It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
Normally I only cover one game at a time on Short Play, but after playing 20 Minute Metropolis and Islanders back to back, it’s hard not to think of how they relate to each other. Both are puzzle games about building cities, with very different approaches to gameplay and style. Despite this, both feel like they have a similar outlook on humanity’s exploitative relationship with nature.
First, 20 Minute Metropolis is like a sped-up version of SimCity, where you try to build the best city you can in 20 minutes. Each building costs resources (stone, wood, metal, or plastic), which you get from logging forests, digging up mountains, or mining ruins. Each location only has a finite amount of resources, and in order to acquire them you need to create “work,” which is produced at apartments. In order to produce that work, apartments need food from farms and landfills where they can send waste. Put this all together and you have a simple, but intricate interlocking ecosystem.
The end goal isn’t about creating the most populous city, though. Instead, you gain points from making parks. So the game’s puzzle is in how to create an efficient city that can constantly produce the resources you need, while also letting you take resources away from it in order to make more parks.
Islanders, on the other hand, has you trying to construct the best settlement you can on a procedurally generated island. During each turn, you’re given a number of different buildings which you can place on the island, and location counts for a lot; what you place them near gives you positive or negative amounts of points based on what they synergize with. Generally, this process makes logical sense for how you might want to lay out a city. Houses and mansions like being near the city center, for instance, but also close to parks. Tree cutters like being near trees. Shaman huts like being near nature, and away from any other buildings.
By earning enough points during a round, you’ll then get a new set of buildings to add to your island. This continues until you either run out of space, don’t earn enough points, or move onto a new island (which unlocks by passing a certain point threshold on your current island). The puzzle turns into a complex question: how do you maximize your points now so that you have more rounds in the future, while also leaving space for future rounds to maximize point synergies?
Both games are great: 20 Minute Metropolis scratches that SimCity / Cities: Skylines itch of making a city or interconnected system run effectively, but in a condensed and sometimes hectic form. Conversely, Islanders is a slower and more relaxed experience where you can take your time to plan and place your buildings to maximize the synergies between them to improve your score. But the end state of each game leaves the world around these cities devoid of the nature that was there at the start, or in some cases, even blighted.
In 20 Minute Metropolis, when you finish digging up a mountain, harvesting farmland, or cutting down a forest, the tile converts to a blank grassland tile. Nothing repopulates; forests don’t grow back or expand, neither do farms, and grassland tiles do nothing. As a round moves along, you have to rapidly expand your city to connect with resources that are further away. This leaves your city looking like a strange organism in a petri dish in search of nutrients as you clear out mountains or anything else in your path.
In Islanders, you often start off on an island trying to avoid destroying nature. Woodcutters, a building you can sometimes get a lot of early on, earn points by being near trees, but only earn those points at the moment they are placed. So as the island starts to fill up it becomes more advantageous to put a building where trees are, since there are fewer opportunities for you to earn points from them. Eventually, this leaves you with woodcutters that are surrounded by houses or farms instead of trees. By the time you are done with an island it’s usually devoid of nature, and densely packed with buildings.
It seems somewhat intrinsic to the genre of a city builder that it would involve altering the nature around you. But often times in games like SimCity or Cities: Skylines, you can find greener ways to do things. That could mean creating forests or other green spaces in your city to try to offset what nature your city displaces, although doing this doesn’t always have a mechanical effect on the game. Sometimes it’s more of an aesthetic impact.
Maybe this aspect stands out more because 20 Minute Metropolis and Islanders are more simplified versions of a city builder. Unlike a longer-form city-building game, you aren’t attempting to create something sustainable that will last tens to hundreds of hours, just something that will be around for 20 minutes or so before it’s discarded so you can move along to the next city. Strangely, that tight time frame can make it feel like a more honest simulation of how humans actually build cities.
Islanders was created by Grizzly Games, and 20 Minute Metropolis was created by Dejobaan Games. You can get 20 Minute Metropolis with a Humble Monthly subscription ($12 per month). Islanders is available on Steam for $4.99. Both games are Windows only. It takes about 20 minutes to an hour to finish a round of each.