“Townscaper”: Pretty villages, cities, castles pop-pop-pop into existence

Most games revolving around user-generated content require patiently mastering a learning curve. In "Dreams," players are guided through a series of tutorials before building. In "Roblox," making worlds from scratch often requires scripting knowledge. In "Townscaper," though, everything comes easily.

"Townscaper," an early access game on Steam from Swedish game developer Oskar Stålberg, lets you instantly build cozy, coastal towns. You start with a blank canvas: just a blue sky and empty sea. Controls are limited to placing one block at a time. Blocks placed on water become harbors, and blocks placed atop other blocks make rising towers, apartments and houses. You can undo and redo the placement of said blocks, and change their color as well. And that's about it. It is not as complex as those other creative games, but "Townscaper" provides a joyful and easy creative outlet.

As someone who enjoys making virtual things but isn't particularly skilled at it, I found its instantaneous nature gratifying. You feel like an excellent artist without any training. I love clumping blocks together to form unusual architecture, like a cityscape held in the air by many small metal rods that extend into the sea below, or mixing and matching colors to make a single building with many different colorful compartments. You learn as you tinker. I enjoyed the small discoveries I made, like realizing that deleting blocks can make arches or terraces, and how enclosed spaces generate gardens within.

"Townscaper" has a hidden algorithm that instantly adds little flourishes to your creation. Many of these are small and randomized, but they bring life to your sleepy town. These include coin-operated binoculars appearing on paths, seagulls perched on rooftops (they fly off if you change the structure under them), and a string of paper flags strewn between buildings in alleyways. Much of the fun is rooted in the magical unknown. It's amusing to see what pops up next.

Minimalist sound design, like the bubbling of water or the "pop" when you layer blocks, is inconsequential to the gameplay but adds an additional sense of satisfaction. "Townscaper" is visually impressive; players may recognize the art style as similar to "Bad North," an indie strategy game Stålberg worked on prior to this title. Most design decisions look beautiful with little effort, and the clever audio elements only heighten the feeling of accomplishment.

As simple as "Townscaper" is to use, it doesn't mean your creations have to be simple too. Despite only releasing a week ago, players have made grandiose creations, some building replicas of architecture found in pop culture like The Lord of The Rings or Tetris. Others have drawn on their own imagination. "Townscaper" is gaining traction on social media: A quick search of #Townscaper on Twitter yields hundreds of results.

The game is still in early stages of development, so what's out now is merely a glimpse of the possible final product. As much as I love building villages, I couldn't help but dream of more customization: eye-catching bridges, modes of transportation like trains, moving platforms or differently shaped blocks. It can be difficult to carve triangular paths, and it's impossible to make circular buildings. These lapses never frustrated me, though, because the game features so many other avenues for creativity. Still, I'm hoping for more options in a future release.

Described by Stålberg as an "experimental game" and "more of a toy" than a game, "Townscaper" may change based on user feedback. "I want to see how people interact with 'Townscaper' to help me figure out what direction to take it and what features to add," he wrote.

Just like the unexpected creations the game can bestow, "Townscaper's" future and what it blossoms into remains unknown. I, for one, can't wait to see what comes next.