At first glance, Patron is something very familiar: a strategy-focused city builder in a medieval setting, calling to mind The Settlers, Anno, Banished, Stronghold, and countless others. It certainly wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but it also makes an ambitious effort to carve its own path, hinging those bets on a unique social system. The result is an intriguing take on a classic genre, one that lacks bells and whistles and can be a little uneven, but also finds a way to stand out from the crowd.
The basic idea behind Patron is much the same as most other colony sims: you have start with a small group of settlers and gradually develop a thriving settlement, with a particular focus on balancing resource needs and production. Community growth and new technology through research brings with it new possibilities, but also greater challenging in maintaining the perfect equilibrium that keeps everyone happy, healthy, and productive. In an ever more complex web of resource needs and societal demands, creating efficient, balanced chains of production is a puzzle with creative, satisfying solutions waiting to be found.
From that base, Patron sets itself apart with its unique approach to social dynamics. In most other games, “Happiness” is a key metric to manage, but it tends to be simple and homogenised. The things that make one person happy make everyone happy, and vice versa; the challenge lies in trying to maintain those levels of happiness even when the demands of productivity try to drag it down. In Patron, everyone values different things—and by extension, how to choose to run your city affects different people differently. People’s jobs and backgrounds all affect how they react to things like building placement, development priorities, civil policies, and your reactions to the King’s many demands.
Related: Before We Leave is a Settlers-style city-builder that’s all about reclaiming your own land instead of colonising someone else’s.
When the King sends a call for resources to support the kingdom’s war efforts, choosing to do so will inspire loyalty in some—the peasantry in particular—and disloyalty in others, like the artisans who feel the profits of their hard work are being plundered. Enact a policy to encourage immigration, and you’ll make some people happy and others angry. As your settlement’s population grows, issues like tax and religion inevitably create rifts between people, and keeping everyone happy increasingly becomes a challenge.
It’s an intriguing system, and easily Patron‘s standout feature. It can be a little overwhelming at first, but once things start clicking into place, exploring the nuances of how all the different pieces come together becomes fascinating. Inside a videogame—with no real consequences—the unenviable, impossible job of trying to keep a bunch of wildly different people happy is riveting stuff. There’s also a robust, detailed economic simulation, an expansive research tree, and a wide array of resources to manage, and all these pieces cross paths with the social system (and each other) to create a complex, intriguing web of strategic elements.
It can also get hard. Patron is described as a “survival city builder”, and it lives up to that: mismanagement can easily wipe out your settlement entirely, with everyone too unhappy or too hungry or too dead to continue. There’s certainly some appeal in this, and the failures that result from your poor decision making, though frustrating in the moment, also provide a valuable learning experience. But there’s another source of difficulty that’s less rewarding: a relative lack of detailed information. There are a few rudimentary overlays you can use to get a general sense of things like soil fertility and ore richness, and a handful of overviews of different aspects of your society, but nothing that lets you really drill down into the details. By extension, it can be hard to prevent problems before they become an issue.
I also wish Patron had some more objective-driven game modes. As it stands, the only mode is a standard sandbox mode where the only real aim is to survive and develop as you see fit. This open-endedness is plenty enjoyable, and a variety of different maps with their own quirks ensures a range of different challenges to overcome, but sometimes you just want something a bit more structured and objective-driven. Some sort of scenario mode with more constrained, finite objectives—as a complement to the sandbox mode, not instead of it—is common way of appealing to both styles of play, and the lack of such in Patron is a little disappointing.
What’s not disappointing is the medieval setting and the visual style that the game builds around it. The buildings and scenery really live up to that theme, with a subtle but detailed art style that emphasises the quaint architecture and clever technology of a bygone era, and sets it against maps full of natural beauty. As your city grows and you develop more advanced facilities and decorative structures, this effect only grows—neither photorealistic nor heavily stylized, but grounded in its quiet beauty, with a relaxed soundtrack to match.
In a genre that’s grown crowded in recent years, Patron finds a way to stand out with deep, intricate social systems that build cleverly on city builder foundations. The limited information tools and lack of any sort of scenario mode make it feel a little rudimentary, but the quirks of the social system and the way it interacts with everything else make this worth a look.
Developer: Overseer Games
Publisher: Overseer Games
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Release date: 11 August 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.