An Indie City Builder About Sustainable Development, Resource Planning, and Deaths of Starvation
Overview
Title

Banished

Developer

Shining Rock Software

Release Date

February 18, 2014

Banished is a city builder game. Released in 2014, and developed by Shining Rock Studios (which comprises mainly of one dude, and his brother), this indie title is simple in its premise. You manage a few families who were banished from their previous home, and now decided to make a new one. Your job is to slowly build the town, and manage resources as the seasons and years go by.

This backstory is only seen on the game’s Steam page and the in-game wiki. As you fire up a new game, after adjusting some settings, you’re off building your town.

What sets this game apart from other city builders, is how demanding the resource management. I hope you like harsh difficulty spikes.

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Graphics & Sound

Banished is a full 3D game, and can be quite a looker in some areas. The water reflection and ripples look amazing, as well as the designs of buildings, which gives a sort of medieval style of era. The weather effects and season changes look good, although there’s no day-night cycle. Likewise, the music and ambient sound accompanies the theme quite well, and a joy to listen to despite having only a few tracks of songs.

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However, not all parts of the game looks gorgeous. The citizens do look low-poly, which is I assume why you cannot zoom in close to ground-level. Nothing really jarring, except maybe the common instance where deer herds cross rivers, even going underwater and some clipping issues (animals phasing through pens to enter and exit them, boats phasing through some buildings along the river). But nothing to really ruin much of the experience.

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For a city builder with really strong needs to monitor all your resources and needs, it has a flexible UI. HUD elements can be toggled on and off, and stickied to any part of the screen. The flexibility provided works wonders, it’s easy to focus on the info you need at the moment. Sadly, the UI cannot be dynamically resized, but it can be rescaled in the options menu. Handy for folks playing in larger resolutions, where the UI can get really tiny.

One point of nitpicking is how the UI handle key shortcuts. The main tab located in the lower right of the screen is selected with function keys, and submenus are selected with number keys. There’s no way to bind specific submenu function to a key, without having the proper main tab open.

Why is this a problem? To adjust game speed, it’s F1 then 4 to speed it up, 1 to slow it down. It would make tons of sense to have all the speed directly bounded to keys, like how spacebar is default to pause.

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Gameplay

Banished focuses mainly on the ability to manage resources. There’s no tech tree to research, and every building is unlocked from the get go, ready for building, assuming you have the resources.

Resources can be divided into a few groups. There’s material mainly used for buildings- wood, stone and iron. Then there’s fuel used for citizens to get warm- firewood made wood, and coal found by mining. Tools used by citizens to work, clothes, ale, and most importantly, food.

Failure to keep stock in all of the resources and you can expect dire problems with your settlement. Used up all your iron resources? Expect your blacksmith to not be able to make new tools, and everyone, even the fishermen, suffer a productivity penalty. Not enough firewood for the winter? Those people will be freezing and may end up dead. Not enough food? Prepare for a massive death wave due to starvation.

It’s daunting at first to balance development and sustaining your citizens with enough needs to keep on living. But after a few more restarts, it becomes clear how to expand. There’s an in-game wiki that details each aspect of the game, as well as tutorial scenarios for beginners to get the grasp of all the mechanics at play.

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The difficulty setting determines how hard your start is. Easy gives you a few buildings and seeds for farming. Hard mode starts with minimal resources. But after a few good years the difficulty setting will not matter, as it becomes a game of micromanagement, planning development of new buildings, and figuring out the right time for them to be build. Failure to balance these resources will have an adverse effect to your small town. Prepare to be punished hard for your mistakes.

One particular scenario I experience is death wave due to starvation. For a while I managed to store about 4000 amount of food, enough to support the 50 citizens I had currently. After a while, some nomads came to my town hall asking for citizenship, about 15 of them. Looking at my current food storage, 15 more mouths to feed should be okay.

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Then I forgot to realise that it was in early spring, where food storage from the harsh winter for most homes have been depleted. And there have been births of a few more children, which means more food is needed. Suddenly that 4K of storage, usually depleted to about 1K of reserve, is all gone, and not enough. Prompts of hunger started to appear. There’s not enough food, and all the crops won’t be ready until autumn. Then everyone started to die off one by one.. until half of the population has filled the graveyard.

