During these weird and stressful times, more of us are playing video games than ever before. For some, the high-octane shooter offers release, the day’s anxieties dissipating alongside the cacophonous explosion of virtual matter; for others, adrenaline-pumping sports titles do the trick. But for players who want their heart rates to go down rather than up, there’s a growing crop of games that foreground quiet and unfussy tinkering. A top-down view, gently oscillating music, and the careful placement of buildings accompanied by a satisfyingly tactile plonk—these are the hallmarks of serene and minimalist takes on the so-called city-builder.
The rationale is simple: What if you simplified the classic city-builder game (SimCity, for example), even going so far as to cleave it of actual citizens? What if it had beautiful buildings simply for the sake of beautiful buildings, sprouting naturally from virtual rock, grassland, and water? The cumulative effects of these what-ifs has coalesced into a string of trancelike game experiences in recent years; slowly expanding towns lull the mind, alleviating stress in a manner altogether less frenetic than titles of blockbuster action.
Islanders arrived in 2019, followed by Townscaper, Cloud Gardens, and Dorfromantik, none precisely like the other but sharing a commitment to declutter, and perhaps upend the urban planning usually found in video games. Over Zoom, Paul Schnepf, one third of Islanders’ development team, describes his game as a distillation of the “fantasy” offered by series such as Anno and Age of Empires—the way they allow you to build your own realm or kingdom, to “be the god of your own little world.” But to the casual observer at least, these games of long-form civilizational progression are often inscrutably complex, filled with extensive (not to mention exhausting) production chains and the micro-management of resources. Islanders is a merciful reprieve from such demands, designed to be played in breezy, 20-minute bursts.
Boot up the streamlined game and you’re presented with a small land mass surrounded by turquoise water. Perhaps you’ll construct a seaweed farm or a lumber yard, their placement on the landscape accompanied by fluttering numbers in the bottom-left corner of the screen. Islanders isn’t entirely devoid of numbers, but it reorients them around a simple puzzle game: Make a pretty island, earn points, progress on to the next—an archipelago loop that feels like daydreaming on a beach. Of course, there’s always sandbox mode, which makes the game’s city-building core even more chill; there’s no score to worry about, just aesthetics.
Perhaps remarkably, bearing in mind its assuredly polished form, Islanders is the product of an undergraduate degree program at the applied sciences university HTW Berlin. In fact, this is the same university that Dorfromantik emerged from two years later, the two small studios informally involving themselves in one another’s work. Like Islanders, Dorfromantik is the city-builder reimagined as a puzzle game, albeit with a more obvious debt to tabletop strategy titles such as Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. It swaps clean minimalism for a cozier, hand-drawn aesthetic verging on cottagecore. Quaint villages, steamboat-filled waterways, and fields of golden corn stretch out organically across hexagonal tile pieces like a bucolic, prewar vision of Europe.