I admit, I was worried that a sequel to Build-a-lot could not recapture the ambience of the original game, which I truly love. However, developer HipSoft managed to keep all that was good about the first game and add some fantastic new features that only increase the overall enjoyment. Build-a-lot 2: Town of the Year really delivers the goods. (Or is that materials? Ha! A little Build-a-lot humor there…)

For those who have not played Build-a-lot, let me explain a little about how the game works. The story takes place in a series of towns where the locals want to expand and improve their properties. As a contractor, you’ll spend time in each town completing assignments that meet the requirements of the local leaders in order to progress to the next level. Completing the goals quickly earns a gold ribbon.

In this real estate development simulation, the local leader of each town will give you a set of goals to accomplish as well as a time limit in which to complete the level. Goals can include building certain homes, raising the town’s appeal rating, earning significant amounts of cash and more.

You will build various houses, buildings, shops and parks according to the goals of each level. The houses range in style from small bungalows to giant palaces, featuring brand new designs from the first game. You can earn rental income from the homes you build, or sell them for huge profits.

Support buildings, such as workshops and recycling centers, can help you along the way, providing deep discounts for training new construction workers and super cheap building materials. Other structures, like the coffee shop, can give you an added income. A variety of parks, including a play park for the kids and elegant Zen parks, increase the overall appeal rating of your towns while providing lovely scenic touches.

You will need to learn how to manage your cash carefully, since you’ll have to spend money to make money. Materials can be expensive but there are several ways you can earn income. Selling homes that you own can give you quick financial boosts, but leave you short on properties in the end. The bulk of your income in most levels will come from the rent you collect from your homes. Shops, like the coffee shop, will pay you every month with the new profit sharing feature and banks can dish out significant amounts of interest. Finding the right balance for each town can be challenging.

Build-a-lot 2 boasts several new features and improvements over the original game. You now have the ability to custom paint any homes you own or build. This may not sound like much, but I found that it really broke the monotony that can set in when building several homes all in the same style. Painting the houses also gives you a nice bonus to your town’s appeal rating, increasing the overall value of your properties.

You can also landscape your properties after you unlock the garden center, which adds eye-catching flowers and trees around the homes. Not only is this graphically pleasing, but it also boosts the appeal rating and increases the value of the properties.

Buying houses is easier and more fun in the new game as additional purchase strategies have been included. You can offer less than the asking price or even "low ball" the seller when the market is just right. These features can save you a lot of cash when money is tight.

Many new structures are available in the sequel, which keeps the game fresh and fun all the way to the end. New home styles, parks, shops and buildings are all waiting to be unlocked as you progress. Also, each building now has a purpose – unlike some of the buildings in the first game, such as the museum and ice rink, which added nothing to the gameplay. Occasionally, some shops may post a "Help Wanted" sign which will require you to sacrifice a worker, further increasing the interactive nature of the buildings.

Unlike the first game, you won’t be charged any taxes in Build-a-lot 2, which is a marked improvement, since it was very easy to get stuck with one property and taxes due with no way to earn income to pay them. The permit feature that allowed you to get additional upgrades for the houses is also gone, yet the workshop can be upgraded to have your workers build faster, which seems like a nice trade.

The success of the first Build-a-lot game was partly due to the complexity being balanced with a gradual introduction to new features and an easy to use interface that didn’t overwhelm the player. The developers were able to maintain this format, introducing new features to at just the right pace to keep you interested but not confused.

As with the original game, Build-a-lot 2 also has a wonderful sandbox mode that lets you play in any of the towns you wish and build whatever you desire. This can be a great way to learn the mechanics of the game for those struggling with the level goals, and it’s also just fun!

Fans of the first Build-a-lot will not be disappointed with this sequel, and first time players will find it challenging, entertaining and accessible. Even if you don’t think real estate is your thing, I highly recommend trying the demo at the very least – you might just be surprised.