Actually, the graveyard was already full before the death wave come to think of it. But all those corpses have to go somewhere..

Anyway, expect harsh consequences to happen a lot. Better to play the game slowly, expand bit by bit, or you might similar cases of overextending as I did.

Materials from the ground are finite and can be depleted, until you build the super expensive quarries and mines. Trees need to be replanted via the forrester ledge to support sustainable sources of wood. Yes, you’re going to need to do some sustainable development. As in not expanding too much to not use up all the resources on the surface before being able to build renewable sources of said material.

Or you could resort to trading.

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Trading is crucial to the growth of your small town/settlement/village/kampung as it is the only way to gain different seeds for orchards and plants, and animals for pastures. You will start with several random seeds of plants, unless you play in Hard mode which you have none at start. Growing plants are the easiest way to amass food in a year, as they grow in spring and harvested in autumn.

However, traders only appear once a year, and the items they have in stock are mostly random. You can place a custom order, specifying items you require from the trader, and hopefully, when the same trader arrives a few more years, next year if you lucky, then you may get the items you ordered. There are multiple traders, with different stocks of items.

Since you have no control on which trader comes in the year, and limited control on what stocks you can get, it is sadly not a reliable way to supplement your resource economy. The only way to ensure a large settlement to survive is to have all the resources build locally instead of relying on trade and do import and export stuff, which would have been really cool, since this game does rely on economic principles. Town specialisation, like focusing in building farms for export but import materials like wood and coal, would have fit well.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible though. Just not reliable. A very challenging rule to impose for your 10th or so city. Which segues nicely into the next point.

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Content

Unfortunately, all the depth that goes into the gameplay design translates to very little content offer. There’s a small number of buildings, and being a city builder, after building all the stuff available, it can feel just tedious afterwards. There’s no endgame, no wonder building to aim for. What you have as guidance are the achievements, like having 300 population in your settlement. Or the aforementioned self-imposed rules.

However, the ramp of difficulty ramps up exponentially as citizens grow in number. Managing 150 population personally is a tough job, without suffering a death wave. It rewards to those who dig into all the numbers and statistics to figure out the optimum number of all resources needed to maintain the population throughout the seasons. It’s more often easier to start new maps from scratch.

But fret not, the game has mod support via Steam Workshop which now has not only tweaks to balancing- to make it more fair or harder, depending on your taste, but also new buildings too. If you’re a fan of modding, then there’s plenty to tinker with after you’ve exhausted with the many dealings and deaths of managing your settlement. Plenty of balance changes as mods too, if you feel the current model is too hard for your liking.

Aside from that, there’s also random events, like plagues, infestations, and fires to spice up, or more accurately mess up, your perfect build order to which you must respond accordingly. And harsh climate which inreases the use of certain resources. Nothing substantial but worth noting.

Banished Review- Verdict

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For a mostly one man job, this is a fantastically well put together game. Everything is done from scratch, even the game engine, which is an effort worth commendable. However, despite all the passion shown clearly by graphics and deep gameplay mechanics of balancing resources, it has its shortcomings here and there, especially seen through how small the number of buildings and amenities.

But most importantly, Banished stands to be in a league of its own compared to other city builders due to its sheer difficulty. Banished does not shy about giving players a challenge, and it can be a great tool to learn about sustainable development and resource economics.

This is a game worth recommending to die-hard city-builders who are looking for a challenge, and fans of a slower-paced experience.

The Good

A strong gameplay mechanic that rewards careful planning of resources.

Beautiful graphics, to some degree, and a decent soundtrack.

Flexible UI that works as intended.

Well put together tutorial.

Mod support.

The Bad

Difficulty curve can be too punishing for beginners.

Not enough variety of buildings and things to build in vanilla game.

No endgame. Just (hard to get) achievements to aim for.

Unintuitive command menu.

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Bottom Line

This is a game worth recommending to die-hard city-builders who are looking for a challenge, and fans of a slower-paced experience.

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About The Author
Amirul Ashraf
Muslim, Gamer, Programmer. Grew up playing racers and RPGs but now has a penchant on fighting games, strategy of the 4X kind, and obscure indie titles.
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