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Townscaper: The Anti-SimCity

A new addition to the city-building game genre comes close to capturing how cities emerged for much of human history.

Townscaper screenshot, credit/copyright Steam.

It’s been a rough decade for the city-building simulation genre. After a decade-long hiatus, SimCity attempted to retake its throne in 2013, taking small risks with the genre, only to collapse under the weight of a universally negative critical reception. Into the void stepped Cities: Skylines in 2015. Returning to the genre’s roots and releasing a steady clip of expansions over the past years, Cities is now the king of the city-building games, a reign so unquestioned that the 30th anniversary of SimCity’s creation of the genre in 2019 went unnoticed—with few exceptions.

Yet in this context of revanchist Cities hegemony, a legitimately groundbreaking new entry to the genre arrives in the form of Townscaper. The game’s developer, Oskar Stålberg, cautiously describes Townscaper as “more of a toy” than a game. Whatever you prefer to call it, the game drops players down in a vast, calm body of water with two simple options: where to put buildings and what color these buildings should be. From this deceptively simple set of choices, buildings algorithmically combine into rowhouses or cottages or castles, eventually expanding into Dutch canal settlements, Italian hilltowns, or Yemeni Manhattans of the desert, depending on where the player’s imagination takes them.

Notably, unlike with previous entries into the city-builder genre, there is no “objective” for the player to pursue. There are no indicators to maintain, no growth milestones to accomplish, no monuments to unlock. The game is like a bucket of Legos; if it has any objective at all, it’s to build something interesting and to enjoy yourself as you do so. Better than a bucket of Legos, however, Townscaper has a way of making every creationbeautiful, both through its gentle lighting and the thoughtful design conversations that the game facilitates. As a result, the game is profoundly therapeutic.

This restorative quality owes itself to Townscaper’s fundamental rethink of the city-builder genre. Where the cities of SimCity or Cities: Skyline inevitably trend toward a chaotic death cycle of traffic congestion and municipal bankruptcy, the cities of Townscaper incrementally grow more resilient with each passing move the player makes. The bane of many a SimCity creation, complexity is what lets Townscaper thrive. Where past stalwarts of the genre demand rigid planning and careful foresight, Townscaper invites the kind of playful experimentation that allows great cities—both real and imagined—to evolve in an unplanned way.

Baked into this reimagining of the genre is a thoughtful reconsideration of how cities grow. In the old SimCity-Cities: Skyline paradigm, the player begins with a master plan, crisscrossing a virgin field with infrastructure and blanketing it with use zoning, with computer-generated buildings gradually filling in the gaps. Townscaper works in reverse, with the player plopping down buildings as streets and plazas gradually form within the gaps. In this sense, Townscaper comes closer to capturing how cities emerged for much of human history. 

Indeed, Townscaper feels like an old urbanist response to a city-builder genre plagued by modernist assumptions. This manifests itself in Townscaper’s approach to public space, with narrow streets and plazas which, beyond merely serving as car sewers, feel like spaces in which people might actually want to spend time. To the extent that anything resembling land-use planning exists in the game, it dispenses with use designations, focusing the player’s attention exclusively on the form that buildings might take. And the fun of Townscaper doesn’t end when a city begins to look nice—as is the case with all too many aggressively preserved and downzoned cities of the Western world. On the contrary, the cities of Townscaper manage to grow even more alluring with each new experimental addition. 

This isn’t to say that a city must be beautiful, as is subtly presupposed by Townscaper. As urban sage Jane Jacobs pointed out, “a city cannot be a work of art.” After all, cities are not simply goods to be consumed, but are spaces of production, with all the ugliness and necessary planning this often entails. To the extent that Townscaper ignores this reality, it’s perhaps ever so slightly less interesting as a traditional city-building game. But to the extent that this genre has overemphasized a top-down, production-oriented view of cities over the past 30 years, Townscaper is a breath of fresh air.

Nolan Gray is a professional city planner and an affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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