When the main thing a game has to distinguish itself from all the other city builders is its cast of beavers, it lives or dies on how hard it leans into that. Timberborn doesn't quite put enough of its personality up front, but even at this point in early access it's a remarkably pleasant time.
Tasked with building an ever expanding settlement for your adorable little population of beavers, the game falls into a steady rhythm of unlocking new technologies while dealing with environmental changes such as droughts. As in the best management games, succeeding in Timberborn is all about a good juggling act. You have to ensure there's a steady supply of wood while also making sure there's plenty of housing and storage, while also making progress towards more useful buildings. Picking the right moment to invest in flour production or re-foresting is vital.
Yet Timberborn is gentler and kinder than most of its ilk, with circumstances rarely nose diving quicker than you can correct a mistake. There are harder difficulties for those who maybe want this game to be a tale of survival rather than prosperity, but that seems a poor match for the tone. The look and feel of it is the main draw. It's simple and inoffensive, with little hints of a history to its world where beavers seem to have inherited the earth. Simply put, it's a nice space to be in.
The aforementioned environmental events are one of the game's strongest ideas. Rivers, for example, can be disrupted or redirected, taking vegetation along with them. And, of course, that’s something the player can trigger artificially too, by building characteristic dams. It's hardly Populous, but the world is malleable in ways that push you to build more organically rather than laying down the rigid tracks of a plan at the start of a session. Nurturing the forests and rivers around you, instead of just endlessly consuming everything around you, gives merit to Timberborn's wholesome presentation. Your settlement feels like a home, not just a great hungry machine.
But unfortunately there really isn’t that much here to distinguish Timberborn from other, similar settlement builders. There is undeniable charm in its beaver denizens, as well as the novel wooden technology they build. It has personality but maybe not quite as much as I hoped. A bit more animation—perhaps beavers giddily gnawing down trees?—would give it a lot more life.
Not that I wasn't enamoured. I wanted to build my perfect little diorama of a town, giving those little beavers a lovely home with amenities and nice views. Ensuring that the long chains of wooden gears necessary to power advanced structures didn't break up the nice streets of my settlement was as hard a task as any dry season. Balancing practical needs with aesthetic wants is the real conflict of the game and what kept me going for hours. Planning out that one little street with terraced houses or trying sculpt a nice forest on the edge of town, while still making it a functional settlement, is the sweet spot for this kind of thing, and Timberborn nudges you into it with ease.
I'm not sure how long I’ll stick with it, but it's landscaping options and all the potential they open up for big brain thinkers might give it the edge to stay sharp for a while to come. And for those who simply want a settlement management game with cute beavers, Timberborn will do nicely.