Beavers are nature’s builders, and in Timberborn, released on PC in Steam Early Access on Wednesday, players manage a colony of these industrious critters in a post-human world. The city-building sim has a cuddly exterior, but don’t let that fool you — it’s legitimately challenging. As the game’s developer Mechanistry described it on its Twitch channel, in Timberborn “beavers either work or die.”
Timberborn takes place in a future version of our world where humankind has sapped planet Earth of her precious resources. Super-intelligent beavers have evolved and formed “lumberpunk” societies, where timber is a core resource that powers farming, river control, and society growth. Rather than city-building alone, Timberborn’s colony management elements lean survival sim, requiring players to take care of food and water through farming and constructing water wheels, all while the river level shifts over the seasons. And then, of course, resources necessitate warehouses for storage, or they become raw ingredients for building or maintaining other processes.
It’s a satisfying, at times punishing, balancing act. Within the hour of my first playthrough, I accidentally solved my beaver unemployment problem by having a mass die-out due to starvation. I didn’t realize it until only three beavers remained, two of which perished on their way to pick blueberry bushes, reducing my entire colony to one living child beaver. Of course, the carrot and potato farm I had meticulously laid out came good just a half day later. I love this game.
And while I typically waste a lot of upfront time in colony-management sims building cozy lodgings — it depresses me to see anyone sleeping on the floor — Timberborn is the one exception. Watching the beavers curl up on the ground is cute as hell. That said, these beavers do have more advanced societal needs like socialization and creature (heh) comforts, which affect their “well-being” rating and therefore their productivity. You can build them lodgings, which increases their comfort bar, as well as add design elements, like monuments, to make your colony nicer to live in.
But the city-building is where the game really shines, thanks to the committed realization of its “lumberpunk” concept. These are beavers, after all! They cut down trees with their chompers — seriously, zoom in and you can watch — and they’ve developed a tech and supply chain all around it. Timber turns into sawmills which refine the timber, rinse and repeat. Buildings can often be built vertically atop each other to save space as you expand your beaver society. Scrap metal, foraged from human ruins, can be turned into engines and additional tech. These are classic city-building mechanics, but because Timberborn is about beavers, it’s all built on the foundation of water and lumber management — and it’s way cuter. And naturally, their hard work culminates in creating and maintaining a beautiful dam that allows the colony to manage river flow through flood, fallow, and drought.
This fluctuating environmental design taps into a bit of Frostpunk’s ethos, without explicit timed challenges or a difficulty curve nearly that punishing. It’s also similar to Don’t Starve Together’s seasons, which require players to stockpile food to survive the winter. The same way these sims throw in seasonal, sometimes cyclical, challenges to keep players on their toes, Timberborn’s river drying up forces the player to constantly restrategize and reevaluate. Water is central to survival in Timberborn, as it’s needed to convert wasteland into arable farming land, among other tasks. A player might use explosives to dig canals in preparation for the wet season, and build huge warehouses of grain to prepare for the drought. Forget to stockpile and you’ve got a pile of dead beavers.
All of this is wrapped in a package both nostalgic and new, with a visual style that’s reminiscent of early 2000s CD-ROM games, like Ubisoft’s Settlers franchise but with pathing and building placement tools that are a little more RollerCoaster Tycoon 3. That said, it’s got that snazzier presentation befitting a modern release, including a map editor that lets players design their own environments.
Timberborn has quietly climbed its way up Steam’s top-seller list, right behind giants like Deathloop. Since it’s still in early access, it does have some snags, but I expect those to get smoothed out. Also, I might be reading too much into my own player error ... I’m not saying I killed my first colony because I spent too much time giggling and zooming in as they chopped trees down and ran to do their chores. Then again, I’m not not saying that.