Slowing The Conversation: Concrete Jungle

Part of the fun of playing games for me is the conversations that happen around them, but that means that it can feel like you’ve missed out when you come to a game late. So let’s generate our own discussion by revisiting some of last year’s missed games together. For starters, I chose Concrete Jungle, a blend of city- and deck-building.

I don’t like it as much as I thought I did.

The core of Concrete Jungle is a campaign mode which casts you as cityplanner to long corridors of undeveloped, gridded land. A stack of cards runs up the left of the screen, each representing a different type of building which confers points to a certain number of the eight adjacent tiles when placed on the landscape. The aim is to get enough points into each row that you can collect those points by placing heroes in the appropriate tiles and thus clear the row like a Tetris line.

This appeals to me on multiple levels. Citybuilding games appeal to the tinkerer inside me, who likes tweaking and massaging and neatening until something works or looks just so. I also just love cities; they spark my imagination, and I experience that every time I zoom into my Cities Skyline metropolis to watch the cars and the pedestrians trundling along streets. By comparison, I’m only marginally interested in puzzle games. To the point where the kinds of puzzle games I enjoy are relatively unpuzzling, such as Tetris, Picross, Zoo Keeper. These are games I enjoy because they are relaxing, whereas puzzle games that require heavy-duty thinking tend to leave me wondering why the game can’t just solve the challenges itself since it already has the answers.

Concrete Jungle seemed like “citybuilding plus Tetris with numbers”, and that was exciting to me. It grows in complexity however as you learn about its systems.

For example, each building card has two numbers on it – the number of economy points it adds, and the number of expense points. Economy points fill a yellow meter in the top right of the screen and, when it fills, you’re able to purchase a new kind of building card to add into your deck. Expense points meanwhile fill a red bar in the top right and when this is filled the target number for each row increases by one point, making it harder to clear all future rows of land.

I like this system because it’s neat. It adds an extra layer of strategy to your decision making process, as you attempt to maximise economy, minimise expenses, but still reach the target points for each row. It mimics in some way the economic decisions made by real cities, when perhaps they place an ugly, polluting factory that is great for the economy even as it harms the surrounding area. I’m a fan of any time a game adds a new system that doesn’t just affect systems, but reflects the theme, too.

Concrete Jungle is full of things like this. Aside from relating points to neighbouring tiles, placing certain kinds of buildings alongside one another can cause them to form a city block. At its most basic, you might place three houses next to each other to form a 3×1 city block of homes. You can then place other buildings next to that block in order to affect the entire row at once. Again: this is neat.

Cards have other unique properties. There are different classes – Industrial, Residential, Parkland, Municipal and so on. There are cards which cycle back into your deck after use and cards that are once-and-gone. You unlock new cards as you play through the campaign.

The game is so smartly designed. It’s an ingenious merging of genres. You are placing down cards according to normal-sounding card game rules, but you’re building cities in the process. Cities which look like cities, with each card’s properties encouraging lifelike positioning – from individual buildings like parks alongside homes to natural divisions between classes such as residential and industrial. There’s even a multiplayer mode with decent AI that turns your careful city-planning into a turn-based squabble over prime real estate.

Yet I did not relish booting it up each time I went to play it – and at first, I couldn’t understand why.

I think the problem – for me, and perhaps not for you – is that as I learned more and more of its mechanics and advanced deeper into its strategy, it felt less and less like a citybuilding game. Meanwhile it felt more and more like a deckbuilding puzzle game, and not one about the satisfaction and flow of clearing Tetris rows, but one about careful thought and planning and, well, skill. It’s not what I wanted.

I admire Concrete Jungle a great deal. I don’t love it. I want to sing its praises more than I want to play it.

In the interest of conversation: how do you feel about Concrete Jungle and, if you have not played it, are there other games which you admire more than you enjoy? Talk below and perhaps this whole thing will spin on into a second article, before we select another game and go again.

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13 Comments

Top comments

  1. Colej_uk says:

    Developer here- thanks to Graham and everybody else who took a chance on my game. I enjoyed making this and learned so much from the project.

