Islanders

A game with one mechanic has no right being this much fun.

When I turned 30, I realized that I no longer had nearly as much time to spend on games as I had previously. And like nearly every video gamer, my backlog of purchased but unplayed games is very long. So I don’t need any new games.

Then I saw Islanders on sale and was like “what the heck, it’s $2,” and impulse bought it. I’m super glad I did.

Islanders is an adorable and minimalist city-builder. The game gives you a beautiful low poly island, and asks you build a city on the island using just about a single mechanic: it gives you a set of buildings to place down in the form of cards in your hand. There is no inherent resource cost to playing a building. Instead, you try to place them to maximize the points they return.

Each building has a little radius that is shown when you place it, and when you place it, it scores based on that radius. For example, the Lumberjack building gives 1 point per tree in its radius, and deducts points per other Lumberjack in its radius. The Sawmill gives points per Lumberjack in its radius and deducts points per other Sawmill. Most buildings follow this simple pattern. There are things that they want to be next too, and things they don’t want to be next to.

And… that’s basically it. There’s a little point gauge and when it fills up, you get a choice of different types of buildings to add to your hand of unplaced buildings. If you ever place all the buildings in your hand without filling up the gauge, the game ends and you start over. 

When you place enough buildings on an island you’ll be able to travel to a new beautiful, procedurally generated island, but you’ll keep your total score. There’s probably some scaling here in that it feels like it gets harder and harder to fill the point gauge the farther you go, but I can’t tell quite what the ratio is.

The beauty of this game lies in its elegance, and how it uses the placement mechanic to incentivize (somewhat) realistic and interesting city configurations. For example, mansions and houses get bonus points for being next to City Centers. Both Houses and Mansions also score points for being near buildings of the same type as themselves. However, as Mansions are worth more points, but have a smaller scoring radius then a house, you end up wanting to place them closer to the city center, since you can’t place them as far out without losing the bonus. So the game incentivizes a city configuration where you have a City Center, surrounded by a small ring of Mansions, surrounded by a large ring of houses!

Discovering rarer building types and how they work is also fun. I always get a little kick out of seeing a clever new implementation of the mechanic, like how Shamans are worth points for each flower in their radius, and deduct points for each City Center… but Houses like to be next to Shamans. So initially your Shamans are in these secluded corners of the island, but then little towns spring up next to them.

And the game is chock full of fun little interactions like this! Some buildings can only be built on cliffs. Seaweed Farms can be placed in the ocean, which is otherwise hard to use. Warehouses get benefits from industrial buildings and city buildings, but industrial buildings and city buildings don’t want to be next to each other.

A nice little touch: there are many different island biomes. Each new island is strikingly visually different, and the terrain determines what kind of civilization you’re going to build! Mountainous islands are worse for cities and better for industrial civilizations because industrial buildings tend not to need to be densely packed.

Another thing I really like is the presentation. Whenever you start the game, behind the menu there’s a slowly rotating panorama of a built up island that looks like it was chosen in order to make a gorgeous backdrop for the menu screen… but it wasn’t! The island behind the menu screen is always the one you are currently working on. This just serves as a testament to how picturesque the game is–no matter what you do, your island is going to end up being menu screen material. 

I guess I should try to critique the game, but I could only come up with a couple things I don’t really like.

  1. Between the price point, the gameplay, and the art, Islanders feels like a mobile game. This isn’t actually a problem, it just means I wish they had it for mobile so I could go buy it there too. I felt the same way about Mini Metro, which came out with a fantastic mobile app, so fingers crossed.
  2. Playing and doing well is fun, but losing sneaks up on you. Maybe it’s because I was playing so casually, but I could never tell when I was going to lose. I’d place buildings until I only had 2 or 3 left and then realize “Hmm… I don’t think I’m going to be able to hit the points cap.” Ending with a whimper doesn’t feel great, especially when it’s a long run. And this might be an actual issue with the game if it was more competitive. But as it isn’t, I’d mostly consider it a minor qubbile.

Will I play Islanders forever? I doubt it. But this game is 100% worth its $5 price tag. If you ever want a calming experience to kill some downtime, Islanders is worth picking up. You can find it here on Steam.