Banished: Sandbox Gaming at Its Best

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Banished 01Banished is a medieval-style city building game, along the lines of SimCity, but with several significant differences. While not as slick or comprehensive as SimCity, it still provides a compelling, addictive gameplay.*

It’s slow and cerebral, true, not your basic action-filled RPG or FPS, but it’s one of those games that demand ‘just another fifteen minutes’ that easily stretch into the wee hours. And with infinitely variable maps and a wide range of community-made mods that enhance and change the dynamics, it promises a lot of repeat play for fans of the genre.

First difference between the two city-building sims is in goals: Banished doesn’t have any, aside from simply surviving. That’s tough enough. No goals for growth, population, buildings or the like. It’s a sandbox game in which you do whatever you want, but there are clearly strategies that work better than others. Careful attention has to be paid to the details; resources, housing, jobs, education, food, weather game, trade and so on.

Second is the size. In SimCity, it’s pretty easy to get big cities with large populations fairly quickly. In Banished, after 20 in-game years in four different games, each town I built was still around 100 population. Growth is slow. I’ve built cities in SimCity that cover almost the entire map. In Banished, terrain and modest growth have kept my towns small. I’ve seen screenshots from other players showing larger towns, so I know they can be built, but it takes more time and patience than I have yet put into it.

Banished 02Third is the detail level and type. SimCity focuses on modern infrastructure and technology. Banished doesn’t concern itself with water, hydro and sewage or the trappings of modern civilization. Technologically, it’s somewhere between 1500 and 1700, so the detail is limited. The number of building types is minimal compared with SimCity, too.

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The game is about juggling food, trade, gathering, hunting and similar trades/activities. Roads are important but not the same way as in SimCity. There are no vehicles, not even wagons, horseback or boats. Roads reduce travel time for your citizens, which affects how quickly people get to and from work sites, and how rapidly resources accumulate.

Houses – your main focus in building – are limited to two simple types (plus a boarding house which seems only to be needed if you get nomads in your town hall asking to immigrate). Other building types are fewer than in SimCity, however, the modding community is already bringing out new types and styles. Some of these are merely cosmetic, but others seem to have functional changes, too (like the apiary)

You need to keep building houses because children will move into empty houses when they grow up, pair up and have more children, increasing your population. They won’t marry and procreate in their parents’ home.

There are no in-game upgrades to buildings, either. You can’t replace a one-storey house with a two-storey or an apartment building: there are no zones, no commercial and industrial districts, no public transit or ports. No stereotypical age-relevant castles or garrisons or moats to build.

The economic side is simpler too. A trading post will bring infrequent traders with a limited supply of goods like food, tools and seeds (very expensive!). In exchange the trader will take some of your goods – but the items they want is limited and apparently random. Finished goods like clothing or tools sell for more than raw materials or food items, but you need to store pretty much everything, just in case. As far as I’ve seen, the most important thing they bring is the seed for new crops, but they cost 2,500 units to buy and there’s no bartering. Seeds are good for adding multiple crops to your output but nothing in the trade process actually changes the game, just adds some variables.

Gameplay involves balancing a limited supply of food, resources, housing, workers and storage. Surface resources like stone and iron are finite, although trees will slowly grow back.

With small populations, you need to micro-manage the population carefully. Each pasture, orchard or crop field requires one, sometimes two people to manage. You can’t simply create fields for food without the people to work them. Each death in the population means having to deal with a labour shortage or a resource shortage.

Build a blacksmith and you need to employ someone – who you may have to take from a field or a hunter’s cabin. Sure, they make tools, but for tools you need resources and that’d means putting labourers to collecting stone, iron or wood. You seldom have a healthy pool of unemployed workers (labourers) you can shift from job to job as needed. This makes you cautious about adding buildings that require workers too quickly.

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Like most sandbox games, there’s some trial-and-error involved in learning how to make it work. The mechanics are easy enough (there are good, simple tutorials to help learn these). It’s appreciating and managing the dynamics of the world model that takes longer. Your first few towns will likely be discarded after a few hours so you can start again with a bit more understanding. You’ll want to start in easy mode with disasters turned off and a mild climate before taking on bigger challenges.

Sandbox games are not competitive or cooperative games; they’re solitaire activities, like chess puzzles, in which you test and experiment with various moves and plans. You’ll probably switch often between game speeds and pause, so you can gather all the data and make some tweaks before continuing. Sometimes just running on the slowest speed and zooming in close to watch the little citizens go about their business can be satisfying, like watching an aquarium.

I’ve played computer simulations and strategy games like this for the past 37 years, from the earliest games like Santa Paravia and Taipan (both written in BASIC) in the late 1970s and early 80s, to today’s cutting-edge sims. Of all the types of games I’ve played in the past 40 years, sims are still my favourite. Banished is a nice addition to the genre and now it has modding support, promises to develop in some interesting ways.**

I’ve always felt that these games help players develop strategic thinking and planning. While perhaps not directly associated with a real-world application – they won’t make anyone an engineer or a CAO – they can help by sharpening thinking skills and developing long-range perspectives. They can make you appreciate the economic balancing act the real world entails.***

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And they help teach you to deal with the unexpected. Most sims, Banished included, have optional disaster modes than inject a random event into the game, so you don’t get too complacent. Having to plan for the unpredictable can change the way you see the world, both real and virtual.

