The top-down view of a continent is usually a precursor to a lengthy 4X campaign in which you try to take over the world with your army or influence it through raw power. Islanders: Console Edition subverts this expectation by presenting you with an island covered in trees, rocks, and grass that you need to build on like a complex puzzle rather than hide completely under the industry of war or scientific advancement.
Islanders’ core game is about strategy and organisation. You start with a beautiful blank slate of an island, one that’s green and untouched by civilisation, with trees and small rocks scattering the surface. Each one is procedurally generated, meaning you’ll never be faced with the same start twice.
Once you’re familiar with your island, it’s time to open your inventory. This, too, is procedurally generated, giving you a choice between two building packs. Each one consists of three or four building types that are grouped under a theme heading. For example, the “brewing” pack could contain a brewery, hop fields, mill, and standard fields too.
Each building type generates points, and the goal is to maximise the points earned from every building so that you can unlock the next building pack. Placing fields out in the open and near a mill will provide additional bonus points, as will keeping the hop field and the brewery close together. The surrounding environment, such as trees and rocks, can provide even more bonuses, boosting points and unlocking additional packs.
This is balanced by a set of detriments that each building is also affected by. Placing any kind of farm in range of another type of farm, for example, will lose you points upon placing it. So you need to move each building around and weigh up the total points it’s possible to gain with the points you might lose, rotating each one until it’s positioned just so that you won’t lose too many points but gain the most possible.
You continue to open packs and place buildings like this for as long as possible. Moving each building around before placing it reveals the points you can earn, helping you strategise their placement and plan ahead of time when it comes to packs based around the sea, such as seaweed farms.
As your island becomes more and more packed with buildings and industries, mansions peering down from the high cliffs, and sand mines digging up every beach, there will come the point when enough is enough. This is when the game opens up the option to proceed to a new island, one as untouched as the blank slate you started with. From there, it starts over.
You’ll continue to play like this until you mess up. If you don’t make the most of the points you could be earning from every building, you’ll eventually encounter a time when you don’t have enough points to unlock the next pack. When this happens, the game is over, and you must restart.
That may sound quite stressful, but this is the most chilled out strategy game I’ve ever encountered. There’s no time limit, just the UI, a very relaxing soundtrack, and plenty of space for you to fill with the buildings you’re given. The procedural nature of the islands and buildings available makes each game different, and that level of challenge you feel when trying to beat your past high score is a decent drive to keep you playing for one more island. However, this game is definitely best played as a puzzle over the course of days and weeks, dipping in and out.
Thanks to the inclusion of an update from other versions of the game, Islanders: Console Edition also has a sandbox mode. This is exactly what it sounds like. You’re given another procedurally generated blank slate to work with, but you can choose from all of the available buildings this time. There are no points to consider while you’re building. Instead, it’s all about making something for yourself. An island getaway, town, or city that you think looks fantastic.
The game’s core puzzle mode is definitely the main draw here. But sandbox mode is a welcome distraction not only from the small amount of stress that puzzling can cause, but any source of stress in your life. I found myself whiling away the hours putting together new islands under no pressure to maximise points. Instead, I was creating half-fantastical locations where balloons gather over the platforms on the sea, where a few buildings make up the tourist industry. I had a great time hand-picking the residential buildings and large structures that pocketed the island’s top, making it look like nowhere on Earth.
This is the second way Islanders provides you with a sense of calm in a world that is, quite frankly, all too stressful now and again. Sometimes, it’s far too easy to feel like you have to power through in a puzzle or challenging point in a game because you want to feel that sense of resolution and freedom that comes from being unburdened by them. Islanders is a sense of calm that you’ll never feel stressed by, and that’s why you always need it installed on your Switch.
Islanders: Console Edition £4.49
Islanders provides players with a sense of calm that no other strategy game can. It’s designed to help you feel relaxed while still giving you the challenge that comes with a strategic puzzle title.