The first time the spiders attacked, I wasn’t prepared. A legion of black chittering death-bringers led by the red commander that loomed over the rest had decided that my small agricultural hamlet had had it too easy for too long. With a population of only thirteen completely unarmed townspeople, I watched the army march ever closer, knowing that there was a good chance that these were the last moments of their lives. It is in this moment that Towns’ tagline of “Build, Explore, Die prematurely!” comes into shockingly clear focus.
From that first paragraph, you would probably assume that Towns was a real time strategy game, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but not necessarily right. Describing it as an isometric Dwarf Fortress would be along the right track as well, but still, no dice. In fact, any genre designation you try to give it — from city builders to dungeon crawler to god sim — helps describe the game, yet fails to completely capture the essence of it. In many ways, the genius of Towns is that it pulls from these genres without ever becoming one of them — paying reverence without pledging fealty.
In Towns, you are the omniscent mayor of your hamlet, providing build orders and work details without ever actually getting your own hands dirty. You are the blue-collar foreman, ordering a forest to be felled, a quarry mined, and land tilled. You are the white collar bureaucrat, managing the books, tracking the larders and stockpiles, and keeping your eye on the big picture. You are the fastidious arbiter, the bumbling demigod, and the all-seeing slave, besot by the whims of your populus.
Towns begins with an initial populus of eleven, huddled together on a single square of the map. The world is large and full of dangers ranging from spear-wielding frogmen, to snow-trawling yetis; but also laden with those essential elements of life: trees, stone, wheat, fruit, and livestock. The dangers are surmountable, but not at first. Your first objective is to get them to a safe place to settle with all the important building blocks while still providing a big enough buffer from those who would wish harm upon you. It is up to you on where you will settle, but you cannot tell your citizens to move. To get them to settle in an area of your choosing, you must give them a job in that area. After a quick scan, you decide on a fertile piece of land, and you give your first order to chop down trees.
It is in these initial moments of resource gathering and survival that the game attains the flavor of a RTS. This element will always be present, but after trees have been felled, and a quarry dug, Towns ups the ante.
Taking your wood and stone, you set out to make a carpenter’s shop, a masonry, and a bakery — all of which play an integral role in that most important role of keeping your citizenry alive. It’s during this time that you take on the role of a city planner, laying out a crude plan for building locations to provide efficient material processing, considering where and how you intend to house all of your citizens, and even how you intend to allocate farmland. You must make all of these decisions while making sure that food production starts, and while keeping an eye on material gathering.
It is within these two first evolutions of gameplay that the first third of the game exists in with growing complexity. As your town grows, so too will its population, requiring more construction and more food. It is from this growing intricacy that RPG elements begin to naturally sprout as you begin to kit out your citizenry in armor. Soon, the necessity for protection will become all-too-real as enemies start to march on you. The construction of armor (which requires yet another separate workshop) is essential, and naturally begins the implementation of the RPG element of the game.
As your enemies on the surface are defeated, it is time to start digging down into the dungeons and begin the treacherous task of crawling them for all manner of loot and glory.
Dungeons effectively work as nine “levels” of difficulty. As you get closer to the hellish ninth dungeon, monsters increase in lethality, but also drop better loot. This creates a sense of progression as you move further down and creates “gates” towards advancement that keeps up a constant challenge.
It is this concept of challenge that Towns manages to capture so well. By setting up these moments of discovery in the digging down into a new layer of the map, you are constantly rethinking your priorities with regards to the new enemy types, and what you will need to continue your journey further down.
There comes a point in strategy games of all stripes — whether it be a city-builder, a RTS, or otherwise — that the momentum of challenge is gone. You have attained enough military might or economic stability that the game becomes a tedious slog of attaining your objectives. Seemingly in response to this, Towns introduces what is ten figurative and literal levels of challenge. Each of these requires a greater amount of experience and gear that is acquired on the previous levels — moving from little more than some wood slapped on your townspeople’s chests to epic armor, dropped by anthropomorphic pig beasts, Towns incorporates a true sense of progression that rewards as well as provides new challenges as your town grows.
