Banished is a game about a band of settlers who build a new community. The player makes all executive and societal decisions for the settlers, but does not have a physical presence in the community. The player is free to imagine handing down divine orders, possessing the minds of elected officials, or whatever fantasy the player finds thrilling. These orders include things like, “Build a house over yonder!”, “Chop down those trees!”, “Trade all those coats for some chickens!” or administrative tasks like defining how many workers are assigned to a particular job.
Citizens are individuals that will eventually carry out your orders in a manner that evokes memories of Dwarf Fortress. They however, lack the personality and individuality of the dwarves. I never found myself caring about any individuals or feeling any loss when my citizens died horrible deaths due to my mismanagement of their short, brutal lives. They basically do whatever job you assign them to and have health and happiness ratings based on how much medicine and luxury goods are available. Then they fill cemeteries for a time, when inexplicably graves clear up for newer corpses. Long term respect for the dead is not a feature of these horrible people.
To the best of my knowledge, the game was developed by a single individual (Except for the music). Based on that fact, Banished is a tremendous achievement. Graphically it far exceeds what is to be expected from an indie game. There is a great deal of content to explore. I believe the the author created the type of brutal experience that he intended to.
The emphasis of the game is survival. The city building aspects are important, but not the game’s strength. Elaborating further I believe consists of delivering spoilers. Often games balance two different paths to mastery, a combination of learning the game and how the rules and options affect your outcome, and mastering the game through repeated play. I believe this game leans very far towards the former, so the main enjoyment of the game is figuring out how it works as a path to getting that successful colony. Once the rules are explored, I think this game will not be revisited often.
At about $20, this game should provide entertainment for less than a dollar an hour, is fun but not enduring like a Civilization, Sim City, or Dwarf Fortress.
Now the Spoilers:
After playing through the tutorials I thought I had the basic idea of how to survive. Fishing and hunting did not get it done, my people all starved to death soon after settling. I found this baffling but started a second game.
My second game was more successful than my first, but not keeping up an adequate supply of firewood caused everyone to freeze to death on a particularly cold winter night. Managing the supplies of everything becomes the player’s main responsibility. If you define too many building projects too quickly, you will end up drained of resources without anything to show for it. Let’s say you have a decent amount of wood but not enough stone. You place plans for a number of buildings that require both. Laborers will bring all that wood to those sites and the wood will be locked up there. They won’t finish because there’s no stone. You’ve now essentially drained your wood supplies and interrupted an important supply chain. Wood goes to the woodcutter to make firewood, the firewood then gets picked up by citizens to be brought to their houses. People seem to require quite a bit of firewood.
My third game I felt that I was ready. I planned everything out, was careful about my supply chains, had tons of agriculture, built slowly and carefully. My colony grew but I was never able to really get ahead. I didn’t have huge excesses to trade, which feels like a key component. I was able to get some chickens, but a bout of bird flu or some such random event killed my chickens before I could complete a new pen for them. This lead to the first a few famines I suffered. I learned that the citizens of Banished are assholes. Let’s say the hunters kill a deer, and that provides 100 steaks (this is simplified for the example). Now note that we have 100 starving people that I’m trying to save. Do you think the people work together and each have a delicious venison steak? Of course not. One asshole takes all the steaks and brings them to his basement. His family eats them all in like a week and everyone else dies.
I bounced back from a few of these famines and eventually stabilized my food supply. It’s pretty easy to do once you kill off all those hungry mouths. The society in Banished is a bit Anarchy/Communism. There’s no money, everyone just kinda works if they feel like and takes what they want from the supply. They do stupid things like choose houses at the furthest possible point from where they have to go to work each day, then waste effort walking most of the day away.
The way to have a successful colony is efficient workers. Producing more food with less farmers and hunters allows you to focus your efforts on other things. Ways to ensure productivity include having enough tools and education. Education is a sacrifice because you will need to have teachers, who only contribute to educating citizens, and the actual students spend some of their prime working years in school. When you first build a school it will slow down new members of your workforce and you’ll need to survive and slow expansion. Tools require enough iron, wood, and coal, and enough blacksmiths to work those resources that meet or exceed the rate of tools failing. This leads to the bane of colony number 3: insufficient tools.
I traded away a large number of tools for some cabbage seed. I figured my citizens were tired of eating potatoes and some cabbage would really hit the spot. At about the same time, some nomads wanted to settle. I agreed, happy to rebuild the population after all those famines. Well, we needed more housing as our current houses were mostly filled. Building houses interrupted my supply chain to the blacksmiths. We had gone from a surplus of tools to a crisis due to the trade and immigration. The nomads brought Swine Flu with them as well, adding a new mound of shit for me to deal with. Things spiraled quickly out of control. Food ran low with all the new citizens eating everything in sight (and hoarding). Farmers were ineffective without proper tools and food rotted in the fields as people starved. Miners dug out iron with their bare, bloody hands, or bloody stumps at this point as effectively as they could, but they couldn’t get enough iron to create tools near a fast enough rate to replace the broken ones. Miners were soon reassigned to farming duty to attempt to feed the populous. If they weren’t starving at this point they were freezing, the population has fallen but numerous houses were single occupied, all requiring firewood to heat their lonely existences.
Basically, “Everyone died, the end. Wasn’t that fun?” No, not really Banished, losing wasn’t fun.