Updated: December 17, 2021
Ever since Warcraft and Civilization II, I've been hooked onto strategy games. The whole optimization chaos that comes with them makes these titles compelling and utterly replayable. In a way, you play against yourself, trying to figure out how to make your own concepts of efficiency better.
But then, recently, I encountered a dearth of excellence in the strategy genre. Part my own boredom curve, part the reality of the world that produces games. After all, how many city-building titles can a person play before they decide it's all too repetitive? Well, sometimes you get pleasantly surprised. Total bliss. Which is why there are always half a dozen strategy games on my wishlist on Steam, and whenever one goes on sale, I ponder what button I ought to click. With Banished, I decided to go forth. Hence, this review.
Survival of the fittest
Banished is a survival sandbox game. You play the omnipotent (yet invisible) governor of a group of banished settlers, who must strike on their own. They get into the wilderness somewhere, and they start afresh, with only a cart of supplies and a lot of goodwill. Through your wisdom, these settlers must overcome famine, harsh weather, disease, disasters, and then some.
As I played the tutorial, my mind was aswim with memories of games past. For example, the survival element is no different from Caesar III, one of my all time favorites (now also available in HD, mind). However, you don't need to worry that much about religion, and there's no warfare. Then, let's not forget Cultures. This is a less-known title from the late 90s, with a similar premise. You are in command of a bunch of vikings, who find themselves on an island somewhere, and they need to build themselves a successful, self-sustaining colony. They need raw resources, they need crafts, and so forth. Very similar. Lastly, I got myself thinking of yet another economy strategy game, Anno 1701. You need your trade, you need your resources. Boom.
Well, with pretty high expectations, I started my first map. And then, when all of my villagers died from starvation, the second. And then, the third, the fourth, and so on. I got very close to quitting completely, because there's only so much frustration one can take before they give up.
Banished turned out to be very harsh. On so many levels. The interface is pretty basic, and you don't get that much useful information about how your town is progressing. Unless you build a town hall, you won't know anything about your economy. Even then, it's hard to keep track of your overall supply and demand.
Food is the most critical aspect - if there's no food, people die. But then, you also need tools, so your people can work more efficiently. Ah, the blacksmith needs logs and iron. In the beginning, you can send your laborers and builders to collect resources from around the map, but ultimately, you need a well-sorted army of woodcutters, foresters and miners to keep a steady supply of the raw materials. Getting to the point of net hoarding is quite tricky.
Your villages will also need clothing - yet another dependency tree of resources and craft. They need firewood to keep warm in the winter, and even the mildest weather map setting means lots of rains and snow and cold. The villagers will get sick, so they need herbs or a physician to keep everyone healthy. You also need a variety of food sources to maintain everyone's diet. And if that's not challenging enough, your folks will die from random events like mining accidents (getting crushed by a rock), laborers falling off the ladder, women dying giving birth, fires, outbreaks of mumps, and so on.
As you make progress, hopefully, you will realize that you also need an efficient distribution system, hence storage huts and supply depots that need to be placed all over your city, and markets so they can provide easy access to your folks. In Banished, your workers will have to get their clothing and berries and tools from the nearest storage facility, so the longer they must walk, the less efficient they are. This is similar to Caesar, so you need to make sure that everyone has quick access to their basic goods.
Tools of the trade
Another snag is that you will have only a handful of food sources available at the beginning. For instance, you may have cabbage and potato, but no wheat or apples, and no herd animals. To be able to expand your industries, you will have to set up at least one trade post. Luckily, over time, trader vessels will come a-visitin' your town, and they will offer various good and items for barter; chicken for extra firewood, bean seeds for tools.
With each successful trade, you will expand your inventory of plants and animals, allowing you to provide a wider variety of foods to your workers, as well as leather and wool to your tailors. Indeed, advanced products like warm clothes (which combine leather and wool) and steel tools (which require wood, iron and coal) fetch the highest bartering ratio in the trade post. Coal is only available from underground mines, so you will need to build those, too. The raw materials run out, and the mines can only be placed in specific locations on the map.
The technology tree in the game isn't that big, but even so, you will find yourself struggling. The biggest problem will be generating enough surplus food. I discovered this through a handful of bitterly short forays. Once I got lucky, and my town plowed on successfully for a few in-game decades. Another time, everything was fine until my population got to about 250, and then starvation kicked in. Once this happens, you might as well quit.