    I completely understand the disconnection between what people might expect and how it plays- it's easy to see the art style and automatically think SimCity. I'd encourage anybody who is sorely dissapointed by it not being that to get a refund. I am glad a decent number of people have found enjoyment though.

    The project actually started off with more of a sandbox approach, but I didn't manage to put together a prototype that married all the ideas I wanted to include. If anybody is interested, you can read about my various prototyping stages in a devblog post from a few years back. I ended up deciding to revisit a formula from one of my earlier projects- and turn it into a much more fleshed out game with the addition of the deck-building mechanic.

    I feel I'm a much better developer as a result of this project, so a big thankyou to everyone who bought it- I hope you'll enjoy what I put out in the future! The game will still be updated also, I've got one in the works right now.
  1. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    About as much as I can say is that I rather enjoyed the wit and voice acting for the tutorial, but felt like the 2nd or 3rd tutorial section was explaining something other than what the scenario was trying to accomplish.

    Maybe this is just something that a player will naturally pick up over time, but I found it difficult to decipher which structure cards were remaining in my deck to be replayed and which were “out” for the remainder of the level. I suspect that it’s mostly that I haven’t played enough to have a sense of the balance of cards in the deck.

    To that end, I have only completed the fourth level/scenario so it’s difficult to say I like or dislike the game. With your reminder, I’ll give it another go this weekend.

  2. Cooper says:

    That was the question I was left with. I’m still uncertain to what extent the citybuilding ‘skin’ is necessary to the design of the game or not.

    At worst, I feel like I got duped into buying a puzzle game.

    But at best, the citybuilding ‘skin’ is a vital means of making abstract puzzle mechanics accessible / comprehensible.

    We might envisage concrete jungle existing as a completely abstract puzzle game. I wonder, then, what the game looses. Does it just lose comprehensbility? (And maybe it should be more lauded for making comprehensible its puzzle mechanics through the choice of aesthetic?)

    Or would replacing city blocks with something abstracted completely lose coherency in its design?

    It’d be interesting to ask the devs what came first; the citybuilding aesthetic or the puzzle mechanics. Or if they were developed together and are seen to be fully integral to one another…

  3. Premium User Badge

    X_kot says:

    I managed to play through the entire campaign and get max stars after I first bought it. Deckbuilding is definitely the heart of the game, and my experience with Dominion et al. helped me come to grips with the mechanics. In fact, Concrete Jungle helped me overcome one of my biggest weaknesses, i.e., favoring overly large decks. I can see how someone not as keen on the genre could be disappointed, because the rest of the game is simply sorting positive and negative numbers to your advantage.

    Anyone interested in the idea but hesitant to spend money upfront can check out CJ’s predecessor, MegaCity, which is available for free and conveys the same core concept.

  4. NyuBomber says:

    I’m an ARPG head.

    My experience with Path of Exile fits the conversation here.

    I read up on builds and gameplay without issue, watch the odd stream. Get excited, try to play it and…it’s just not satisfying, for me, to actually play. :(

  5. MetalShadowChaos says:

    I had that experience with The Witcher 3. I basically love everything it does in a broad sense in isolation, and CDProject are amazingly communicative and consumer-friendly, I’ve got a lot of respect for the game and them. But playing it was a slog, I couldn’t overlook the bad combat and RPG elements, the story lost all drive after I found that Ciri was perfectly capable of handling herself, and I couldn’t even partake in any side activities like boxing without having to make a gut-wrenching moral decision. It was just draining.

    Fully understand all it’s praise though. I can see it’s amazing, but I just didn’t go for it.

  6. J. Eel says:

    I’ve never played this, but this is the exact opposite of how most games go for me. A game will present itself as though there’s some critical, skill-based optimization puzzle going on, with numbers and the whole thing, and then as you come to understand how it’s played, you discover that it’s actually just a treadmill that rewards time investment to a much higher degree than it rewards skill. Either the AI can’t compete so there’s no real pressure, or numerical values are mostly independent of and totally overwhelm player decisions, or there’s one strategy that’s so dominant that anything else is pointless, or whatever. Like I love adventure games and IF, but if something has numbers in it, I want it to at least seem like there’s some kind of skill-driven manipulation of those numbers possible, and so many games fail almost totally at managing even that.

