Islanders may have the city builder tag on Steam but it’s much more than that, and a whole lot less. Described by Grizzly Games, who develop and publish the game, as a minimalist strategy game; it’s a seriously stripped back settlement builder. Minimalism extends all through Islanders. From its aesthetic to the building sets and to how you progress.
Islanders is all about placing buildings efficiently to build up a score. Your goal is to place buildings where they will produce the most coins. More coins unlock packs which contain various buildings. They also all add up to allow for level completion. Once you’ve completed the level you can move to the next Island and start a new settlement.
It’s not a game like Cities: Skylines or Banished but closer to something like Kingdoms and Castles. You don’t have zones to create or roads to worry about. You place a building based on its efficiency. A lumberjack needs to be surrounded by trees, houses get more coins placed next to a city centre or other each. The strategy comes in maximising the coins you receive from every building. Sometimes it’s obvious where to place a building but as a settlement gets bigger it becomes hard to do that without forward thinking. Forward thinking can only come after a few playthroughs and knowing how the buildings all interact. This is another way islanders is set apart from most city builders. There are plenty of other differences too. You progress from island to island; these are randomly generated and present their own challenges. More or fewer trees, snow, multiple islands. I’ve experienced islands around the same theme but always different configurations of fertile land, sea and rock. Islanders also has a fail state. If you’ve placed all buildings but haven’t earned enough coins for another building pack or to complete the level you start again. Not on that island but right back to a small island and a score of zero. It’s not rouge-a-like in that nothing carries through you just have to start again giving the game a light score attack vibe.
The different islands follow certain themes and these aren’t perhaps as random as I’d like. It starts with a small island to help understand the basics, then a bigger island to explore more packs, followed by a beach island for specialist buildings or a huge island where you place multiple statues and so on. These do differ but after perhaps 5 playthroughs I’m seeing the pattern. This made me expect what was coming. In one way this helped me progress past an island quickly to the next and get back to the tier of islands I lost on. In another respect, it doesn’t present much challenge until your back up at that tier. Of course, it’s satisfying when you complete that level and move on but to then lose and drop back down to the start playing through the same themed levels again could begin to be a frustration.
Islanders is not about frustration. Even the minimalism has a simplicity to it. A simplicity I think is fantastic. Placing buildings around can actually feel really relaxing. There’s no pressure and playing can be taken in your own time. Combined with the aesthetic, chilled music and sparse sound effects this can be quite meditative. The aesthetic is beautiful, in a minimalist way. Tonal colour pallets for each island evoke the years seasons. I particularly like the orange and reds which have me thinking of autumn and the working conditions these invisible dwellers would be constructing these buildings in. Adding to this mood are light weather effects. Autumn can be accompanied by fog, winter with snow. There are also smaller details increasing that feeling of habitation such as smoke rising from chimneys. There is detail in its minimalism.
Whilst I feel like I’ve seen all Islanders is going to give me I still get the gratifying sense of completing an island and moving onto another challenge. I’ve turned to this game, not just for review, but in between work sessions. It’s allowed me to slow down and relax for a short time before jumping back into work.
I think Islanders has a lot of potential, especially as it’s been developed by a small team of three, and it’ll be interesting to see how this game evolves either through additions to it or in a new game.
Should you play it? Yes
Why? It’s a relaxed strategy-light game that can present a challenge at times. It’s meditative and cheaper than Yoga classes at under £5
But… It’s a little short and you’ll have experienced all of the buildings and combinations after a few playthroughs.
Reviewed on PC via Steam. Review code supplied by Grizzly Games