Banished is a bit of a throwback to those earlier days. It has a good, modern interface and beautiful graphics, but it eschews the excessive complexity in many contemporary games. That works well: while there’s a lot to oversee and manage, it isn’t outside the average player’s range. It’s unlikely that some major factor will be overlooked or forgotten and it presents all necessary information in a clear, accessible form.

Yes, it is an oversimplification. The world doesn’t work so well or so tidily, and the medieval world certainly wasn’t this simple and comfortable. There are no criminals, no Inquisition, no barbarian invaders, no taxes, no cruel overlords or zealous Crusaders to deal with. Bad weather like snow and rain doesn’t seem to have anything more than a visual effect.

For now, it’s quite satisfying without them or other complications. Maybe in some future upgrade, some of these will be added.

A few basic tips for new players from my admittedly limited experience with the game:

  • Do the tutorials. they don’t cover everything in the game, but they help, and they’re short.
  • Start playing in easy mode because you get some houses and more resources to begin with, with disasters off and a mild climate on.
  • Distance matters. Everyone walks, so time in transit affects results. Build dirt roads where you can to speed transit (and to help create a grid system for your future growth).
  • Focus on food first. Build a couple of 7 x 7 farm plots for food and a small pasture for 10 animals very quickly. A small plot or pasture that size requires only one farmer each. An orchard is nice, too, but takes a few years to produce anything and in that time you need a farmer to tend it. Nothing grows in winter, so it seems you can put your farmers to other tasks like gathering resources during that time. However, your residents will go through any stored food in winter, so get the farmers back as soon as the weather changes.
  • Citizens in houses will also take food and hoard it, so you need to over-produce food to make sure everyone gets enough. That can be frustrating.
  • Build another stockpile and start collecting wood, stone and iron so you have a healthy reserve. Put it in another location – citizens have to walk from resources to stockpiles, so having them close to resources saves time in transit. Buildings require resources. Some of them will come from clearing the lot, but these will be trekked back to a stockpile first, then carted to the site later, so having more than one stockpile helps make this more efficient..
  • Let trees grow back where you can afford to. You can harvest them again once grown.
  • Build a woodcutter but keep the production low. Woodcutters turn logs into firewood – necessary in winter to keep your townsfolk from dying of cold – which means you need to keep stocking logs. Stone houses reduce the demand on firewood, but are more expensive to build in terms of resources.
  • Build a forester to replant trees and automate some of the harvesting.
  • Put a gatherer and a hunter in the woods outside your town once the crops start to grow. Don’t put more than one or two people on these jobs yet (unless you have a serious food problem) – let your population grow a bit first. Hunters will eventually kill all the deer in their zone (or they migrate), so you’ll have to build other huts in new areas as you grow. While each hunting cabin can take up to three hunters, you can actually get more food by having  three cabins with one hunter each, so start small.
  • A fishing hut is good for year-round food production, too, although it produces less than a farm. Build it close to the town but not in a place you may want for a trading post later.
  • If you build more than one hunter, gatherer or herbalist, try not to overlap their coverage area with existing ones, because it’s inefficient.
  • Don’t worry about a tailor or blacksmith for a few years, but once you have some population growth and several labourers available, build one of each. The tailor can be placed near the hunter to reduce the time in transit with leather. Tailors make clothing to help citizens survive winter. Blacksmiths make tools (they wear out) which are needed to harvest resources, but making tools also consumes resources .
  • Schools help educate kids and make them more productive, but I’m not sure by what amount. I build schools early, when there are several children. Without schools, kids become labourers earlier (age 10 versus 18), and sometimes you need the bodies in the fields more, especially in the early part. When they’re in school, the town’s growth is slowed (they don’t move out of home until after school).
  • Herbalists collect herbs for medicine that keep people well, so you will want one fairly soon, especially on more difficult modes or with disasters turned on. After you’ve grown somewhat more, you can build a hospital.
  • A trading post is more useful than mines and quarries in the early game, because traders can bring seeds and sometimes tools. You’ll need a mine to make steel tools, though, for the coal. And a quarry for a steady supply of stone. Surface supplies of stone and iron run out fairly soon if you grow quickly, so quarries and mines become necessary when you’re close to exhausting them.

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* I picked up a copy on sale, from Steam last week, and spent several of the last few days tinkering. I ran through all the tutorials, read some online forums and suggestions about gameplay, and started more than a half-a-dozen games before I wrote this. I also read numerous reviews including those on Metacritic. I was somewhat disappointed that the vast majority of reviews are based on a much earlier build than is current, and none seem to be written since the game has incorporated mods and was upgraded.

** I started paying computer games only a few years after I started playing board wargames (early 1970s). I still play computer games, although seldom board games these days, aside from the odd game of chess. I wouldn’t mind dragging out an old SPI or Avalon Hill wargame, though, if I could find an opponent to play with. Games keep me young and my brain active in ways other activities don’t. They complement one another, though. When I get too old to play, I’ll probably be too old to read books, too, so then I guess I’ll die.

*** I’ve said in the past that municipal politicians should be given a copy of SimCity when they are first elected, so they can learn a little about budgeting and resource management before they practice on real people. I’d suggest the 4th edition rather than the latest one.

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