Celebrating minimalism with Townscaper


Browsing through my Flipboard feed today I happened to come across Townscaper. Even though it is categorized as a game it really is a beautifully animated coastal town/city building simulator created by Swedish game developer Oskar Stålberg that follows some refreshingly simple ideas. While parallels to creation/construction based platforms like Minecraft are expected, the straight forward and aesthetic illustrations offer a slightly different flavor. It starts off on a screen filled with animated water that is waiting for you to click. Left clicking anywhere creates a foundation stone/part of a road. Left click on top of it again and boom! A quaint little home appears. Click once more and another floor is added to the house. The algorithm working behind the scenes essentially starts recognizing patterns in each block and adds/connects new similar elements to it. If you wish to add a road connecting the home to something else all you need to do is keep clicking and extending the foundation granite road. Right clicking removes elements (with pieces falling into the water). So what happens if you right click on the ground floor of a two floor house? Does it remove the entire structure? No. It creates a metal scaffolding to hold the first floor and removes only the portion you right clicked. Give it a few seconds and a flock of seagulls arrive to sit on the roof.

What I liked a lot about Townscaper is the basic design principle of minimalism it follows. Inspired by illustrations from Scandinavian children’s books the game brings to life the calm streets of Scandinavia without losing the latest, cutting edge, technical features that are allowing them to materialize. The article I was reading also referenced Studio Ghibli which I can totally relate with given the colorful sloping roofs and closely knit structures in the cities that emerge. The game has no people, or characters, to add to it. This is a feature I actually liked since it reduces distractions and lets you roam around your creative spaces focusing completely on the design requirements of your city.

First Look: Townscaper

This is the town my four year old daughter created in about half an hour. She kept clicking, changing colors, clicking again, until she had created what she called “a place for really small iPad people”.

Cross curricular connections

The obvious first question in my mind as an educator is – how can this be used in a classroom? These are some very initial thoughts:

  • Since the activity is creating imaginary (or recreating existing) towns/cities, literature, language, humanities, social studies etc. classes may find it useful to recreate structures/regions from pieces they are reading.
  • Design principles are at the core of this platform. So design tech, environmental studies, geography and even architecture related classes may find this an engaging tool.
  • My daughter and I briefly talked about why her city looks the way it does (and you can imagine how that went). We sort of looked at right usage of spaces, making sure water ways are clear of obstacles, ensuring living spaces are not too cramped, need for trees in the cities etc. So hooks to sustainability projects like UN SDGs also exist.

Installation and Setup

The software costs $6.00. To buy it you will need a Steam account. Next, download Steam. Once you log in head to the store link for Townscaper and download it. The downloaded file is in your Steam’s Library. That’s basically it. Open it via Steam and start playing/building! The Steam software is about 500MB and Townscaper about 20MB.

Next steps and further reading

The original article mentions the importance of the zen feeling this platform has. In the Covid era, when most things seem out of our control and uncertainty creates anxious moments, spending time with a tool such as this which gives you both the freedom and the power to create and control can be, to me, a much needed antidote. Without the distractions of multiple elements on the screen, the minimalism this tool celebrates is quite an important one for all of us. Just my first day with Townscaper has given me plenty of things to think about. I hope to continue exploring the platform some more and reflecting on different ways it can be used in an educational setting.