Despite my love for large-scale simulation games like Cities: Skylines as an adult, I was not a SimCity player growing up. Instead, I was pulled in the direction of the more manageable SimTown. The zoomed-in town management, where you can micromanage every aspect of your citizens' lives without the massive scope of SimCity, always appealed to me more. Perhaps that's why Outlanders, a simplistic yet challenging settlement builder, has now sunk its hooks into me on two occasions across both of its platforms.
In this small-scale management simulation, you step into the role of the leader of an imperiled settlement across tens of scenarios. Some task you with fixing a destroyed boat so you can escape the island, while others challenge you to learn the game's farming mechanics or construct a giant statue made of bread. Don't be fooled by the simple visual style; these scenarios grow in complexity as you unlock more structures and jobs, like a farm to grow crops, bakeries to generate bread, and breweries to give your followers the gift of beer.
Each time a new structure was introduced, I struggled to keep up with adding another moving part into the equation, but eventually, they just became another part of my growing toolbox, providing for a better simulation experience. This toolset comes in handy in Outlanders' sandbox mode, which lets you customize the biome, map size, starting stockpile, natural resources, and plenty of other variables before creating a settlement without needing to worry about objectives or restrictions.
Outlanders is rather hands-on with its simulation mechanics. Your followers act autonomously, but you, as the town leader, assign them job roles and priorities. Because of this, I was constantly moving followers around to accommodate and adapt to the community's needs. Sometimes, I desperately needed wood, so I put four people on lumberjack duty. More often, though, it's the lack of food that do my settlements in, so foraging and farming have remained my focus. I love calculating which of these areas to invest workers in since foraging provides instant food but depletes quickly, while farming takes time to grow from seeds but is renewable. You need to not only coexist with nature but also learn how to avoid depleting its resources before you have the means to replenish them. Failing at this seemingly simple task results in the death of your civilization nearly every time.
If all else fails, you can issue decrees to your followers, like rationing food or the "hands-off" decree to ensure no babies are born. You can also go the other way to encourage a population boom or tell people to work less to boost happiness. These decrees go a long way to fix problems you may have, but they have unique impacts on happiness, productivity, and other areas. I enjoyed walking the razor's edge of using these decrees to optimize my settlements.
Each scenario includes a primary objective that needs to be completed for success as well as an optional mission; these side goals add an extra wrinkle of challenge, like accomplishing the main mission without exceeding a certain number of followers, keeping your followers housed and happy throughout, or harvesting enough resources to repair other structures following a storm. I always strived to accomplish these objectives, and I often succeeded, but they serve as little more than trophies on my shelf, so outside of the sense of accomplishment, I wasn't heartbroken if I missed some of the side goals.
I love that there aren't many random elements of Outlanders. No tornadoes come to ruin your best-laid plans, no droughts pop up to destroy your crops, and no invaders arrive to raid your stockpiles. This is all about planning and resource management within the scenario you are given. Every failure was my fault. This led to several angry outbursts as I helplessly watched my settlement's predicament snowball out of control due to poor planning; all it takes is a couple of followers to die – whether of old age or hunger – for the well-oiled machine to crumble. In one instance, my 16 adult townspeople were spread out perfectly, but when one member died of old age, I had to reallocate one of the plant foragers to fill in the vacant lumberjack spot. Sadly, that led to a chain reaction where not enough food was being gathered, and before I knew it, four followers died of hunger, and the spiral had begun.
Though I had several settlements quickly meet their doom thanks to the skin-of-your-teeth starting conditions, I always stuck with it, taking the lessons learned forward into the next attempt. I've never loved trial-and-error gameplay, but Outlanders never feels unfair – just unforgiving. Soon, you begin to spot the warning signs of these problems on the horizon. I started anticipating each of my settlements' downfalls before they happened, which let me prevent many of them. This progression – not in the game mechanics but rather in how you think about the gameplay and the domino effects of various in-game actions – is ultimately what kept me coming back for upwards of 20 hours across both PC and iOS.
Though Outlanders has been available on iOS through Apple Arcade since 2019, the PC release has become my favorite way to play it. I still sometimes have difficulty selecting the correct settler or structure in a crowded area, but not nearly as much with a mouse as I do with a touchscreen. Also, the widescreen format suits the gameplay and art style, and the well-translated navigation keyboard controls feel more intuitive than the Apple Arcade version, which is surprising, seeing as how that version came out years prior to the PC release. Either way is a great way to play this solid sim, but if you have a choice and portability isn't a concern, the PC version is the clear winner.
Though the unforgiving moments where I watched my followers drop like flies wore on me at times, I loved how each scenario challenged me to balance all of these factors to accomplish a set of goals. Outlanders can be challenging and frustrating, but I rarely felt overwhelmed. Outlanders doesn't deliver on the grand scale of the large city simulations many associate with the genre, but its small-scale approach appeals to the task-oriented part of your brain, creating an immensely satisfying experience that brought me back time and time again.