Banished never really mentions where the citizens of your newly formed small town came from. The Steam store page mentions a group of exiles rebuilding their lives. But why were they exiled in the first place? Was it because they kept stealing all the firewood? The rate those guys got through the stuff, it’s as good a reason as any.
So it’s left to your imagination, and never factors into the game again. Banished uses the conceit to explain the situation your group of starting families find themselves in – stuck in the wild with a small number of resources and forced to build their lives again. Or should I say, to citybuild their lives again (sorry).
Except we’re talking more of a villagebuilder, rather than the usual cities (much like the most recent SimCity was). Banished combines the resource and logistics management of the Anno or Settlers games with the proxy management of Dwarf Fortress or Rimworld. You don’t directly control your villagers, but issues commands and assign jobs to them. Unassigned villagers will gather resources like wood, stone and iron from the untouched land and then place them in stockpiles, and these resources are then used to produce your buildings. The basic houses provide shelter for your people, but you need to keep them fed, use wood to keep the fires burning for the colder months, and make sure they keep happy through buildings like the pub or a church. While this is all going on, in the background your villagers are living lives of their own. Sometimes they don’t want to work, and just fancy a wander about. Every year they age. They give birth to children, who form the basis for your next generation of available workers. Eventually, they die.
Banished is very concerned with the careful maintenance of this population. The game is not great at explaining this part, and in my first game it tripped me up horribly. I was happily focusing on production, going through my usual routine in games like these; adding new buildings and providing my people with jobs to do. I build a nice farm, an orchard for growing apples, and several mines to make sure I had plenty of food and resources. I built a school, because education is good, right? Everything seemed peachy for the first fifteen years or so. Or so I thought.
I hadn’t been paying attention to the number and age of the adults and children. I hadn’t been increasing my number of houses, so the children that grew up were not moving into new homes of their own. This turns out to be quite important, because the new adults seem to need new houses so that they can move in with other villages and start having children, and presumably, healthy relationships. I failed to notice this until my first generation of villagers started dying out. My shiny new graveyard suddenly became extremely full, with a tiny second generation to try and keep the village running productively things started to slow down. This was when I noticed my mistake: I had a village full of octogenarians and about four kids. 35 villagers dropped to a scary looking 16 fragile people, too old to breed, and the young ones I did have lacked dating options.
Through a harsh period of careful monitoring, I managed to slowly turn things around. Non essential buildings were closed for business, and houses were built. Education went out of the window; children were now officially adults at ten years old, thrown into work and, more importantly, into the new breeding program. I don’t really want to think about the likely genetic issues that arose from this scenario, but whatever, the important thing is that the population started to grow again. And kept growing. I had too many children now. Children with hungry stomachs and no work capacity.
This is the challenge of Banished. The usual logistics of keeping your production lines going, while also trying to keep the balance of a workforce which can support the future generations that will eventually replace them. Both aspects need to be handled carefully to keep everything ticking over, and building too quickly, or too slowly can see your village spiral out of control in a number of ways, from my aforementioned pensioner plague, to the rapid consumption of materials meaning there isn’t enough food or firewood and your tiny people freezing or starving to death.
It’s a compelling mixture, but unfortunately there isn’t enough there to hold interest for long enough. When villages get to certain size, you lose some of the connection you have with the individual villagers, and apart from age there isn’t really much to reinforce that bond. The number of building types is quite small, which also means some of the excitement from building new things runs dry quite quickly, and the end focus then becomes scaling up what you have accordingly to manage the needs, which can involve a lot of waiting around. I spent a fair amount of time playing the game on maximum speed, which is what happens when you’re spending perhaps too much time watching your village ticking along rather than playing the game.
It would have been good to see more personality injected into the villagers. I think the game would have benefited from leaning more heavily into the Rimworld side of things, especially considering the unused story mentioned at the start of this post – I feel these banished villagers should clash with one another, or have a bit of personality to them which manifests in the game. Pushing harder on those ideas may have provided more of a long game, and done something to help the game stand out from other city builders. It was a missed opportunity. As it stands, once you’ve got a handle for the systems, it’s not a long route to treading water which I didn’t find much fun. The challenge of the harder modes may offer something to mitigate this, but as it stands, I wasn’t compelled to try increasing the challenge or come back to the game beyond the time I’ve already spent with it. I would love to know why these guys were kicked out of their old place though.