To be clear, Townscaper is less a game and more a toy. It’s a living thing, which reacts to everything you do in surprising ways, but it’s still a toy. If you struggle in games where you are left to your own devices, without objectives, levels, points and unlock trees, then Townscaper is probably best avoided.
Luckily, there are a couple of easy ways to find out if Townscaper is for you. This little game is merely £4.19, and it’s on Game Pass. Play it for twenty minutes or so, and you will be abundantly aware of whether it’s your jam.
Making our first town, we wondered if we did something wrong. There is no tutorial to speak of in Townscaper. It’s just you and a blank ocean. But there’s a reason for the lack of tutorial: everything is deliriously simple, and creating something and watching how the game reacts is part of Townscaper’s pleasures.
Pressing A generates a square of land on your ocean. Hold down A, and you start spamming out platforms and islands with a sweep of the analogue stick. Press A on one of these platforms and you create a building, and hold A to create a sequence of buildings. Press A again on top of these buildings, and you begin to create storeys, spires and towers. Congratulations, you have learned about 90% of what Townscaper has to offer: with simple presses and holds of the A button, you can create vast cities.
It’s all deceptively clever. Create a ring of buildings and a park flourishes within the courtyard you have created. Create a tower out to sea and it becomes a lighthouse. Large buildings, when oriented in certain ways, can become churches. What might have been a random sequence of button presses may end up looking like a beautifully designed and plotted city. Basically, Townscaper does its damnedest to make you look good.
We liked to play the B game. This is a game where you construct something marvellous and then highlight a section of the wall to delete with the B button. Instead of crashing down, the building will warp and accommodate the now-removed block. You will have scaffolding, stilts and propellor-assisted platforms. You can’t outwit Townscaper – it knows what you’re doing.
To a degree, achievements form a set of objectives that you can actually work towards. Working out how to create church doors and fountains, all outlined in the achievement list, gives you some form of structure. At least, it was what pushed us onward.
For more creatively minded people, the kind who will spend years on the Creator mode of Minecraft, the motivation likely isn’t needed. You can replicate your own town, cities from your favourite games, and you have a series of tools – including colour changes, day-night changes and more – that will help you get there.
But will you get there? It’s the huge, underlying question of Townscaper. Without anything like a game for you to work through, a huge raft of players will draft away. Lest we forget, this is also a toy that is designed to react to you, rather than give you a Minecraft-like suite of tools to play around with. So, there’s not a huge amount of depth or customisation for someone who does want to fiddle.
Case Study 1 is me. I slipped right off Townscaper. Once I had marvelled at the adaptability of the engine, the way it shifted and changed whenever I added or removed a block, I couldn’t find a handhold. It’s undoubtedly a pretty toy, and some of the towns I created looked like Steampunk sky-islands. I even saved the odd one to show off later. But I know that, after a couple of hours of tinkering, I am never, ever going back to it.
Case Study 2 is my six-year old daughter. She’s entering her fifth hour with Townscaper, and doesn’t look like stopping. She has decades of game time in Minecraft and Roblox, and the simplicity of the interactions in Townscaper, and the relative ease of creating something viable and pretty, means that it taps into their energy. It immediately entered her gaming rotation.
What you get from Townscaper depends on what you’re willing to put into it. It’s a city-creation tool with a few surprises up it’s sleeve, but nothing beyond that. If you have a trained creative impulse from games like Minecraft, then we would recommend Townscaper. It’s gorgeous, simple and adapts to anything you can throw at it.
If you find creative games aimless, though, this is perhaps the worst of them. Townscaper lacks depth and is completely disinterested in giving you objectives. You will find yourself quickly ditching it for something else.
Thank our stars for Game Pass, then. If you don’t want to take a £4.19 punt on Townscaper, then your subscription will help you out. Have a play and find out what kind of player you are. It’s a form of gaming personality test.
You can buy Townscaper from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S