If you’re like me, you glanced at I-play’s new casual game Artist Colony and immediately wrote it off as a copycat of Virtual Villagers or The Sims. I mean, it features little virtual characters who interact with each other, fall in love, advance in their career and clean up messes they make.

But oh, how I was wrong. After spending nearly a week with Artist Colony, the similarities to Virtual Villagers are merely cosmetic. This engrossing single-player game stands on its own merit and proves to be highly enjoying and gratifying twist on the simulation genre.

As the name suggests, Artist Colony has you running an inherited refuge for aspiring artsy types, including painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers and photographers. Players will be first treated to the history behind these grounds, beginning with partners in the ’50s who experienced a falling out, and then fast-forwarding to today when you take over (and your "ne’er do well" step-brother soon follows). You’ll soon find your characters can develop feelings for one another, which may or may not be reciprocated, but hey, a broken heart can serve well as inspiration.

Tasks, in this top-down isometric game, range from the menial (clean away leaves or snow) to the important (restore and upgrade key structures) to the beneficial (sell pieces of art, or performances, to visitors for cash). And all three are interconnected. For example, you might not be able to enter the sculptor’s studio if it’s blocked by debris, and you won’t be able to upgrade the musician’s studio unless you have enough money to do so (earned by selling works or putting on performances). You get the idea.

You’ll train each artist in a primary and secondary craft and work your way to fill up all 10 slots, as they advance from novice to genius. When your characters get hungry you need to drag them to the kitchen to eat; when they’re tired you need to find a place for them to rest (residence building, park bench or grassy spot); and when they’re feeling down and unmotivated you need to drag and drop them onto inspirational objects (such as pretty floral plants) to help them create (and thus, sell) masterpieces.

Over time you’ll soak up the evolving story (including love triangles, betrayal and hardships), and really feel like you’re part of this haven for creative types. You’ll also collect pieces of photographs to unlock new areas of the colony (and reveal more info tied to the original owners) and view your masterpieces via in-game albums. In total, the game features more than 500 masterpieces spread between the three-dozen characters who will arrive and leave the compound throughout the tale.

Unlike some other simulation games, Artists Colony does not keep playing even after you’ve turned the game off. (So you won’t find any nasty surprises waiting for you – like deceased characters – if you don’t boot up the game for a couple of days.) The game’s pace is adjustable, and you can pause the action at any time by hitting the Escape key.

As much fun as we had playing Artists Colony, it’s not a perfect masterpiece in itself. For one, while the interface works for the most part – allowing you to quickly see the needs and whereabouts of each character – I had trouble finding the inspirational items (e.g. flower bunches) on the map, so you might find yourself dragging a character around for a while before finding it. A hot button to show you where these always-moving items are would have been a good idea. Secondly, the game only has one mode and doesn’t let more than one person play at the same time (that is, only one save spot).

Overall, however, this surprisingly deep and enjoyable game is well worth your time and money, especially if you’re a fan of people simulations. The unique concept is well-designed and successfully executed, and should provide many engaging hours of fun.

For similar games, try Virtual Villagers, Virtual Families, Escape from Paradise, Sprouts Adventure, and Totem Tribe.