Gamezebo saw a lot of cool games at last month’s Game Developer’s
Conference, but one of the highlights was getting to sit down with
HipSoft as they walked us through a preview of Build-a-lot 2, subtitled Town of the Year.
Although only four of the eight towns were playable, we could sense
that the game was already on its way to being as challenging,
accessible and fun as the original – if not moreso.

The key to Build-a-lot‘s
charm is that it takes a subject many might find boring or intimidating
(namely, real estate), and makes it fun and eay to understand while
still maintaining a respectable level of sophistication.

In Build-a-lot: Town of the Year,
you continue your role as a contractor working to create thriving towns
by building houses and commercial buildings, driving up property value
and curb appeal, and managing workers and resources to maintain a
steady cash flow – while occasionally having to bend to the whims of
various eccentric mayors.

Like any good sequel, Town of the Year isn’t
just more of the same – nor has HipSoft simply thrown in a couple of
new features on top of the existing gameplay model. In fact, several of
the things you’ll remember from the original Build-a-lot are
absent from the second game. Taxes and building permits are both gone;
not, as HipSoft was quick to point out, because there was anything
wrong with these features, but because the designers wanted to create a
different enough experience in Town of the Year that people would still find reason to go back and play Build-a-lot.

Waterfront
lots have been replaced by a featured called Curb Appeal. Curb appeal
affects the value of houses, the amount of rental income you can get
from them, and the overall attractiveness of the neighborhood. For
example, ugly industrial buildings can lower the curb appeal of
neighboring houses, so players must be careful about where they build
them. You can build parks – a new type of structure – to raise the curb
appeal of the surrounding area, but parks are only effective if you
keep them clean.

Shops replace banks and introduce the ability to
make money through profit-sharing. The amount depends on how many
houses are in the area. Shops will occasionally need new employees to
stay open; when this happens, a Help Wanted sign will appear in the
window and you’ll have to decide whether it’s worthwhile to sacrifice
one of your workers (which don’t come cheap) to work in the shop so
that you can continue collecting income from the store.

All of the buildings and houses in Build-a-lot: Town of the Year are
brand new, except for the trusty Workshop where you hire workers to
carry out building projects and repairs. In later levels you’ll be able
to buy efficiency training for your workers so they work faster and use
fewer resources. Unlike the first game, where a few of the buildings
like the cinema and rink where just for show, every structure in Town of the Year adds
some kind of new service to the gameplay, such as a Business Center to
prevent Help Wanted signs from popping up, and a Garden Center that
automatically maintain all parks.

Another feature that’s sure to
be a hit is the ability to personalize the houses you own by changing
the landscaping in the front yard, or re-painting them a color of your
choice.

When buying properties – a key to expanding your real
estate empire – you can select two new options, "offer less" and "low
ball," to try to get a better deal. This is market-driven, however, and
will have a better chance of being successful if there are other
properties for sale at the same time.

After you’ve played through
all of the towns in the game, you’ll be asked to pick which town you
liked best. The lucky town that gets your vote will be crowned "Town of
the Year," and you’ll unlock bonus levels to play based on the town
you’ve chosen.

HipSoft told us they haven’t firmed up a launch date but that Build-a-lot: Town of the Year should
be making its debut around mid-April, so fans will have to sit tight
until then. And if you’re just hearing about Build-a-lot for the first
time, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the original to see what all the fuss is about.