28 November 2017

Banished

I didn't know if we'd survive the first winter. The fish was running out -- the harvest came in poor. The bitter chill of winter eaked into our homes. It seemed the firewood would be gone soon.

It's fun looking back at the first few years of this blogging endeavor. Most of my posts were about (PC) gaming at that time and, generally, the satisfaction or dissatisfaction the hobby can bring. Apart from the random cheap/free iPad game, I haven't bought a video game in years. But it was one such cheap/free iPad game (SimCity Buildit) that led me back in time to a game I had trucked past, and yet still deserved a look.

Banished is what I would call a "pure" city building game. These types of games hold a special place in my heart, going all the way back to the original Caesar game by Impressions Studios, through the Zeus and Emperor games and beyond. I like my little diorama cities with their absurdity and design opportunities. It's also one of the bigger pluses of video gaming, that feeling of being sucked in, when time stops and you are laser focused on the next thing. I like the element of obsession to a point. The nice thing about the Impressions' "city building" series is that it never went too far. Mechanically, it kept a nice fence in which to play, and never dove off into the deep end where more "advanced" strategy or management games lead off to, causing someone like me to go swimmy-headed. I hadn't found a way to scratch that itch since, even with the multitude of browser and iOS games bending along a similar line (you suck, Elvenar). Those are too focused on generating profit, even if they look nice.

Banished had been on my radar for most of its development. Then, when it finally dropped three years ago, my head was elsewhere -- you know, writing a novel, raising a small child, etc. Playing through SimCity left me with a rather hollow feeling, so when Banished came back to mind I plunged in, shelling out the $20 and setting aside some time. It has been worth it!

glorious village of Budgeford


Whereas other games of this type set you along a strict development path, Banished is a sandbox. This is tough because you're forced to find and maintain your own direction. The tutorials are useful in learning to navigate the minimalist menus and basic functions of the game -- had this not been a one man, indie job, some narration would have been welcomed, but the result is still sufficient. Thankfully, being a 3-year-old game, Reddit is chockful of helpful hints and I soon found a desirable build order. Once you hit a certain point of population and reach a balance of  maintaining food and supplies, things settle down and it becomes meditative, almost like gardening. This is in part due to the pace of the game. There is no hurry. At the default, 1x speed, it almost seems to be real-time; throwing up buildings can take months. The years cycle by, the harvest comes and goes, the wind blows, the birds chirp, the old die. As little problems come up you shift labor here, cut down trees there, nudging your garden along.

It's at this point that the aesthetic element of the city-building game comes in to play. In numerous iterations of my towns I knocked down more than a few houses to rebuild them elsewhere, constructing a city-center that was at least somewhat symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing. The sandbox element is able to shine here. Even though you only have a few buildings to choose from, none of which having more than a plain, wood-and-stone, quasi-dark age Europe architecture, the freedom of arrangement (unbound by the grid systems of other such games) lets you layout your settlement however you choose. A dense, gridded townscape can work, or a spread out forest village is equally viable. I opted for a blend of these, with a center village and then a few sporadic outposts for hunters and foresters. Any design is basically effective, though questions of efficiency can come in to play if stockpiles and barns are too spread out. It's good plain fun.

The first go was a flop and I scrapped it. Subsequent towns reached that quiet equilibrium I spoke of. Not much happens, until it does -- pestilence can mess up your food supply; an influx of nomads can suddenly put some of your population into homelessness and starvation if you're not prepared; less serious opportunities, like getting that cool crop or cattle when Fartface the trader arrives, can be lost if you're not stocked up on trade items (iron tools, basically).

It's a chill game I am much enjoying, a peaceful place where I can exorcise those demons of control and watch time go by as quickly as I please. Banished is cool.

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