Review: Banished

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A good city builder is often the kind of game you can relax with. It’s like an ant farm or a fish tank, you have a certain level of input, but from there you just watch nature take its course. Banished is a deceptively relaxing game, with its pastoral themes and gentle, lilting soundtrack. Beneath the inviting exterior however is a persistent test of your planning abilities, one that can have you sweating before you know it.

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“Banished” refers to the tiny group of country folk you start the game with, a group of exiles in a wild, untamed land. From a humble start you help them assemble food, shelter, and comfort for themselves against the harsh winters. This is a personal-level game, similar to Tropico or Children of the Nile, where you can follow each individual resident from their house to their work and back. You’ll also find elements of the Anno games, with each home and structure having its own inventory of goods that must be balanced against the consumption of the ever-growing population.

This is where the game can make you panic, because I wasn’t kidding about the harsh winters. Your people need food, firewood, clothes, tools, medicine, and other goods and services to survive and prosper, and their needs change by season. When winter comes you’ll see a run on the food and firewood stores that can quickly leave people starving and freezing if you haven’t adequately prepared. Shortfalls can be extremely hard to recover from, because farms are planted and harvested by seasons, orchards take years to grow from saplings, and your livestock ages as your residents do.

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Once you master the balance of goods for your populace, the rest of the challenge is up to you. Banished gives you access to all the buildings right up front, only gating them behind required quantities of the basic building materials. You can have your people farming, fishing, herding, hunting, gathering, brewing, trading, and so on in just a few years, and then aside from the seeds and livestock you have to trade for, you’ll have seen everything. From that point on the challenge is entirely in balancing your resources as your village expands indefinitely. The margins get thinner and thinner and curveballs like nomads joining your community en masse can throw off your plans, but the basic rules of expansion do not change.

The magic of the game is that you’ll play for a few hours, set up a perfectly functional town with all the buildings and services, put it down… and then find yourself coming back to expand again and again. The quaint graphics and simple mechanics make it a delight to simply keep building out further and further. There are no scenarios or campaigns, just you and the random maps to fill, and even without anything pushing you forward to fill them you might find yourself inclined to do just that. Banished ended up being one of the more addictive city builders I’ve played, making up for simplicity with more than enough charm.

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