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For: iPad

Still learning its craft

Product: TownCraft | Developer: Flat Earth Games | Format: iPad | Genre: Strategy | Players: 1 | Version: Europe
TownCraft iPad, thumbnail 1
In a medium where even the most beautiful construct is only so many bits of data whizzing around behind a screen, I've always found the premise of building games a little odd.

Why graft and toil for something that's ultimately as transitory as a line of code, ready to be obliterated at the touch of an 'off' button?

Of course, as players of Minecraft, Terraria and LittleBigPlanet will tell you, much satisfaction can be gleaned from virtual building projects - provided the interface is right and the rewards (abstract though they may be) are tantalising enough.


TownCraft is a perfect example of why these examples are exceptions that prove the rule for lazy gamers such as myself.

Here is a game that appears to have a lot going for it - an attractive cartoon art style, ostensibly simple touch controls, and a vast world to be stripped of resources and shaped to your will.

But layers of niggly interface issues and frustrating design decisions strip the game of much of its potential for all but the die-hard virtual DIYers out there.

A right tool

As with many games that make you build your own fun, TownCraft starts you with a meagre set of tools that soon combine and branch to enable far more elaborate constructs.

Starting as a little mediaeval pioneer, you must forage for wood and stone to form a hatchet, which can be used to chop down trees for lumber, which can be combined with the hatchet to form a woodwork bench and so on.

In the beautiful fixed-isometric world around you, you'll find coal to mine, wheat to farm, wax to collect, and fish to, er, fish.

It's a lovely world to explore, and you can do this by simply tapping where you want to go. If a tree can be chopped or a grapevine plucked, it too is only a direct tap away.

Visitors and merchants soon pop up to offer their services or take advantage of yours, as well as to spout a bizarre line or share news of the wider kingdom.

Shut your interface

It's a great - if somewhat ponderous - start, but it's somewhat undone by a counter-intuitive and inconsistent interface.

As our list of items, tools, and foodstuffs expanded, we found ourselves continually flicking through the numerous sub-menus to find where they were stashed and how to access them.

Numerical text denoting how many of a certain item you have changes its position when things get tight or the number gets too big, adding further to the confusion.

What's more, the way you interact with these objects is all over the place. Sometimes you can craft objects from anywhere, simply through the inventory. At other times you have to send your character inside a building to interact directly with a work table or furnace.

Sometimes you have to drag buildings or items from the main menu to the gameworld. At other times you tap on them, then tap on the gameworld. Neither of these systems feels slick or precise enough.

In the hours we spent with the game, it just never felt natural or instinctive to do anything beyond the basics. Even collecting resources becomes cumbersome when you're, say, in the middle of a forest.

What's on the menu?

The menus themselves clutter the screen and must be swiped away with your finger, one at a time. Annoying enough in its own way, but this also clashes with the swipe-to-move camera control (which, incidentally, could really do with pinch-to-zoom).

It's also necessary to keep one of these menus open, obscuring half the screen, for certain actions, which feels extremely awkward.

Even those who normally thrive on this kind of slow-burn challenge will probably find the lack of any social or online element a bit of a bummer. The option to share and visit with other players would have been a welcome and natural inclusion, especially when the amount of graft required is so high.

We can see that the sheer scope of TownCraft is vast. We barely scratched the surface of it. But the fundamental building blocks are just too muddled for your average gamer to be able to grasp, enjoy, and master. It requires too much commitment.

Of course, to many this will be all the invitation they need to jump in, and they'll find a world teeming with charm and possibilities. The rest of us will sit back, put our feet up, and happily let them do all the hard work.
Reviewer photo
Jon Mundy | 27 September 2013
A charming building game that's full of potential. The core systems and menus are just too much like hard work for all but the most dedicated of virtual grafters, though
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