Banished is different from most any other city-building game you’ve probably every played. There are no monsters waiting out in the woods, and no orcs or dragons trying to devour the unarmed. Instead, the enemies of the citizens of Banished are a bit more realistic. There are things like starvation, disease, natural disasters and the biting cold sting of an early winter. That is more than enough to doom many pre-industrial medieval-era villages.
In fact, there is very little difference between the three difficulty levels other than the starting materials available to your little group of settlers. You either start with a few houses and a couple chickens, or you start with little but the clothes on your back and a wagon with a few supplies.
Unlike other simulations, there is no money in the game, so I suppose the designers could be accused of spreading a sort of socialist agenda. Everybody works for the collective good of the town and everybody can take food, clothes and other items from the group storage facilities if they are available. Even later in the game when you start to trade with merchants coming down the local river, you do it all by barter. Banished is about getting the basics right for your fledgling town, namely food and shelter. But if you think that’s an easy task, think again.
The greatest resource in the game is your people themselves. Without a workforce, you won’t be able to chop down trees, cut blocks of stone, gather food, mine for materials or anything else. However, this creates the biggest paradox in the game, and the source of an infinite balancing act. People are necessary to do anything around town, but they also consume resources, notably food, but also firewood, clothes, tools and if you have it, ale.
The trick in Banished is to expand as quickly as you can, which isn’t easy as you struggle to keep ahead of starvation. But if you expand too quickly, you will deplete your base level worker, the laborer, and not be able to fish, gather, farm or move supplies around town, and your people will start to go hungry. You get more people by building houses, whereby two eligible young people from different families will move in together. After a little while, they will start to have children. But here again, there is a balancing act.
Children are a total drain on your resources. They eat food but don’t work. So while they are necessary for expanding your village, at first they are more like a plague. Have too many kids and not enough adults and disaster is sure to follow. Now, once kids grow up to a certain age, you have another choice to make: whether or not to educate them. Building a school takes a lot of resources for an early town, and you also have to assign one of your vital adults to become a teacher there. More of a detriment is the fact that kids stay in school until their late teens, so they continue to be a drain on resources without adding anything to the town. However, once they finally graduate, an educated adult works harder, longer and more efficiently than an uneducated one. So while putting a bunch of eleven-year-old foresters into the field may be a quicker method of expanding the labor pool, deploying an educated workforce is far more efficient in the long run, but much slower.
Once the children grow up, they will want to move into their own houses, shack up with each other and begin breeding the next generation of townsfolk. For that to happen, you need to build more houses. If there is not enough housing in their town, kids will continue to live with their parents. Kids who never move out in Banished, because there is no space available, don’t breed. And after they turn about 45 or so, aren’t able to have more kids even if housing suddenly becomes available. One of my early towns rose to about 60 citizens and I thought I was doing well, keeping things small and tightly organized. But that town died off because suddenly everyone who was 80 or 90 began dying off, and their kids were all in their 50s and 60s. So I couldn’t get any new children in town and suffered a long, slow death by simple aging. Once you get to about 100 citizens or so, this becomes less of an issue. Then you are more likely to experience runaway population growth where you have more people than jobs available, but that is a late game problem.
Also, later in the game if you have built a town hall, a boarding house and a market, you might get nomads to come and ask to become citizens, circumventing the need to keep making children. But all of those buildings require a lot of resources and are out of the question for a fledgling town. Plus, nomads bring a lot of their own problems like the fact that they show up starving, without tools and in ragged clothes, so they grab everything they can first thing and drain your stores. But more troubling is that they often bring in diseases like yellow fever, the mumps and lots of other nasty things. Towns without a working hospital, another large resource investment, might ride the winds of sickness to their final reward soon after admitting the kindly strangers with the odd cough.
Food will be your primary concern in every game, but you also need firewood and heavy clothing to keep people from freezing to death and herbs or a doctor to treat the sick and keep people healthy. You can also brew ale or found a church or two in order to keep people happy, though those are likely mid-game concerns at best. Survive first, then learn to brew some beer.
Getting buildings online is similar to how it works in other games. You simply tell your town you want, for example, a gather’s hut so people can go out and find berries and roots in the forest. Then your laborers will clear space where you tell them, and gather up the needed logs, stone and iron that is required. Then your builders will come out and slowly construct it. Once that is finished, you need to assign people to work it. Builders, gatherers, farmers, teachers, blacksmiths and every other profession need to be assigned to the new job or they remain simple laborers. The one exception is that if a member of a profession dies, a laborer, if available, will be automatically assigned to take over the position. Death leads to a lot of promotions that way.
Interestingly enough, most towns in Banished will follow the same arc of civilization that towns did in real life. Early on, you will survive by being hunters, fishers and gathers because the buildings in those professions can swing into action as soon as they are constructed. Later on you will likely switch over to farming and herding livestock, or producing some product like firewood which can be traded for food. You will need to obtain seeds from a traveling merchant to grow different crops or fruit trees, and they are really expensive, but other than having a good variety for aesthetic or role-playing purposes, all food seems to be the same. Your people don’t seem to care if you feed them a diet of peppers and walnuts, though some crops like wheat and fruit can additionally be processed into alcohol at a brewery. I kind of wish you could go further than moving from gathering to agriculture and produce some early factories, or some type of trade-only resource like jewelry, but alas, that is where your evolution ends.
In addition to the normal dangers of building a medieval town from scratch, there is also the possibility that fires and tornados can wipe you out. Fires can be combated if you build wells around town. However, I think that in the case of the tornado, it’s kind of a cheap way of adding extra danger into the game for which you have no defense. As such, it can thankfully be turned off.
One thing to note about Banished is that you have no direct control over your people other than assigning them jobs at (hopefully) working buildings in your town. Thankfully the people are relatively smart. Farmers for example become functionally laborers in the winter months when they have nothing to do, though they retain their job assignment and go back to planting in the spring. People also will switch jobs so that their homes are close to their worksite to reduce travel time, so it’s no big deal for someone who has been a blacksmith for years to suddenly become a stonemason if a quarry pops up near their home. They don’t seem to mind at all, and you don’t actually say that Sally is to become a blacksmith. You say you need three blacksmiths in town and the people work it out amongst themselves who does what.
Finally, Banished never ends. Unless your town dies, you can keep playing forever, expanding until every inch of your map is filled and you have potentially 1,000 or more citizens in town. My largest town was about 600 citizens. You simply stop playing when you want to start a new place and try a new strategy. Also, the skill that is really required in the game comes early on. Your first few towns will probably fail for different reasons. But once you learn why, it becomes relatively easy to build up efficiently baring any unforeseen circumstances like diseased crops, or a few too early winters that kill off a harvest while it’s still on the vine. Banished is addictive and fun, but those who seek a constant challenge could get bored once the game mechanics are mastered. Even so, for a game selling for less than $20, there is potentially unlimited hours of gameplay for those who enjoy creating something and helping it to grow and thrive.
Banished earns 4 and 1/2 GiN Gems. City builders looking for something new will want to rush out to plant their flag in Banished’s fertile ground.