Options for a new game.

Options for a new game.

In hopes of being a so-called “better influence” on my (current) partner’s video game-playing son, I decided to spend a lot of time playing Banished. This was largely because it was something that his father approved of, as it “required strategic planning” in order to achieve whatever goal you decided upon (unless, of course, it was to decimate your villages – that was fairly easy to do within the first few seconds by total accident). I can’t really remember how long I’ve had this game, but I recently realised that it was available in my Steam collection so I figured that I should give it a try and see if it was as amusing as the reviews I’ve read for it have said it was (or if it was actually “well thought out”). Unfortunately, I think I may’ve ended up with a game by the same name that wasn’t anything like how I’d imagined it would be.

A basic map with a town.

A basic map with town and citizen stats.

Banished is a city-building strategy game where you’re in control of a bunch of people who have been exiled and forced to start over in a new land, though I’m not really sure why they’ve been exiled; I’m assuming that they’re debtors and other minor criminals who were being shipped away from their former land in hopes of establishing a colony (you know, like Australia), but there’s not really any back-story available for what they’ve done and how you’re supposed to feel toward your newly settled group of colonisers.

Really, I ought to start with the more positive aspects of this game: It’s a city-builder. This is probably more of a positive to me because I quite enjoy playing those when I want to think a little bit but be able to just mindlessly do something else because there’s a lot of waiting involved. There are a few interesting challenges for in-game achievements, such as trying to get the achievement for Mountain Men (maintaining a population of 50 or more on a small, mountainous map with a harsh climate for 20 years); these make the game more interesting than just idly creating cities, though there are some that cannot be done simultaneously.

Food producers who died of starvation.

Food producers who died of starvation.

There are, for me, quite a lot of downsides to this game. The biggest problem I have with it is that there is a lot of awkward AI. I can have an adequate (but not superb) food supply and people will still manage to starve to death; the people who are most often starving to death are, ironically, the same people who are employed in food production. Rarely do I see my labourers, builders, stonecutters, woodcutters, or miners dying from lack of food. It was always my gatherers, hunters, fishermen, farmers, and herdsmen who failed to procure rations. It’s a bit awkward that the game would have them deliver food to the storage barn or market and then, for whatever reason, walk off to do something else entirely despite starving. I frequently watched citizens who were “searching for food” walk up to a barn that was at 60% capacity with items like roots, onions, berries, venison, and mushrooms only to turn around and go search for food somewhere else, though I don’t quite know where; the whole process never made sense to me.

Along with strange AI that starves citizens to death, the builders can’t build too much at once because they’ll just… wander off somewhere else entirely for no obvious reason. You can employ a full crew and have more than enough resources in storage to make a set of buildings, plop down four locations to be built, and watch them be neglected for approximately a full in-game year or longer. This especially becomes frustrating when the game’s yelling at you that your food supply is too low, but your builder-citizens won’t even build the fisheries, gathering huts, or hunting stations that you’ve requested. I cannot count the amount of times I’ve screamed “If you’d have built that fucking thing when I told you to, you wouldn’t have this problem” at my citizens.

Citizens’ inventory is something that I can’t quite wrap my head around, either. They seemingly set things down or neglect to pick things up, regardless of what their job is. Some time after you command them to, labourers will go collect resources such as stone, iron, or logs; rather than picking them up and taking them along to the stock pile, they just leave them in the middle of a forest to be acquired later. This happens even when you have a very open stock pile, which makes it even more infuriating. You’re more likely to run out of stone and iron before you are logs, and it’s annoying for the citizens to just leave things anywhere they please on the map without actually doing what they’re programmed to.

Other things that I didn’t like included storage buildings. Specifically, the trading posts don’t show numbers for items stored in a way that is more useful to players; they show the number of currently in-house items, but they really should show what the capacity is using the numbers of items the player wishes to store in them. For instance, say I want to have 1000 logs and 1000 firewood in my trading post; regardless of how much of either is currently there, the capacity shown to me should be the capacity of the total amount. What you’re actually given is the capacity of what the trader-citizens have moved there, so it could be the capacity for 589 logs and 352 firewood; that doesn’t help me organise my surplus items because I could be over capacity with what’s currently there and having to constantly readjust it to figure out the best possible storage options.

The capacity also impacts trade, which is a bit annoying. Considering most of the items that you’re trading for are not staying in the trading post, counting them among the trading post’s capacity makes little sense. They’re not staying in the trading post, and it causes unnecessary difficulty in trying to calculate where the trade you’re trying to make is “over-capacity.” There are moments where capacity clearly doesn’t matter: You can trade for cattle, sheep, or chickens with no issue. None of these items, though they’ll stay in the fenced area of the trading post until a pasture is built or has space for them, count toward storage. Similarly, the various orchard and crop seeds have no impact on trade capacity and are stored in a town hall (or, if you don’t have one, are perhaps in town memory to be conjured whenever they seem appropriate).

Some of the amusing loading screen captions.

Some of the amusing loading screen captions.

I really must mention a caption on the loading screen that keeps catching my attention every time I see it; it makes me feel quite uncomfortable, especially since I can’t tell what the context is for the joke. Overwhelmingly, most of the captions are quite harmless and semi-witty quips related to establishing a town, surviving in an environment, or generally playing a game: Creating unique snowflakes, Restricting camera angles, Generating names for townsfolk, Hiding chicken eggs, Checking random number generator. I was amused by most of these.

"Banishing native people from their land."

“Banishing native people from their land.”

But when I saw “Banishing people from their native land,” it immediately made me feel conflicted. I can’t tell if it’s attempting to poke fun at colonialism and colonial history, pointing out what colonial governments have done and been doing for centuries; I can’t tell if it’s meant to be just a snide joke at the expense of indigenous peoples. There’s no context for it, especially on a tiny loading screen. As a result of seeing a lot of other aspects about mainstream gaming culture, I find it hard to believe that it would be a quick commentary about colonisation; I feel like it was something that was just tossed in there because it sounded, to someone who may not be willing to put forth the energy to understand and learn the history of colonisation and how in impacted indigenous peoples, like a funny and harmless little joke.

It may do one good thing for some people: It might remind them to be more conscious of the impacts of colonisation and to be willing to learn about it. However, I don’t think it’s something that most people would be paying attention to because there is nothing else to evoke the messages that you’re essentially playing a game about colonialism. It’s essentially a non-violent colonisation simulator. There are no obvious indigenous peoples to push out of the land (either through assimilation or violent removal), as it is inherently empty, which has been the history perpetuated by the governments that colonised lands of many indigenous peoples. I’m glad that doesn’t exist in the game, but it makes it quite weird that this one caption exists in the loading screen; there’s nothing to further discuss it in any way.

Overall, it’s a pretty decent time-killer for a city-builder, but it feels like it also has quite a few flaws that could be addressed to make it more enjoyable (and less awkward). Most of the AI could be tweaked to be more responsive or logical, and there are a lot of aspects that probably could be made more obvious to players rather than having an irritating learning curve or hunting for information.

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