished doesn’t even explain how you got where you are. There isn’t actually another town. It’s just you, in the woods, with a desire to survive.
Let’s start with what Banished does right:
A Lot With a Little
One of the most impressive parts of Banished’s game design is that, unlike most city building games, there isn’t anything resembling a “tech tree”. You don’t make better buildings by researching how to do so. Instead, everything is available from the start. While some buildings have direct upgrades (For instance, Houses to Stone Houses), there is nothing preventing you from building the better version as soon as you begin the game. Except for, well… you don’t have the resources.
That’s what makes Banished so good; every limitation you have is organic. There are no prerequisite demands on structures or “creep” that you have to build on. You can build whatever you want, whenever you want. You’ll just probably die for it.
Right. Did I mention that? Banished’s early game is brutal. I believe my first playthrough went something along the lines of the following:
- Built a fishery.
- Built a school.
- Built a blacksmith.
- Winter hits
- Everyone freezes or starves to death.
You see, I thought Banished was going to be a cathartic process, a “sim” game where I could make some cool towns and relax. Not so. Banished starts by gleefully killing every single one of your citizens within the first year or two.
So how is it that I died so quickly despite having every building available to me? It’s not only what you build, but when and where you build it.
Banished gives you tools to monitor the distance between a citizen’s home and their work place. It tells you that you’ll have to have firewood and clothes to keep your citizens warm, however it severely underplays how difficult those things might be to maintain. For every tailor and woodcutter you have, that’s one less person you have hunting or gathering food. If someone lives too far from their work, they’re going to have to take frequent long breaks to go back home and get food (not to mention their commute exposes them to the elements and they’re more likely to freeze to death).
All of this combined means that for the first several years, you’re going to be frantically reassigning people to different tasks so that you don’t run out of any of your essential resources. On that note, don’t assume that food is the only resource you’ll have to worry about. You’ll need it, obviously, to prevent people from starving, but you’ll also need firewood and clothing to keep your people warm. For those, you’ll need lumber and leather and/or wool. You’ll also need stone to keep building houses, can’t have people going homeless. Last but not least, this all comes crashing down if people don’t have tools to work with, which you’ll need coal and/or iron to make. Without tools your people can’t efficiently gather any of the other resources and are more or less doomed.
You see, that’s the name of the game in Banished: Efficiency.
You need to efficiently juggle your citizens tasks while making sure you can produce as many resources as possible given your current population.
Fundamental Shifts in Gameplay
The organic nature of Banished is easily what sets it apart from other city-builders. Once you make it past the first 5 years and you’ve got a solid infrastructure for producing all your essential resources, what’s left? Well, expansion of course. However, that’s not as easily as it sounds. Build too many houses at once and you’ll see your population grow faster than you can support, eventually running your resources dry and causing a mass die off. Build too slowly and your population will stagnate for a while (allowing you to build more production facilities) but when the “old generation” dies off, you’ll see a massive crash in population.
The point is that the early game and the late game feel very different, despite the fact that you’re working with literally all the same tools, choices, and options. That’s the hallmark of a very well made game.
Banished is far from perfect though.
The biggest issue I had with Banished was clarity. Sometimes, in a game, a low degree of clarity is a good thing. That is if you can lead players without directly telling them what to do. Banished does a great job of this in some aspect, like that housing placement matters because commute times kill efficient resource production.
Other times? Banished does a pretty bad job of it.
Different crops grow at different times and at different rates. Beans, for instance, grow extremely quickly and are usually done being harvested by early Autumn. Pumpkins, however, will grow slowly and might not be fully harvested when winter hits. You’ll probably lose some of your crop if you don’t have a well set up farming area. So… why would you ever make pumpkins? They just seem worse compared to other crops. There are vague ideas about crop variety improving happiness (which improves production efficiency) but even then, there are upwards of 15+ sources of food (in the forms of different crops, orchards, livestock, herbs, fish, and so on) and there really isn’t a great idea of how many different crops you should be looking to make.
This sort of problem comes in to play even more with how some resources are used. Houses seem to prefer burning coal over firewood (despite coal being the vastly more difficult resource to acquire and it being needed to make tools, while firewood is only used for warming homes). In the end, you can’t really be certain why your town is using certain resources the way they are. Instead, you can only see that they’re using them. This means that identifying problems can be somewhat difficult at times.
A minor gripe here, but Traders are a large part of supplementing production of certain resources in a town. Make a lot of firewood, trade it for some extra coal, or something to that effect. The problem is that Traders don’t all carry the same stuff and sometimes you can go years without the right things showing up. This can be solved by building more trading posts, but you’re still playing the odds. At extremely high population sizes (I think I’ve gotten as high as 1,050 citizens), there really isn’t a great way to use traders to supply yourself with enough resources.
This is the problem with Banished’s design. The lack of a tech tree means the game focuses on how to best use the limited options you have, and until you hit 200-300 citizens, the game is excellent. Above that however? Well, you’re looking at cycles of generational die off, where you’ll shut down your extra food production facilities, but you’ll eventually come back up. Banished just becomes a little bit too routine. Ever since I hit 900+ citizens, the game had become:
- Build a Market
- Build Houses around that Market
- Build More Farms (and barns and pastures. Sometimes another Forester for lumber… etc)
Sure, my population would dip (from 750 to almost 600 again at one point), but you have the infrastructure to boost it back up pretty effortlessly. What I’m trying to say is that the game “ends”, but it doesn’t actually end. Obviously not every game needs a climactic finish, certainly not sim games, but most of the ones that are meant to go on forever either eventually become so hard that you lose, or they maintain some hard capped struggle that you always have to watch out for. Banished doesn’t really have either of those. You just realize, one day, that you’re eventually going to run out of space on the map, but that your town is essentially indestructible. That’s a pretty off-putting ending for a game.
Banished is a great game for the first 15 hours. After that, it becomes a routine.
After 40 hours is becomes a bit boring.