City building simulators have been around for a long time, starting with the first SimCity in 1989 and experiencing an incredible surge with the advent of “casual” online and mobile games in the 2010s. Block’hood is not incredibly different in its mechanics, but is very purposeful with its message. Described by developer plethora-project as “both an educational and research initiative,” Block’hood was recognized in several competitions for games that are intended to make an impact and encourage change.
Although the game offers Challenge and Sandbox modes along with extensive Tutorial levels, I chose to start my experience playing through the Story mode. Consisting of five chapters, the story follows an unnamed young man through several stages in his life and focusing on the interconnected-ness of communities and environments. Beginning as an idealistic kid and growing into a cynical, profit-minded adult, the man has a counterpoint in a wild boar that acts as a stand in for the impact human activity has on wildlife. The final chapter culminates in a challenge to build an environment that attracts and supports large populations of humans and animals.
If this sounds a little too FernGully for your taste, let me clarify: completing some of these challenges is incredibly difficult. Unlike a lot of city sims, Block’hood does NOT offer you the option of purchasing or earning more space. That means that when you unlock new buildings, you can bulldoze existing structures, eat up some more of the wildlife’s habitat, or build upwards. This can get really frustrating, especially since as you add humans to your community, they come with specific likes and dislikes and moods- same goes for any animals that come to stay.
The deer really want more oak trees but three of your humans want you to start building a fast food restaurant- only to get that fast food restaurant running, you have to have farmers growing food and raising cattle, a flour mill running, bakeries baking, a slaughterhouse- and each of these requires a certain amount of labor (must come from your established community) as well as power and water, which can be generated by solar power, windmills, or oil powered generators. It’s easy to keep the animals happy- they just want lots of plants and water. Keeping the people happy without driving away all the animals is the tricky bit.
It’s really fantastic how interconnected everything is. Apart from electricity, water, and the issue of space, different structures will generate organic and inorganic waste, air pollution, or increase the risk of disease in the community. Nearly every structure also generates a resource – fruit, cotton, knowledge or fitness for the community, fertilizer – once you really get going, in whatever mode you choose to play, the rates of production and the amount of any given resource you have available becomes an enormous list of stats in a menu. It can honestly be difficult to keep a holistic view with that much information to peruse, especially given the fact that some challenges or goals focus small (“Build three coffee shops”) and don’t necessarily prompt the player to think about how those small goals will impact big-picture goals later on (“Have 30 humans and 30 animals living in your ‘hood”).
The camera functionality was not ideal; it was difficult to switch focus quickly between particular areas of the level, and often I got confused about which functionality was zoom and which was to move the camera (especially since rotating the level was a different function from moving up or down). This is a pity because it does a disservice to the game’s artwork. I’d describe the style as “more aesthetically minded Minecraft”, and it really grows on you. Combined with the soothing soundtrack, the game could end up as addicting as its distant cousins on Facebook. Of course, there’s no need to rope any of your friends in to complete any and all challenges this game offers, so it’ll probably induce a lot fewer people to near-violence.
Overall, I think the creators of this game put a lot of effort into giving their players something to think about; something that will likely stay with them after they leave. It was a little bit of a shocking moment for me when there was no way to immediately attract more people and animals back to my decaying neighborhood as I tried to reverse a lot of the damage from a previous chapter. I had 1500 units of inorganic waste and the only way to get rid of it would be to build a landfill, which would increase pollution and drive away the few animals I had left. There simply wasn’t a good solution, just “as good as I can get.”
At times Block’hood was frustrating. The story mode is a lot like a big old tutorial in and of itself, but I think it would be a mistake for anyone checking out this game to skip it. Yes, there’s a cheesy redemption arc, but without the full experience, I don’t think you can have those a-ha moments where the game parallels the real world. If you’re a sim fan in general, I think you’ll enjoy Block’hood; you’re still sitting waiting for your city to generate enough money to do the next thing you want to do sometimes, but at the very least there’s a challenge here to maintain some kind of ecological equilibrium… and you’ll get a little bit of a moral high the next time you recycle.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.