The small town of Gilcresco went 10 years before its first death — a forester named Sheronica. Cause of death? Old age. I, the town’s founder, builder, and overseer, was simultaneously proud and heartbroken. Sheronica had valiantly tended to Gilcresco’s forests since its inception, but I hadn’t yet constructed a cemetery so rather than being given a proper burial and gravestone of remembrance, she was laid to rest somewhere in the wilderness where she’d spent most of her adult life working. When you raise a successful town in Banished, a city builder from one-man-studio Shining Rock Software, you’ll probably feel the same way the moment your first citizen dies — especially if you, like me, completely forget to build a cemetery.
If you’ve ever played SimCity, Tropico, or even Anno, you’ll feel right at home with Banished. The goal of the game is simple: Develop and maintain a town for as long as possible. There is no diplomacy or warfare of which to speak. Rather, the focus is entirely on your town and its people. You’ll start by constructing a few houses (or one large boarding house) for your banished settlers to live in, then provide them with places to work like blacksmiths, hunting cabins, and tailors. Each of these professions is crucial to keeping your town operating at maximum efficiency. Blacksmiths make tools which are required for construction, for example, and tailors make coats which allow your people to continue working during winter seasons instead of running home and warming themselves by their fireplaces (which, by the way, consume firewood produced by wood cutters). You can also trade materials and resources with merchants who visit trading posts every once in a while by boat, but it’s usually quicker if your citizens gather and produce them instead.
In order for your town to prosper, its barns and stockpiles must be supplied with enough materials and resources to withstand ever-increasing demands and its people must also be happy enough to excel in their day-to-day jobs and healthy enough to live until they are, like Sheronica prior to her passing, old and gray. Population is the demand you’ll probably struggle with the most. The more houses you build, the more people will move into your town. Construct too many houses too quickly, however, and you’ll soon find yourself with more mouths than you have food to go around, which of course means starvation. Thankfully, these challenges are relatively easy to manage thanks to the game’s excellent user-interface. Through just a few handy and intuitive panels, you can monitor all of the information pertinent to your town’s well-being like how many citizens there are, how happy and healthy they are, how many workers there are for each profession, and how many resources are stockpiled.
As your town grows and new situations arise, you’ll often find yourself studying those panels just as much as the town itself and making small adjustments to try and improve or maintain certain statistics. If your citizens become unhealthy, for example, you might try constructing a herbalist and employing one or two laborers there to gather herbs for ill citizens to consume. And really, that’s what Banished is all about: Making gradual adjustments in order to try and maintain both your economy and citizens’ livelihoods. There are also helpful notifications that appear above people or buildings (ala Rollercoaster Tycoon and The Sims) in need of attention. If someone is cold or hungry, for example, a yellow bubble containing a snowflake or fork and knife will float above them until their needs are met. Likewise, if a workplace doesn’t have the materials necessary for production or isn’t operating, you’ll see either a circle with a slash through it or an octagonal (Stop sign) symbol above it.
If there’s one area in which Banished falters, it’s late-game content and depth. One reason for this is that every structure is available from the get-go provided you have the resources to construct it. Although this is nice in that it allows for a more free-form approach than following a strict tech tree, it also means that there are few (if any) things to strive for. There are no massive, incredibly expensive “wonders” to build, for example, and the only structures you can upgrade are houses and roads which can be re-built with stone if they were originally made from wood and dirt respectively. What this means is that over time, your town will change very little and it won’t take long before you’ve constructed almost every type of building the game has to offer. The only late-game evolution I’ve noticed is that once you’ve scalped the land’s surface of all its stone and iron, you must begin harvesting those resources via more sophisticated and dangerous methods like mining and quarrying. You’ll occasionally contend with natural disasters like fires and tornadoes and population explosions resulting from nomads moving in, however, so that isn’t to say there aren’t any surprises in store if you keep at it.
Although the complete lack of warfare, relative simplicity, and shortage of late-game content might turn off some, Banished is still a city — err, town — builder well worth playing. Like with other games in the genre, much of the joy lies in developing your town, then sitting back and watching from afar as its people work in conjunction with one another, like gears in a machine, to keep everything in check. Fishermen catch fish, then take it to barns for others to eat. Foresters chop down trees, then take logs to stockpiles for laborers to build with and wood cutters to chop into firewood. Hunters kill wild game, then take the hides to barns for tailors to sew into coats. It’s sometimes just as fun to watch as it is to play. It’s mighty inexpensive, too — just $19.99 as of this review — and should run well on almost any modern machine. If you’ve an itch that’s pestered you since you last played a great city builder, Banished might just be the perfect game to scratch it.