Just as Towns mixes and matches genres of varying stripes, so to does it mix and match ways that it keeps the player enthralled in the game. The other way that Towns keeps the player’s attention is by seemingly attaching personality to each of your townspeople. You want to make sure Matilda and Richard and Felix survive. By naming your townspeople and by giving them somewhat distinct appearances, digging down into the terror of the next dungeon creates a moment where, similar to the spider attack previously mentioned, you want to see your people survive. As I play through a campaign, I find myself growing attached to these characters and, although I’m not sure there is code for this, their distinct quirks and personality. By this I mean that some of your townspeople will seemingly prefer tending to the crops or baking bread as opposed to mining, or vice versa. Some will go straight for the new armor you have made for them, while others will take their time, seemingly enjoying the scenery and the town that you have created for them.
It is in this melding of personalities — whether true or not — I am reminded of another game I picked up in alpha: Minecraft. I can already hear the gnashing of teeth that will berate me for such a correlation, but I am talking here of a very specific style of Minecraft that I am reminded of, namely, a multi-player survival map. This makes tangential sense as both games (Towns moreso than Minecraft) pull inspiration from Dwarf Fortress, but I believe where Minecraft fails to engage the player, Towns succeeds.
Don’t believe me?
When a Minecraft survival server starts, you are immediately confronted by a wilderness expanding forever in all directions. Along with you are your cohorts. After spending a brief time acclimating yourself to the land, you set your sites on building a small shelter to protect yourself from the cold nights (that are dark and full of terror, if you weren’t aware) by felling trees and crafting things from the accrued logs. Then after crude implements are built, you will need to start mining ore from the ground with which to create other implements, and crude weapons to defend yourself.
No, you didn’t have deja vu, that is pretty much a condensed version of exactly how Towns begins as well. The difference between the two games is after weapons are accrued, Towns continues to pile on the challenges, giving you waves of enemies above ground, and dungeons below. Where Minecraft says “here’s a world! Make your own fun,” Towns says “here’s a world! You just wait…” Where Minecraft succeeds at creating a blank canvas where people can build grand structures together or even by themselves, it fails at something much more basic: gameplay.
Seemingly in response to this, Towns has taken the formula of a multi-player Minecraft server, given it teeth, and provided real challenge and an innate motivation to complete those challenges. Where worries of starvation are largely underwhelming annoyances in Minecraft, Towns makes the consequences real. Especially in the beginning of the game, losing more than a few people can severely hamstring your fledgling populus.
I bring this up not to attack Minecraft, but rather to illustrate the preponderant could-be greatness of Towns. The past couple years have (rightfully) lauded Minecraft for its incredible mechanics and abilities to illicit awe in people’s creations. I believe that it will continue to do that in its current form, but what Towns does is truly stunning, seemingly taking these seemingly disparate pieces from a vast assortment of genres and presenting them all within an elegant package that manages to create a solid vision for its future.
This is to say that, for all of its already fantastic elements, is still only in alpha. I am looking forward to seeing how this game continues to evolve in the coming years as more and more features have been added. Even during the writing of this article, the game went from alpha .42 to .45, changing many key components including how agriculture works, and including a variety of new buildings. Watching the developer blog is, in many cases just as interesting as playing the game itself (and perhaps even more scintillating as they drop hints to what may come next in development). Furthermore, this sense of ownership that a player feels towards a game they have watched evolve over time is an experience unto itself.
There are many areas in which Towns succeeds, but none more important than its inherent dilemmas and decisions. To play the game is to juggle a thousand different aspects and genres at once. To master production lines and even stuff as innocuous as sleeping arrangements take careful consideration. Towns puts you in a role that most games will not put you in. You are a force in the game, but the citizens have a will of their own. It is within this disconnect that the game thrives.
Visit Townsgame.com for more information on the game and how to give SMP your money.