2014 could be seen as an incredibly disappointing time for city-builders. SimCity (2013) had flopped hard with many fans crying heresy over major gameplay changes. The largest competition in the genre was from Monte Cristo’s ok enough Cities XL, which was in the middle of being rereleased every 2 years with little to no real improvements. It was in this time that Banished came out, and while I did not pick up the game until 2019, I can definitely say that it is a unique entry to the genre with one of the most compelling early-games that I have ever played. The rest of the game? It’s fine enough, but not as compelling as those first few memorable hours.
It starts off with a simple enough prompt: A group of families has been banished from some unnamed homeland for reasons unknown to you. You start off in the spring with varying amounts of development, from a small but prosperous farming community of a half dozen families, to 4 families with nothing but a wagon full of potatoes and the drive to get shelter and steady food by the time winter comes around.
With this limited amount of workers and resources, you begin the town’s (hopeful) journey to prosperity. Finding equilibrium as best as you can is key in this game. The mechanics ensure you are up for a challenge attempting to balance resource extraction with a modest expansion. Another thing to balance is ensuring you don’t doom your population 3 years down the line from using either too much, or too little, of what the map offers you resource-wise.
You start gathering slowly renewable wood from trees, and non-renewable stone and iron from the surrounding land. Soon you move onto building homes, hunting lodges, and woodcutting buildings. By the time you reach winter, you have hopefully managed to get the basics with enough food, tools, and firewood to survive until the next spring. You then repeat it all again, this time with the goal of maybe building an additional house or two for new families to develop and gather herbs to keep people healthy. You can even begin producing alcohol to keep people happy in drunken bliss or give people the word of God by building a church. Banished really is like the real world.
It is in this early part of the game where Hodorowic’s design and implementation shines the most. The game is genuinely difficult at the start, with growth being a hard earned victory, so long as it doesn’t come at the cost of later dooming your village for its greed in consuming too much too quickly. You go from just trying to get enough food on everyone’s table to acquiring and producing goods that are non-essential. You even can start trading with the rare boat that comes over to your trade depot should you get to that stage. It feels like you genuinely accomplished something when you get to that point where you are no longer worrying about your citizens starving or freezing to death.
At this point though, once you reach stabilization and constant growth, Banished’s creative start and build up leads to what can be described as a fairly generic small scale city-builder with a major emphasis on resource and ecology balance. And while the initial struggle feels lost as the number of citizens grows to the point you can’t remember the individual name of any of them, the resource balancing remains, albeit on a much larger scale. With the exception of the game’s random tornadoes potentially ending the game right there and harsh winters being able to decimate your crops, the game enters a state of sameness that can feel familiar to most veterans of city-builders.
The question of cutting down massive swaths of forest against maintaining them as pristine hunting and gathering grounds will still be as important as it was at the start. But the effects feel less like the genuine struggle for survival and moreso like any other city-builder. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, especially given the late-game still feels like a challenge and is well balanced, although it definitely had me going from excited as all hell to just having a fine enough time.
As a fan of city-builders since I was 7 years old starting with Simcity 4, I am as close to the target audience for Banished as it gets. I initially enjoyed it a decent amount, putting many hours into seeing my small community go from a barely scraping by hamlet of 4 families into a thriving farming town, with a full fledged economy! Which I now had to micromanage to the nth degree in a way that felt all too familiar to me. And then the tornado came and killed three-quarters of my citizens, ravaging the town’s infrastructure to the point of no return. Everyone who was left starved in the winter.
By the time I set up the second town and got it back to where the old one was before that blasted tornado, I had become a master of getting the resources balanced. Growth maximized, but not to the point it spiraled into a deadly overconsumption. I realized that this was about the point where the game went from a unique challenge to something I had played years before, but could still enjoy given how it was built.
Overall, Banished is an incredibly well done game built by the talent of one incredibly passionate developer. While not a blank canvas like many others in the genre, it is an incredible prompt made into a competent and thorough little game that will swallow up plenty of your time should city-builders already be your thing, and you are willing to spend some time learning the basics of its system.