There’s a certain breed of gamer that loves to see numbers going in and out of things. I’d actually venture that gamer lives inside all gamers - see how many first-person shooter fans have become obsessed over weapon stats, drop rates, and Light levels in Destiny, for example. Block’Hood, releasing on Early Access this week, is a polar opposite to Destiny in terms of pacing, but its gameplay revolves around the same obsessive statistics maintenance.
Block’Hood is a sort of three-dimensional SimTower with an emphasis on resources. Like a little isometric terrarium floating in a void, a tower can be a tiny town or a self-contained high rise. Their constituent blocks can range from trees to flats and shops to bakeries, waste processors, and power plants. But each block is more or less a resource conversion machine, which is where the game's key mechanics come in.
Resource management and statistical balance are central to Block'Hood, but it goes deeper than the usual "money / minerals / lumber" paradigm. Sure, each block starts operating with the basics - air, water, electricity, housing - but it quickly expands from there. Amongst the stats you'll need to keep an eye on are knowledge; youth; community; labour; waste; technology; sickness; beer; consumers; and bees. Bees! Each unit takes in one or more resources and turns out others, creating a lattice of interconnecting systems that require constant management to balance. If things get woefully out of balance, units can start to decay or even collapse, sending the whole system out of control.
On its surface, Block'Hood is geared towards intuitive play, seemingly designed with tablets in mind – long-presses, big buttons, and a lack of keyboard shortcuts even make keyboard and mouse control somewhat inefficient. But it's also possible to drill in pretty deep on the stats behind the scenes. Different view modes are available, showing interconnections and states of decay, and production rates can be viewed down to two decimal places if desired.
Like other games of this sort, Block'Hood has multiple ways to play. It ships with a range of preset challenges, which task players with creating one resource without using too much of another, or building 30 factories without generating waste, or maximising profits at any cost. It's possible to fulfill all of these tasks, but doing so requires clever strategy.
Most players, though, will gravitate towards the Sandbox mode, which unlocks all the possible tiles for use and sets the player free to build. In Sandbox mode, you mentally set your own goal (for example, I tried to build a block whose economy revolved entirely around art galleries), achieve them, then set another, building and balancing as you go. It doesn't cost anything to build, so there's little punishment for experimentation - the only risk is loss of resources. And of course, there's also the possibility to build solely with the game's clean, whimsical aesthetics in mind (and try to make it functionally viable).
This is an Early Access game, and it's not perfect. There are a lot of UI visibility issues, with some views difficult to parse and onscreen text difficult to read on light backgrounds. Selecting and building complex blocks can be tricky given the default isometric view angle; there's a "slice" function that helps a little by making a cross-section of your tower, but it's inelegant and easily forgotten. Decay is a confusing mechanic, and the way it (and production) is rendered onscreen is unclear and ugly. But these are common issues with early access titles, and I'm certain more development will smooth them out.
The most intriguing element of Block'Hood is its devotion to its themes. This is a game about ecology: everything's interconnected, and once you realise that, the tone of the game changes. It's remarkable to see such a strong presentation of theme in a game like this. We’re used to seeing thematic messages play out in narrative games, which can use drama to get their point across. More mechanically-focused games just don’t have the means to do that, but Block’Hood manages to communicate its theme through the core gameplay mechanics themselves. Social and environmental responsibility is par for the course in city-builder type games, but the balance is pushed to the forefront here because of how self-contained everything has to be.
The developer’s Plethora Project was started to study "the relation between architecture, video games, and generative design," and it’s easy to see that relationship in practice in Block’Hood. This could quickly become an obsessive, never-ending game, and it does that while exploring ideas of balanced ecosystems, which is pretty unusual in gaming. Maybe, just maybe, it's enough to turn stat obsessives into people with a conscience.