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Slowing The Conversation: Concrete Jungle

What games do you admire more than you enjoy?

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 3x1 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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