Islanders is a bite-sized palate cleanser of a civilization builder
Big budget titles with a grand scope are like eating a full meal; Islanders, by comparison, is like eating a package of ladyfingers. It’s light, simple, and oddly serene.
Islanders, a minimalist city builder by Grizzly Games, is an experience that I find myself returning to in between bouts of The Division 2 or Red Dead Redemption 2 as a palate cleanser.
Islanders is available on Steam for a very reasonable $4.99. I start with a very small, procedurally generated island, and I’m given a choice between two sets of buildings. These buildings have themes; I might be asked to choose between a lumber mill and lumberjack abodes, or a mill and farm plots. Once I choose, I put each individual building down somewhere on the island. As everyone familiar with real estate knows, location matters.
Each building generates points depending on where you place it. Farmland does well bunched together, mansions and homes like to be around city centers, fisheries generate the most points when near homes, and lumberjacks like being around trees. If I place buildings in the wrong spot, I get very few or even negative points. Manufacturing buildings, for instance, tend to be redundant when placed closely together. Mansions don’t care much for being placed next to masonry work.
The first “level” only requires me to get 20 points by placing buildings in the right place, but the games slowly ramps up to requiring dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of points, demanding perfect placement. Once I place my buildings, I get to choose another pack. If I don’t optimize the placement and generate enough points with the next set, the game is over and I get another fresh start on a new, random island.
Failure isn’t a barrier in this game; I went through about 10 small islands in a few minutes while figuring out the rules and strategy. The game has a calmness. Botching a settlement isn’t a fail state so much as it is a natural end to my little civilization.
Sure, the game can be repetitive, especially early on. I always found myself choosing between woodcutters and farms, or breweries and woodcutters. As I played the game, I’d hit extended plateaus. I would master the first few combinations of buildings offered to me, then finally encounter something new and struggle with it for a while, then crack the code. The only surprise came when I encountered new content by progressing through a playthrough.
Islanders finds its stride when I earn enough points to unlock a bigger island. This doesn’t change the core gameplay loop. I get a few more options for building types, and I appreciate the extra space, but ultimately I just enjoy the soothing process of opening packs of buildings, placing them in high point areas, and repeating. Over time, each bare island turns into thriving little civilizations. It tickles the same part of my brain as seeing my SimCity turn into a thriving metropolis, without demanding the same effort or applying all that stress along the way.
Though I still find myself longing for a little more control over the individual pieces. Sometimes, it takes a while to get my picturesque fields and farms lined up just so, as the buildings come out of the box at stubborn angles.
Islanders is a beautiful example of intent in design. Its three-person development team didn’t make a large, elaborate game. They focused on the core experience of new islands and the soothing gameplay loop of quietly building away. I only compete with myself — I can see other people’s score when an island finishes, but the most prominent information only focuses on my best attempts. I walk away from Islanders with the same feelings I do as making a delicious cup of tea, or combing through the sand in a zen garden.
I find myself dabbling in Islanders here and there. After gunning down enemies or carefully aligning resources in a survival title, sometimes my brain needs a little help winding down. Islanders is perfect for that; it’s a breath of fresh air in my game rotation.
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