The one truly maddening part of Banished is that your workers will always try to eat and get tools first, no matter what. So, if they are hungry, they will abandon work, and run around looking for food. This means that you may technically have a dozen farms, each one ready for harvest, but your people will just ignore them, and go running around until they die, because there is no food in the storage huts. There will be no moment of reckoning, whereby a few of the workers stay in the fields, trying to salvage the situation until the food supply rebalances itself. Nope. It's an utterly frustrating scenario.
You also cannot tell your workers where to deposit produce, or where to collect it. Likewise, by default, your storage facilities cannot specialize in any one specific item, and you cannot block the unloading of certain goods. The same applies to your markets. In Caesar, for example, you could set minimal stock levels at each market, granary or warehouse, you could disallow certain items in some parts of your map, and this would allow you to control the flow of food and materials around. Banished has no such mechanisms.
At some point, you will also have nomads arrive at your townhall, asking to be admitted, and allowed to live. You can send them away, or give them shelter. But forget not, the nomads bring disease as well as instant spike in food consumption. If you don't plan well, they can bring your entire settlement down in short order.
Mods to the rescue
Luckily, the Banished community discovered many of these problems way before me, as the game's been out for quite a few years now, and they released a whole range of useful mods, which help Banished be more playable and fun. A variety of economy mods give more favorable food generation and resource collection factors, allowing you to gather the necessary supplies for survival without spending every moment dreading a catastrophe. They don't necessarily make things easy, but they make things less horrible.
You can make your fish harbors collect catch from a greater radius, or make your mines and quarries not run out of material. In the vanilla game, any one of these two will run out after about 25-30 game years. This may sound like a lot, but it's only about 1 hour of gameplay at 10x time acceleration, and you do need to speed things up, because otherwise, the game is way too slow. To make things worse, you cannot remove the mines or the quarries once built, so they end up taking huge chunks of your map space, which isn't amazing to begin with, and if you need to put new ones much farther out, you have the logistic problem of distance, supply, work efficiency, and all that.
With a few mods activated, I restarted for the ninth or tenth time, and this time, things were a lot better. But I also made sure to have enough farms and harbors. And I mean A LOT. By default, your food industries will stop working if you hit the limit of 4,000 units. This is enough surplus to feed 40 people for 100 days, or maybe 15 minutes of gameplay at 10x speed. You can't do much with that, and given the fact your fields need a year to actually produce a harvest, and orchards and animal farms take several years to provide any sort of harvest or surplus, this means you stand absolute ZERO chance if there's starvation. So you need huge reserves. Huge.
I started upping the food limit to 20k, 40k, and then 120k, and managed to have about 50k spare food in my silos, with some 50% extra produce over consumption on average. About half my adult population, or roughly 65-70% of my workforce is dedicated to farming, herding, hunting, gathering, or fishing. This sort of makes sense for a pre-industrial society. Real-life hard and brutal. And this is with mods, mind. If you want surplus in the vanilla game, you need 80-90% farmers, and a lot of patience and luck.
After several hours, my town had about 220 people, few deaths, good health and education, everyone was clothed, I had two chapels, a brewery, decent amount of tools and logs for export, about ten different food types, a vast and beautiful array of farms, a couple of markets, no shortage of labor, and even a tunnel that connected two sections of the town through a hill range.
Even so, I was feeling paranoid, and scared for my villagers. I kept adding farms and orchards, more and more, because apparently, you can never have enough. I kept checking my storage huts, to make sure there's room for additional supplies, and that there are no logistic gridlocks. It all works, and at this point, the gameplay does plateau, as there isn't any significant progression left once you hit the self-sustainability level. If I compare to the other games mentioned earlier, this makes Banished feel a little incomplete.
Banished is an interesting title, overall. It's pretty, the weather effects are rather cool, the music is broody, and you can accomplish a fair deal, especially if you activate a mod or three. Fancy some mead, well, you can add apiaries to your food industries, for instance. There is a decent level of complexity, and when you combine the economy optimization with sheer survival, you really need to think carefully about every little step you make. Alas, the interface is a bit nude, you don't get much feedback from the game, and the difficulty is way too hard on any setting. The building placement is also somewhat limiting.
For an indie title, Banished offers a pretty solid package. Ultimately, it doesn't have too much depth, so once you do it well (if you ever manage), you will not necessarily feel like playing again. Perhaps this is why the initial stages are so hard and grueling, and why you must invest so much in pure survival. The feeling is that there's 20% of the game missing somehow. Still, given the dearth of excellence I mentioned earlier, and the fact I did invest a good few hours in Banished despite its flaws, one could say this is a reasonably entertaining and challenging title after all. If you fancy some hard lessons in survival, then you will want Banished.