Review: Towns lets you build a fantasy city, one human corpse at a time
At a Glance
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This is a great game for fans of Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft, and the like, but be warned that you're paying for something that's still under development.
Who wants to be an adventurer, when you can be the NPC who owns the town the adventurers shop at? That's the premise of "Towns," and it's a damn good one.
Towns is a bit like Dwarf Fortress, a bit like Minecraft, and a bit like a roguelike. You begin with some wandering civilians who enter an untamed wilderness and immediately begin chopping trees, mining stones, and butchering the wildlife. You till the fields, build homes, and set up complex production chains to keep your civilians alive, because they have all the survival instincts of lemmings.
The civilians will trap themselves in pits. They will work to starvation. They will get stuck in suicide chains where one dies to a monster, so another feels compelled to go gather their bones, and then they die, and so on. Of course, this is a feature, not a bug: The challenge in games of this genre is to learn the citizens' default behaviors and modify it. You set the highest priorities to gathering and producing food. You tell them that you don't want any more bones, and you give them weapons and armor so they stop dying quite so much. You tweak zones, production schedules, and task priorities to keep everyone happy and healthy.
For example, a standard start-up sequence in Towns goes like this: Do some logging, create a zone for carpentry, build a carpenters' table and a wood detailer. Then mine some stone, and make a masonry area, and then make a mason's bench. Then till some fields, gather some wheat, and plant it. Then make a bakery, equipped with a mill, an oven, and a bakers table. Then you take wheat to the mill, which produces flour, which you then bake into bread, which your civilians can now eat.
Then, once you've got the basics down—fields, mills, bedrooms, storage areas—you start to dig and mine. (You will need to do some preliminary mining just to build basic utilities, but you really go full bore once you've got the rudiments of survival managed.) As you do, you will uncover a vast dungeon filled with slimes, spiders, goblins, and worse.
Your hapless civilians, even with armor and weapons, are ill-equipped to deal with this horde. So what do you do? In Towns, you build a tavern, of course! Taverns attract Heroes, and Heroes can clean out the dungeon, often leaving behind useful materials (slimes, for example, leave behind gels used in many types of manufacturing processes).
Getting into the dungeon can be annoying. The isometric graphics and the need to shift levels to see what's happening can sometimes make it hard to tell where you need to place ladders, and your citizens will be quite happy to go down into places from which they cannot then get back up. One feature I would very much like to see in Towns is the ability to rotate the map. I end up seriously over-excavating, strip-mining vast areas, just so I can see what's happening more clearly.
Your population shrinks when your civilians die (which they will, often), and grows when you raise your average happiness and have empty rooms for immigrants to move into (that latter bit is pretty easy; see note on dying.) The fancier the city you build, adding in luxuries like walls, furniture, and decorations, the happier your citizens are, and the more immigrants you attract.
Given time, patience, and luck, you can build a sprawling fantasy metropolis, with multi-level buildings, broad avenues, and beautiful parks. My best effort in Towns to date is more of a decaying shantytown, roads and walls left unfinished due to production flow problems. But this genre of game is supposed to be challenging and complex, so I'm fine with not mastering Towns in mere hours.
Ordinarily, I'd also be fine with the occasional bugs, quirks, and interface issues, but Towns (as opposed to similar highly complex, small niche, games like Dwarf Fortress or Aurora), is fully commercial. While $15 is not a lot of money to ask, if you present a game as a commercial product, there's a higher bar to meet. The extremely rapid development of Towns, with major features and functionality added regularly, is a positive, but Towns is still ramping up to being a fully finished product. There's a lot to like already. Support is solid, there's no doubt the designers know what they're doing and where they're going, but the state of the game is still more "We're happy to accept donations!" than "Try the demo, then buy the game."
Even with that, though, it's fun enough, and the development team seems stable and professional enough, that if micromanaging multiple production chains while avoiding goblins and spiders is your thing (and it is mine), it is worth paying now for the finished game Towns is likely to become later.
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