The best games in the city building genre are time machines. A player should be able to run the game, begin building their metropolis and suddenly realise that they’ve lost an evening and gained an urban sprawl. Islanders manages to do this in a way most city builders don’t. It turns the whole process of building your city into a puzzle in and of itself.
The game works as such. The player is presented with an island in the middle of the ocean. The island will have resources like trees, flowers and the occasional statue. From there, the player will be given the choice between two packs of buildings. Perhaps they’ll get a farming pack containing several fields and Mills. Maybe a town pack with a city centre, houses and mansions.
These buildings can be placed anywhere on the island, but in order to acquire more buildings to place, the player needs to generate a certain number of points using their own existing options.
So placing a lumberjack will generate three points, plus one for each tree in a set range. But placing a lumberjack too close to another one would be inefficient, so that will generate less points. In addition, a sawmill will benefit from both lumberjacks by generating even more points. The trick then is to place all three in as efficient a set as possible.
Make enough points, get options for more sets of buildings, build a settlement on your island. When a certain point threshold is hit, time to move to the next island. From there, the process repeats.
There’s a certain roguelike element to it, with different islands appearing in the order. Some of the standouts I’ve seen have included an archipelago that required connection with huge wooden platforms, a series of wide hills that limited building on sloped surfaces, or a set of desert mesas with high needle like spires. What’s pleasant is that while the point threshold is an ever present reminder to constantly be efficient with your placement, there’s no rush.
The game is very sedate about this whole process. There are no timers counting down. No demands from citizens or missions to complete to generate bonuses. No invasions or crises to solve. Once a building is placed, it’s set, but the player can take as long as they need up until that point. Islanders is fair too. Before placing each building, a very clear indicator explains exactly how many points the building will generate. This is paired with a chart that explicitly counts up to the next building pack. The player always knows the parameters of what’s required for the next development. Sometimes with careful placement, it’s not even required to use all the buildings in a pack to meet the point requirement for the next stage.
Sometimes using all the buildings is required though. A particular problem I had was the way in which the game adds new buildings into the rotation. For example, getting a circus building later on would penalise me for placing having both Mansions and Houses together in the radius. Which was how I’d been building my settlements up to that point. I was left scrambling to make up points in order to reach the next threshold.
If there was a tooltip that showed exactly what each building in a pack needed before selecting the pack, I think that would solve a lot of the planning gripes I have. What’s especially frustrating is that the more advanced buildings all look enticing, being simple but effective designs that instantly convey their purpose.
In terms of graphic design, Islanders does just enough to stand out in the surprisingly dense field of small scale city building. Simple, polygonal designs always suit city building from this birds eye scale. What is particularly noteworthy from Islanders is the lack of Western european designs. Instead, the designs seem lifted from various cultures throughout history. with the City Centre, House and Mansion buildings having a specifically mesoamerican feel.
The soundscape for the game deserves credit as well. There is a constantly murmuring hum of voices and activity when buildings start to be gathered. This underpins the whole gameplay loop, with the sound effect for placing buildings being equally pleasant as the music loops along.
There is a slight tension between the relaxing music and aesthetic. The seeming disposability of each island settlement and the constant drive for efficiency. I’d be intrigued to see whether the game can still maintain interest with a free build gameplay mode. Perhaps endlessly building on only a single island.
There is a small team behind the game. They’ve chosen a laser focussed scope they’ve chosen for the gameplay. It would be unfair to blame them for not making more outside that. Indeed, that one of my main issues is there isn’t enough for me isn’t really that negative.
As a particular take on the City Building genre, Islanders finds a niche between puzzling efficiency and relaxing city growth. It’s a position I hadn’t realised I wanted, but a very pleasant one.
Islanders, from GrizzlyGames is available on Steam, for £4.79