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A screenshot of the starting screen of Islanders showing an in-progress island littered with all sorts of buildings. The next day's progress is partially transparent.

A chill game of filling islands with buildings.

ISLANDERS (Wikipedia: “Islanders (video game)”) is a building placement game that takes place on a series of randomly generated islands. It can be thought of as a board game in which the island is the board and the buildings are the cards you get dealt. Presented with a fresh island, you add a batch of buildings to your hand and from there you place them on the board—on the island.

Each building has a bubble representing its range of influence, and you get points based on what is inside the sphere when you place it. You can also undo the last move (unless you’ve added a new batch of buildings). Each building has a set of others that it wants and doesn’t want near it—call them friends and enemies. Friends add points, enemies subtract.

Different building types take up different amounts of space (and there are some variations of some building types that have their own distinct footprints). Equally important, some buildings are worth more points. These need to be played strategically to max out your score—building up an area you plan to place these in. But the game nudges that as most of their friends want to be near each other anyway.

It’s not too challenging once you play a few islands. You start to figure out roughly where things should go by trial and error. You’re free to hover the ghost building all over the island and try to find the highest score you can get. Advanced strategies mean in some cases you’re better off not going for the best score for a single building, so that you’ll have spaces to place things later and so that you keep future buildings from losing points by being too near to their enemies.

For most of the game, you will want to add new buildings to your hand as soon as they become available. The exception is an achievement for always exhausting your buildings before getting more and scoring 1000 points. Having more buildings available means you can try different placements or hold some for later while adding their friends to the board ahead of time.

Once you have enough points, you have the option to move on to a fresh island. You can keep adding buildings to the current island until you fail to get enough points to get a new batch of buildings. At that point, if you’ve unlocked the next island you can go on to that. Otherwise, you’ve hit the end of the world and your score is your score. Early islands are easier to fill out: you add more buildings to your hand for fewer points, and you can move on to the next island sooner too. The first islands are also give you more space to play.

There weren’t any bugs for me on Linux. There are ways you might be able to shove some buildings where they don’t look like they fit, but nothing too crazy. The biggest annoyance was the yellow point text when placing a building could have poor contrast with the background (especially the sand and some of the levels with yellow grass areas). In those cases you might need to spin the level around so that you get an orientation with enough contrast to read it. (A simple drop-shadow on the text could probably have solved this.)

I enjoyed my time with ISLANDERS. Including achievements, it took me about 30 hours to play through. While I was playing I wondered about the people who would build these cities, the architecture and the world they would live in. A calm and easy enough game, I’d call it contemplative. No quick thinking is needed as you can take all day to make a move (though there are a few achievements for getting through some of the early islands quickly). If you want to try harder to maximize your score in the early rounds, some math will come into play. You’ll try to calculate which order to place things. But as the game progresses, it becomes more about space management and making use of your undo to try things.

There is a sandbox mode where few restrictions are placed on what you build. You can add as many of the various building types as you want there. And from the main menu there is a photo mode where the UI is hidden so you can take pictures of your current island. There isn’t a way to save islands, which is a small heartbreak, but it also adds to the charm of the game that what you build is quickly washed out, like a sandcastle.

The title, Islanders, written using the wall building in sandbox mode.
A simple example of what can be done in the sandbox mode. In high score mode, this would be terrible.

Worth a look if you want to slow down and fill up islands with buildings.

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