Review: TownCraft

By Sean Clancy 03 Oct 2013 0
Hey. Pal. Get that disgusting pile of wood you call a home away from my larger disgusting pile of wood I call a home. Hey. Pal. Get that disgusting pile of wood you call a home away from my larger disgusting pile of wood I call a home.

There's an inherent lack of cynicism in craftalike games. Here's an arguably new-ish genre that celebrates the pioneering and self-sufficient among us. Build, explore, tough it out and, ultimately, conquer the randomly generated frontier.


Yes, the cubed progenitor of this tree-punching nonsense has an all too well-established multiplayer scene, as several million screaming preteen Let's Players can attest to, but at its heart the craftalike game is a solitary experience. What players do, they do foremost for themselves.

What to make, then, of TownCraft, an iPad game where players aren't just crafting new pickaxes or obsidian hot tubs, but primitive societies? A game that revels in minutiae, squalor, tedium, and the exploitation of a desperate, pathetically undereducated workforce? Did I mention it's kind of great?

It becomes apparent after the staple genre opening--punch tree, get wood, et cetera--that TownCraft really is trying to do something different with the whole "crafting" thing. Sure, the basics are here. There's a limited selection of buildings to erect, with fancier ones (dem's the fellers what with the purdy windows) improving your town's overall quality. Certain tools beget certain crafting stations which in turn beget better tools. Crops can be harvested, planted, and re-harvested, iron and coal can be mined, and... yeah, you've seen it.

"Iron circle" might as well be goddamn printing press as far as this game's concerned. "Iron circle" might as well be goddamn printing press as far as this game's concerned.

All this is handled with an interface that's at least 75% intuitive. It's easy enough to drag and drop crap to make more crap--assuming you know what crap needs to be combined to make better crap. The isometric perspective does make it difficult to place items, especially considering you need to drag said items from a menu which takes up half the screen, but overall there's not much that can't be fixed with a quick move of the camera or repositioning of your character.

What makes TownCraft unique is how interconnected all these crafting tropes are. In another title, yeah, you might need sand to make glass and windows because... you want windows, but in TownCraft you need sand to make glass to make a lantern to make a mineshaft in order to lock down a renewable source of iron. Whew.

Bear in mind that maps in TownCraft are small and cozy, and squandered resources aren't easily replaced. And, yeah, sometimes the spiderweb logic of this crafting holism just doesn't make sense ("Okay, I need a countertop with glasses in order to make this building a tavern... but I need to first craft the counter and glasses together and, like, haul them over as one piece?"). Then again, it can be satisfying to figure out how hyper-specific ingredients--like short iron rods and, heh, round freakin' wood--fit together. Kind of like actually thinking and figuring something out! Imagine that.

But, hey, why do any of this busywork yourself? The worlds of TownCraft are lousy with itinerant wanderers who'll pass through your burgeoning community. While some are traders, or marked quest-givers who flavor the proceedings with appropriately challenging and thematic tasks (food for the royal feast, weapons for the royal war, etc.), most are just bums or yokels looking for work. Toss 60 coins at this guy, and he'll pick crops automatically. A few more at this lady, and all of a sudden you have a bartender for your tavern. Cooler still, additional workers will erect little lean-to shacks around town as your camp slowly rises from the muck as a full-fledged shanty town. Wait, no, that's depressing. Cool!

Guess who has a new latrine boy?!?!? Guess who has a new latrine boy?!?!?

TownCraft makes the believable jump from "lone settler grappling with nature" to "lone entrepreneur squeezing this miserable plot for every last penny." You start as a Davy Crockett or an Allan Quatermain, and end a Daniel Plainview, justified only in your pursuit of money and the fact that you were here first.

So maybe I'm embellishing a bit here. But not much. Even TownCraft's admittedly cartoony visuals belie this man v. nature conflict. Pastoral farm living in one corner, rows of squalid fishing huts along a muddy coast in the other, with the local tavern (that has no no windows (and only one chair)) hunched just behind them.

Of course, it can't all be this good. Or bad. Good-bad. Despite having plenty of natural, somewhat dark humor (example: farmers, upon running out of crops to pick during working hours, tend to just stand, motionless, in the empty fields, staring out into the distance until another string of grapes materializes), TownCraft still feels the need to pepper things with the kind of self-aware snark that's far too common in mobile titles. I'll admit to a few laughs, such as when an NPC (presumably lice-ridden and afraid of the moon) concluded his stereotypical out-of-character tooltip dialogue with the non sequitur "Also I can't read," but for the most part the humor here either doesn't land or just feels out of place. Did we really need a "Cool story, bro!" reference in a game that, mechanically, shoots for feudalism-lite? That's a big ol' "maybe not."

Famine? Crop rotations? What are you talking about? That was potatoes. This is yummy apples. Totally different scenario. Famine? Crop rotations? What are you talking about? That was potatoes. This is yummy apples. Totally different scenario.

If there's any other complaint to be made about TownCraft, it's that its systems don't go deep enough. Could my miners get the Black Lung? Or die in a cave-in? Maybe my fishers revolt for higher wages? There's a rudimentary inflation mechanic in place that prevents players from specializing in the production of just one item--sell too many apples, or silverware, and their price goes down--that could be further complicated with worldwide events that futz with the economy. These are logical extensions of what's already in the game, and additions along these lines would improve what's already an addictive iteration on the craftalike.

Now, I suppose it's worth mentioning that you can build a "nice" town in TownCraft, with good-looking buildings and a stable, well-rounded economy. I'm just not sure why you'd want to. The tragic is just more interesting here. If we agree that a key virtue of craftalike games is making tedium fascinating, then TownCraft is a damn successful craftalike. At the end of the day, you're still working and crafting for yourself. Thing is, in TownCraft, people are just another resource.

Review: TownCraft

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