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Premature Evaluation: Block'hood

Here comes the neighbourhood

One of the major selling-points of Cities: Skylines was that, unlike SimCity, its maps would let your cities sprawl for miles until they became the San Angeles-style megalopolises of your dreams (though with a cheerier, Scandinavian aesthetic sensibility and fewer killer androids. Run out of space for that next critical piece of utility infrastructure? No problem, just annex another 25 square miles of land and "bring the city to the water", in the words of Chinatown's Noah Cross.

Plethora-Project's Block'hood [official site] takes the opposite approach. It describes itself as a "neighborhood builder" rather than a city-builder, and even its most generous maps limit your total buildable area to roughly the size of a postage-stamp… or one of my old apartment buildings. No sooner have you started placing buildings that you've run out of space to expand. In order to keep growing and developing, you only have one choice: to grow up.

Block'hood feels like a city-builder inspired by rooftop gardens and solar collectors, and a dream of an urban future devoid of NIMBYs, building-height restrictions, and even streets. It's a new take on SimTower except the tower has to be a self-sustaining community: vertically-integrated even as it's vertically arranged.

In terms of how this feels, it's very much like the Anno series. Low-level buildings generate basic resources that power other low-level buildings that produce more advanced byproducts that can fuel more advanced buildings. It's a delicate balancing act as you attempt to keep your little eyrie working smoothly without running into crippling shortages or runaway surpluses.

Block'hood might be a little too delicate. As your building stretches skyward and become a Jenga tower of waste processors, tiny urban farms, and rooftop solar panels, the number of inputs and outputs you're managing becomes somewhat daunting. Every few ticks of the clock, buildings check to see if they have their inputs. Offices will check to see if there are educated workers generated by schools, and school will check to see if they have kids to teach generated by apartments that need a mix of food, water, and leisure. If this chain breaks, the domino effect can mean that several buildings stop working all at once. If a building fails its resource check a few times, it becomes abandoned and has to be deleted and re-built.

That's not such a big deal when you're dealing with buildings early in the life of your tower, but it's a nightmare when you've built several stories on top of each other and a failure cascade has turned your structure into Swiss cheese. At that point, you'll often have to rebuild a huge chunk of your tower, removing functioning modules to get at the empty ones. Awkward camera controls and a snap-to interface that sometimes snaps to the wrong thing make this process more than a little nightmarish at times.

That gives Block'hood a "ship in a bottle" quality that I found both compelling and off-putting. When things were going well, managing that resource pyramid encouraged the kind of thoughtful and deliberate play that made Impressions city-builders like Caesar so demanding. When I miscalculated and my input and outputs stopped matching-up, Block'hood reminded me why those games were often an express ticket to Ragequit City. In many ways it is worse in Block'hood because failures are literally and figuratively woven through the layers of your construction. In Anno or the Impression games you could always just start rebuilding your city on its 2D plane. In Block'hood, you have to perform the urban planning equivalent of open-heart surgery.

Even now in Early Access, Block'hood gives you a pretty decent set of visual filters and cues to spot problems and help you understand what's happening inside your neighborhood. You can track the exact flow of resources and see when buildings are having problems or can't trace an access route to the edge of the map, which is required for inhabited buildings to function.

What is lacking in Block'hood is a sense of life. With no little virtual citizens wandering your corridors and parks, Block'hood resembles an icy, uninhabited ant farm. It's certainly an attractive enough game, with dynamic weather and a changing day-night cycle, but it's not a game you can just watch in the way you can watch other city-builders. That also adds to the feeling, inherent to Block'hood's pyramid-like resource management system, that it's less a neighborhood construction sim than it is an abstract puzzle game with an urban theme.

That feeling is explicit in the "challenge" mode that serves as graduate-level tutorials in Block-hood, where you have to satisfy special demands (make a lot of money, or have a lot students) that require mastering the economy. Some of those challenges seem a bit broken, such as an early economic challenge where you can build a variety of businesses to create money, but you have no access to the resources they need to function. I basically had to cheese my way past it by building a couple retail shops, then leaving the game to run at a very narrow profit for ages until I met my goal. Hopefully with time these challenges are balanced a bit better, and make a little more sense.

Still, this at least makes Block'hood the rare city-builder that's at least attempting to address some of the issues in modern urban planning: sustainability, renewable resources, and creating livably dense environments. Unlike in other city-buiders where density just kind of happens if you've created the right environment, Block'hood is about using density to create that environment, in a setting where all the icky byproducts of urban life can't just be trucked somewhere else.

It's one of the only city-builders I've played where you can't just pay more money for "green" options to address the needs of your community. If you want to grow your economy and create the resources your buildings need, you have to create an urban ecosystem that connects your wastewater system to an agriculture system that serves your dining and entertainment options that enables desirable luxury housing that creates a labor force for advanced industries. Get it wrong, and the whole thing comes crashing down.

At a time when cities around the world are starting to plan for climate change and a low-emissions future, and housing shortages are chronic throughout most growing cities, Block'hood seems uniquely relevant. More importantly, it achieves this relevance without coming across as dry, or pedantic. Whether it's actually a good representation of futuristic urban planning is a question for engineers and architects. At the very least, Block'hood is having fun while raising issues that few city-builders ever seriously address.

Block'Hood is available on Steam for a sustainable, mixed-income £6.99 / $9.99. My impressions are based on build 1047806 on 4 April March 2016.

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