Real estate sounds about as exciting as tax accounting when it comes to casual games, but in HipSoft's latest tycoon-style title, Build-a-lot, managing your empire turns out to be quite entertaining. You assume the role of a contractor working for towns to improve property value. In each round you're given a set of goals by the mayor that must be completed within the time limit. Tasks include building houses on vacant lots, upgrading homes to higher-rent properties, researching new structure blueprints, and managing cashflow to feed all your ventures. The description sounds rather dry, but once you dive into the game, you'll have a surprising amount of fun.
The goal of Build-a-lot is quite simple: build a lot! The interface turns almost every chore into a one-click action, allowing you to focus on managing money, materials, workers, repairs and blueprints without distraction. To build a house all you have to do is click on an empty lot. If you have the resources the workers will hop to it. If you don't, simply float the cursor down to the menu and buy more. Income is based on the value of each lot you own, so upgrading houses to a more lavish setting will increase the rent and raise your cashflow. You can also flip houses for quick cash, but in the long run your bank account will suffer.
Your success as a real estate mogul depends on the choices you make, and Build-a-lot throws some tough ones at you each level. Empty lots and complete houses pop on the market at seemingly random times and must be purchased quickly before they fade. But what if you don't have the cash? Even if you did, should you expand or focus on improving your current properties? Micro decisions such as this spill into managing your workforce and materials and add up to a game with a surprising amount of strategy.
If you enjoyed this game, be sure to check out our review of Build-a-lot 2: Town of the Year.
But don't think you can just build a ton of houses and breeze through the game. The more you upgrade a building, the more upkeep and taxes it will require, sapping a little more cash than a basic home. The income is greater, but so is the risk, and if you can't keep everything in check, you'll topple at a blinding speed. In addition to the standard Career mode, Build-a-lot offers a Casual mode that allows you to compete with other players via an online scoreboard. Start in your chosen town and raise money as quickly as you can, posting stats such as amount of materials used and money earned.
Analysis: Perhaps the scariest thing about Build-a-lot is the foreboding (and dry) real estate theme. It sounds like such a headache, and the tiny, stark visuals do very little to make the game more inviting. But Build-a-lot is far from bland and offers a great tutorial system that walks you through the relatively simple process of managing your real estate empire step-by-step. Once you get started, everything runs smoothly and the real fun begins. You definitely feel a sense of accomplishment (and perhaps even power?) when you hit the big bucks and the mayor showers you with praise!