Townscaper is a relaxing city-builder

Townscaper is a charming and beautiful toy by Oskar Stålberg (previously at BB), available now for Windows and MacOS. It approaches the city-builing genre, but subtracts all the things that make such games distressing and frustrating, leaving you to create the waterside town of your dreams without worrying about resources, enemies, natural disasters or other limitations.

Yet I don't want to trivialize it as less than a game, because it has such a wealth of creative possibility and polish, all aided by the author's marvelous sense of design and the world's inexorable and elegant detailing of the player's every crude click. It has the same lego-set pleasure of Minecraft's creative mode, but everything you do is perfected automatically with a pop—so long as you're content building Scandinavian Mont-Saint-Michels that would be utterly indefensible in Bad North.

On the sea is implied a gently-warped grid. Clicking once raises blocks of land from the water, which first form paved quaysides but might turn into bridges, courtyards or gardens depending on context. Click again on the same spot, and a house appears. Make the house taller by clicking up, or wider by clicking in adjacent places. Obliterate work with a right-click, and struts and pillars appear to support what remains above. You can pick different colors, whirl the scene around, zoom up close, and that's more or less it.

The magic is in how beautfully the townscape adapts to your additions and subtractions. Buildings grow elegantly and seamlessly no matter how bizarrely laid-out. Architectural features expand and contract as you hack away at the underlying blocks. Surround a patch of stony courtyard with houses, and grass grows over it like a flood. Change the shape of the garden and paths and walls spring up. Widen a road and pavements, benches and planters form along its perimeter. Even the sewers are delightful. Townscape has many secrets hidden in plain sight, waiting for the form that unlocks them.

It's a similar magic that made Populous work so many years ago, where raising and lowering land invited the machine to fill the created spaces with buildings. But there the comparison ends; Populous constantly pours human anxiety into the world, while Townscaper is as still as lakewater, deserted but for the birds and boxwood.