Aussie indie game TownCraft is the kind of game we'd like all town and resource management games to aspire to.
There's no one right way to make a great game. Some games do an amazing job of eclecticism — taking multiple mechanics and combining them into a smoothly working whole. Others take a single idea and expand on it, creating a rich experience that delves deeply into just one or two core mechanics that create a rabbit hole of gaming that you can get seriously lost in.
TownCraft for iPad, by Aussie brothers Rohan and Leigh Harris of Flat Earth Games, falls into that latter category. Combining the crafting-style mechanic seen in games like Minecraft with SimCity-style town building, it manages to create a more structured game that nevertheless grants the player latitude to enjoy it on their own terms.
"Crafting games were spawning all over the place, but most of them seemed to adhere very strongly to the totally free-form model," Leigh told CNET Australia. "The idea for TownCraft came about when Rohan was thinking about ways to incorporate the genre into others. He pondered the idea of a city-building game meshed with a crafting one, and the idea just kind of stuck."
Its bright and cheerful exterior is the facade for a much deeper game. You start sometime in the Middle Ages, in an uninhabited zone between two towns. Your goal, for the first level, is twofold: use the resources around you to create a town from scratch; and get enough resources together to supply a nearby king's feast.
How you do this is by harvesting. In the introductory tutorial, you craft a few basic tools, combining sticks and stones to create hatchets and pickaxes to harvest wood and stone and using that wood to make a crafting bench that enables you to make better tools. After that, you're on your own to farm the land and craft the tools you need to grow from a camp into a town.
The crafting system works a lot like alchemy-style games such as Little Alchemy and Doodle God. You mix and match resources, hoping that you'll hit upon a combination that results in a new tool or item — although a degree of logic applies. Combining eggs and flour, for example, creates dough, which you can then go on to turn into a variety of foodstuffs. Likewise, combining wooden planks with iron hoops and circular wooden panels creates barrels — which you can then cut in half to get two buckets — that you can then use to, say, collect sand, which you can use in the furnace to obtain glass.
This, honestly, would be enough for a fun game on its own — Minecraft speaks to that — but there's quite a bit more to it. As your town grows, it becomes a bit difficult to manage with just a single character. You can recruit passersby to work on the land as farmers, millers, miners, lumberjacks and shopkeepers, but you also have to pay them — which, at least initially, you can make by flagging down a passing merchant and selling some of your resources.
This in and of itself can be tricky. Which resources are renewable? Which do you need? Selling off your last few potatoes, for instance, will give you a small cash reward now — but planting them and growing more will yield a higher reward later. And then, which resources would you be throwing away? Raw gold fetches an OK price, but you can get a lot more for it after you've crafted it into jewellery.
Also included in the passersby is the occasional person with an exclamation point above their heads. These provide a little more structure to the game by giving you quests, which go toward completing the main goals in each of the three story levels. As mentioned earlier, in the first level, this is supplying the king's feast — but they also give you something to work towards, rather than just randomly crafting and building away.
But the game is designed to appeal to all kinds of different players. "We've got middle-aged mothers playing it, 8-year-old kids and hardcore gamers (who admit to us that they cop flack for playing a casual game and tend to hide when they're playing it)," Leigh said. "We wanted it to appeal to people by being really simple at an interface level, but really deep later on... They learn to walk, to grab stuff, to make stuff, but by the time they're making a town, we've very much let them off the leash. Discovery and exploration was a huge part of the joy of the game, so we only wanted to hand-hold long enough that people got the general idea."
For those who like a more open experience, the game also has started including challenge levels as free updates to the existing game every few weeks. The first is a swamp level; the second, due out next week, is a desert island. The idea is to move away from the storied structure, yet still mix the gameplay up in some way that keeps it fresh and unique.
And the Harris brothers have managed to somehow create what's possibly the only town-building game we've seen on iOS without timers or microtransactions. You can proceed at your own pace, and you won't spend a cent beyond the initial price of buying the game. This is very much a conscious, purposeful decision.
"We designed the game first, and when it came time to start discussing in-app purchases, we realised we'd be shoehorning a system into a game which wasn't made for it," Leigh said. "But secondly, we were never really that enthused about the idea in the first place, because we kind of miss the days when you paid some money and owned a game. And that was it. I've never really liked the idea that your fans are commodities for you to nickel and dime. There are good ways to handle microtransactions, of course, but we were severely put off by some of the more heinous ones."
TownCraft is something quite wonderful, made by gamers to appeal to gamers. It's deeply engaging — Leigh told us the average play time for the game is an hour, which is massive for an iPad title — drawing you in with rich gameplay that, rather than frustrating you with difficulty, relaxes and comforts with engrossing complexity.
Towncraft for iPad (AU$5.49)