Note: This preview is based on the current Early Access build on Steam
Block’Hood initially peaked my interest due to its premise. Designed by two architects/game designers Plethora-Project, Block’Hood is a vertical city simulator that challenges players’ creativity and ingenuity. It would be easy to spark a comparison between something like The Sims, Minecraft, or Roller Coaster Tycoon for that matter in terms of building and resource management. However Block’Hood finds a way to be distinct, It wouldn’t be fair to closely compare those games, but use them to understand what a vertical city simulator might entail before diving into the preview. Block’Hood is a game that isn’t focused on people, but rather the cities themselves. How they work, and all the underlying mechanisms and relationships streamlined and quantified into a game.
Imagine if you had an entire city block to do with as you please. Block’Hood is essentially saying, here’s your canvas… now build me something. The player has the ability to take a blank chunk of flat terrain and build what they want to using a… plethora (pun, check) of block types. This isn’t a game focused around designing aesthetically interesting and creative cities, although that is a part of the fun. It goes a bit deeper than that. Yes, build a city… but build one that is economically and environmentally viable.
When management comes into play there are certain constraints put on the player that they have to work with. One of those is the breadth of the terrain, or the lack thereof. There is only a limited amount of horizontal space that the player can utilize. That is where the vertical, in vertical city simulator comes into play. It’s not about building out, but building up. Within the context of a city, building vertical is efficient. This wasn’t done purely from a game-design standpoint, but has roots in the real-world. Modern cities are crowded and are heading to become even more so as the years and decades progress. This is driven by population growth in some areas, people wanting to move into the cities for career opportunities, and so forth. There is a limit to horizontal space for cities, hence why skyscrapers exist and building up is a must. Block’Hood takes that concept and asks the players to build up, but do so in a way that is efficient.
We’ve covered the vertical aspect, the city aspect, and now it’s time to get into the simulator aspect. As a game this is where Block’Hood excels. It’s a delicate balancing act for the developers to get the inputs and output ratios and combinations that aren’t overtly challenging, but still manages to keep you on your toes. Each “block” comes with certain requirements for inputs for it to function properly. They also follow the appropriate logic. For example, if you were to plant trees you would need water to keep them alive. Therefore you need to provide water. Using a water tower block costs money as an input. On the output side, trees make fresh air. Everything is interconnected.
These factors (water, electricity, fresh air, etc) will be the ones you’ll build a foundation off of, and will be needed through the course of the game. The blocks themselves are more likely to have multiple inputs and outputs. It’s a complex food web, so to say. While a Block A doesn’t need water as in input, it needs input from what Block B outputs… however, Block B does need water as an input. The amount of blocks available for use opens up the possibly for the cities to get fairly complex with an array of interconnecting inputs and outputs to manage.
Not all of these blocks have positive outputs. There are negative outputs as well that have to be minimized. Pollution and sickness are two such factors produced by some blocks as an output. However, they have other outputs as well that can be utilized by the player, which makes them desirable blocks to use. Ultimately everything in Block’Hood can be used as an input even pollution and sickness with the right blocks.
Lastly, synergies are used to either buff or debuff blocks by placing specific blocks near each other. Some result in more efficient outputs and inputs, while others cause a negative outcome. This gives more weight to where you place blocks and why. Just throwing blocks around willy-nilly may not be the best option for long-term projects.
The game also takes into account whether these blocks are accessible or not. A block cannot yield outputs if it’s not accessible, nor can it receive inputs. When the city does start growing and becoming more complex, it can be a bit hard to see what is and is not accessible. The game makes sure you can analyze your city using various filters that highlight what blocks are and are not producing, while another will filter what blocks are accessible. A handy tool that quickly becomes a necessity when playing the game, makes it easy to distinguish between blocks.
Another interesting aspect would be decay. Planting trees without supplying them with water results in those blocks decaying and becoming worthless, and needing replaced. Meeting the requirements of your blocks is driven by avoiding decay. Again, as the city increasing in complexity and you have to deal with so many inputs and outputs decay becomes a bigger factor to worry about. I did enjoy this mechanics inclusion into Block’Hood.
It is also important to note that blocks don’t start spewing outputs, there is a time delay on when something inputs are used and outputs are yielded. Making the dynamics between the two more realistic in their relationships. Some blocks use inputs and yield outputs at faster rates than others. Patience can be your friend here. With no time limit, is possible to reach a point where your inputs satisfy your outputs enabling you to avoid decay, while stocking up on resources that you may need later.
However, while stocking up on certain resources in the sandbox I realized something. I have apartments that output labor and organic waste (i.e. the byproducts of people living in homes). The game didn’t factor in a food input that these fictional people may need to live, so our wonderful city dwellers don’t starve to death. While food and food production does have a place in Block’Hood, it is not an input for inhabitants who live and work here. Before jumping the gun, I do believe that inhabitants is something that the development team is working on implementing. This may be addressed as more content during the game’s time in early access.
Currently Block’Hood has a tutorial mode that sets up the rules of the game. Usually I scoff at the audacity of tutorials telling me how to live my life, but this one’s a necessity to learn the game’s fundamentals. There are several challenge mode ranging from Easy to Advanced, with 12 challenge levels in total. Easy challenges felt more like an extended tutorial but the intermediate and advanced challenges used different types of blocks and difficult goal requirements to complete the challenge. Additionally, these latter challenge levels took a good chunk of time to complete.
The sandbox was exactly what you expected it to be, a giant play area to do whatever you please in with no goals. Its pure creativity where you have the ability to set-up how large you want your terrain to be. While the challenge modes limited what blocks were available to the player, sandbox gives full access to all blocks currently offered in the game. It’s a fun mode to mess around in, build creatively, and get a better understanding of the dynamics between blocks. You can also save your hard work as well.
I have a few nitpicky gripes with the games UI. The font size is small and can be hard to read at times. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue I’d bring up, but when understanding a block, or reading input and output numbers legible font size is a must. With the soft muted colors even adjusting the UI contrast didn’t solve all of the problems in terms of font visibility, but it did help with a darker UI. I also didn’t find the ability to edit font size of anything like that in the currently available options. I would have liked for the analysis window to fully expand and show all available inputs and outputs, without the need for scrolling and hunting for certain resources. Or be given the ability to arrange the inputs/outputs as needed (i.e. alphabetical, being able to customize the list grouping certain ones together).
Aesthetically I think the game looks great. The individual blocks are simply designed, with a touch of style. With soft colors and changing background colors, also make the game enjoyable to look at. I also found myself fond of the game’s music as well, something I wasn’t expecting. The look and music fit complement each other and create an enjoyable atmosphere to play in, which is important when staring at a singular minimalist screen for long periods of time.
All in all, I enjoyed my time with Block’Hood. It’s a fresh idea that actually addresses a real-world issue that we as people face. With limited space and growing populations, how would we go about designing a city, or city blocks that are efficient but also environmentally and economically viable for people to live in? The core management of inputs and output ratios and their relationships, along with synergies and decay make it a fun game. Larger more complex cities require a lot of scrutiny and attention for detail to maximize efficiency within space constraints, with the need to think ahead for future developments. Those of whom play The Sims, enjoy other simulation games, or even Minecraft should check out Block’Hood. Even those who don’t regularly play those games might be surprised at what they find.