  7. Colej_uk says:

    Developer here- thanks to Graham and everybody else who took a chance on my game. I enjoyed making this and learned so much from the project.

    I completely understand the disconnection between what people might expect and how it plays- it’s easy to see the art style and automatically think SimCity. I’d encourage anybody who is sorely dissapointed by it not being that to get a refund. I am glad a decent number of people have found enjoyment though.

    The project actually started off with more of a sandbox approach, but I didn’t manage to put together a prototype that married all the ideas I wanted to include. If anybody is interested, you can read about my various prototyping stages in a devblog post from a few years back. I ended up deciding to revisit a formula from one of my earlier projects- and turn it into a much more fleshed out game with the addition of the deck-building mechanic.

    I feel I’m a much better developer as a result of this project, so a big thankyou to everyone who bought it- I hope you’ll enjoy what I put out in the future! The game will still be updated also, I’ve got one in the works right now.

    • Hobbes says:

      To explain, Concrete Jungle stems from Cole’s earlier game – Megacity (initially a mobile game), on there it was deep enough, but there were ways to effectively game the mechanics and you could build up some utterly ridiculous scores by optimising your draws around specific formula (using hospitals in a set formation combined with apartments that give the 2x along with parks would have you get some utterly insane multipliers).

      Concrete jungle fixes this, in some areas perhaps a little too efficiently (there’s some cards which are now disposable that I’m not entirely confident -should- be, but that’s a matter of opinion), however, the game itself is utterly charming, and definitely a worthy successor to Megacity. As a kickstarter that had a REALLY modest target (I think it was in the thousands) and got significantly more than that, which allowed Cole to add in some wishlist items, it’s done really well.

      I backed it, and it’s one of the few KS projects I can happily say that I am entirely happy with what I got for my pitch. If Cole comes up to bat for another KS project, I’ll back again, and definitely suggest people give it a look.

    • DragonDai says:

      Just wanted to say that I not only appreciate your game but also love the shit out of it. It’s super duper extra fun and I have sunk a TON of time into it. Totally worth the asking price, can’t recommend it enough.

  8. Sarfrin says:

    Zombii. Not for any terribly analytical reason, but because it does what it does well enough to scare the crap out of me the whole time I’m playing it.

  9. pseudoart says:

    I played it a lot. I loved it. It never felt like a city building game in the slightest. The city aspect helped to understand the game mechanics, drive the narrative and art. It did this extremely well. The city concept worked perfectly as people know a prison is bad while a park is good. Many houses make a neighborhood. Train station connects etc. it’s brilliant, brilliant game design. Much of which was probably emerging from playing earlier iterations rather than planned out. I really loved the concept. But calling it a city builder is like calling monopoly a city builder.

  10. trjp says:

    I didn’t look at this as a city-building game any more than I expected Fairway Solitaire to be a golf game – both borrow ideas from their chosen theme but are games with game mechanics before they are anything else.

    If you buy games for actual gameplay (seems sensible?) I can’t see that being a problem.

    If you buy games to write arty-farty thesis/blogposts on their existential meaning and narrative undertones, I can see it might be a problem.

    Honestly, tho, most games which are attempting to provide the latter are shit at the former (and vice versa) and few attempt both (thank God)

  11. Drakesden says:

    I agree that this game is very clever and well-made, but still lacks _something_ I’d really want out of it. For me, the bait-and-switch was the versus mode against the AI. If I could have just played solo mode through 90% of the campaign, finding different ways to max/min my way to a great city, I would have been super-happy. But as the campaign unlocked, the proportion of AI matches just went up and up, until it’s all you do.

    Made sense from the story perspective, but as the difficulty went up I had to grind to unlock better cards, then carefully build my deck, both bits I don’t enjoy … and as great as it is to play as one of several “managers” with crazy different styles and bonuses, that made a lot of the decisions harder. Maybe that’s where the problem was — I knew it was not SimCity, but I wanted it more open-ended and less competitive, y’know, like SimCity.

    I did make it to the final battle, and tried it a few times, but didn’t enjoy any of the attempts. But I did have a lot of fun before that, and I have lots of praise for the fantastic art and design.