Puzzle Review

Islanders – Review

I am the kind of guy who likes rewarding feedback loops and no-nonsense gameplay. As a general rule, I want to be hooting and hollering within about 30 seconds of hitting play. This tends to limit what I play, and honestly, not many modern games meet these criteria. Puzzle games in particular struggle to capture my attention nowadays and I typically give them a miss. Along comes Islanders – a little city-building puzzler that slapped my cheeks and called me foolish.

Stress-Free Philosophy

Islanders won’t captivate many with its moment-to-moment gameplay – not at first anyway. Heck, as a puzzle game, it’s not all that taxing, and as a city builder, it’s lacking depth. What it does, however, is instill a serene sense of zen. Islanders is supremely relaxing and did just enough with all of its little systems and nuances to keep me hooked. There is no time limit and no stress – just chilled vibes and deceptively addictive gameplay.

Unlike a traditional city builder, Islanders has no systems managing resources, population, disasters, etc. Heck, Islander’s doesn’t even have, well, islanders – at all. The name of the game here is to place buildings down on a prohibitively small and interestingly shaped island. If you want to continue placing buildings, however, you can’t just haphazardly plonk things down.

How Islanders works is you select a building pack, such as lumberjacking or farming. Each building in each pack is worth a certain amount of points, and that value changes based on all manner of things. For example, placing your lumberjacking buildings near trees drastically increases the value of each building. This goes deeper, however. Some buildings also grow or decrease in value based on buildings too. Houses and mansions like to snuggle together, but a circus is only really beneficial near houses, and, to make things interesting, is made less profitable if in the vicinity of mansions. I was wracking my brain, albeit in a rather soothing kind of way, trying to maximize my point gain – and I loved it.

Islanders - Summer

Deceptive Depth

The thing is, what might seem like a good idea now, is often not a good idea in the long run. The depth in Islanders comes from understanding how civilization will progress. It may not seem like it, but your island is slowly becoming more advanced, and some of the later buildings are almost designed to mess with your plans. Obvious combinations of early-game buildings suddenly invalidate your late-game buildings. I transitioned from planning my turns for maximum turn-by-turn gains and instead started planning ten turns ahead to make sure my uber-building would net me the maximum value.

There is a limit to how many points anyone can harvest from one island of course. Islanders tackles this by allowing players to move to new islands once they have reached a certain points threshold. This effectively resets the game but retains all accumulated points. Eventually, it will be impossible to gather enough points to unlock new buildings or advance, and the game will end. Scores are then uploaded to the leaderboards and then players can see where they landed. 

That’s basically it. That’s Islanders in a nutshell. It’s incredibly basic on paper, fairly simple in reality, but became highly addictive once I let the game invade my soul. I was nearly always put into a dream-like trance when playing, and time just chugged along without me really noticing. Just one more building, one more island, one more run. 

The act of placing buildings purely for point gain is noticeably gamey, however. In fact, Islanders might be the gamiest games to release in quite some time. It’s all about those points. The aforementioned lumberjack scenario also highlights some of the game’s flaws. Points are gained when a building is placed, and that’s it. Those points are set in stone. Removing those trees at a later date does nothing. The lumber mills will still be there, doing bugger all, but the points were gained, so why care?

A Little Something For Everyone

In the standard mode, visual flair and consistency take a running jump. The depth of Islanders comes purely from its points system, and if that doesn’t do it for you, then Islanders probably won’t tickle your fancy. It does make some concessions, however. The game comes with a sandbox mode letting players place things wherever they want, in whatever number they want. If you want to make the island of your dreams, then the game has you covered. I personally find little enjoyment from sandbox modes, but its inclusion certainly helps build some bridges.

One of the ways Islanders got me in the mood for some spaced-out, building slapping fun, is with its presentation. The game is very minimalistic, but in a way that still oozes charm. Everything just looks clean, and the subtle animations on the various structures help breathe life into an otherwise lifeless game. The game even has a wonderfully addictive animation that plays whenever points are rolling in, providing just the right amount of feedback for a job well done.

This is then bolstered by a fantastic soundtrack that evokes this surreal feeling of calm. Even when the game was getting difficult, the music was right there, gently massaging my amygdala. Defeat is a certainty in Islanders, but the game subtly escorted whatever stress I had out of the building. Islanders doesn’t slap, it caresses.

Islanders - Winter


Overall Islanders is a game that I was not expecting to like – at all. It didn’t take long for it to sink its hooks into me and gently coerced me down a winding path of tranquillity. Genre be damned, in a world full of elevated heart rates and perpetual soul-crushing stress, Islanders is a nice break from reality. Its gaminess can be a bit off at times, but for the most part, this is a fantastic hybrid of a game. 


Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4/5, XBox, PC

If you would like to read about Puzzle games, you might be interested to read this review of Fly Together.

Many thanks to Coatsink Software for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.

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