Islanders is a city-building game that feels like its developers haven't played any other city-building games. I mean that in the very best way. And the truth is probably even better: they've probably played them and loved them and then gone in their own direction as a result of that.
Islanders is focused and expansive in that paradoxical way that games can sometimes be. Each game starts by granting you an island, and you then open what amount to packs of different building types and place them around. Positioning is the key here. Each building likes to be located near certain terrain features, often including other buildings, and it likes to be away from other features. Urbanisation is a negotiation in Islanders, which feels entirely accurate. You're assigned points for each placement so in the early stages you can just take a building and rub it over the ground, as it were, until you find the biggest numbers showing up. It's a bit like dowsing, I imagine. What complicates things is that each pack comes with its own points target. You have to reach that target with the buildings you have in order to earn another pack and keep the city growing. Otherwise it's game over.
What I love about this is the refocusing of city-building mechanics. The rethinking of what makes a city grow. And what makes a city grow is proximity and pressure. You need the buildings to be in the right places, and then you need the energy and the will to find the next right spaces to keep the whole thing chugging along. You need to be thinking ahead about the space you're going to have to work with five minutes from now. The moment you falter, the city dies. A city that is no longer building outwards is already curling up. In a way, it's only the new stuff that is really useful and alive at any point. The rest is just clutter you have to work around.
This is a political statement, I guess, or at least a philosophical one. The other thing I love about Islanders is that it leaves these judgements to you. Is it nice to see one of the game's gorgeous low-poly islands filled with buildings, or is it a crime against nature? How do you feel about the fact that, once you've hit a separate target, you're able to move on to another, larger island and do the whole thing over again, but in the knowledge that you will never return, that you will be abandoning everything you've built?
Islanders is the work of Grizzly Games, the team that also made Superflight. Superflight's another pared-back, gigantic game - about wing-suiting around, if I remember rightly. You could fly and swoop all you wanted, but the points came by swinging in close to nearby walls and staying in the danger zone as long as you could. As it is with Islanders, scores were all to do with placement and proximity, and one misstep was all it took to end everything.