For a property owner, the world of Build-a-lot is generally a happy place. The rent is always on time. New housing construction is quick. You never have to worry about building permits or zoning laws. You will, as the title suggests, build quite a bit of houses, but the gameplay in Build-a-lot doesn't follow the blueprints of traditional building games in the spirit of SimCity.
Your decisions in Build-a-lot are limited, customization is almost non-existent, and the quaint neighborhoods you'll work in are devoid of traffic and pedestrians. Those hoping to satisfy their city building urges at a town or village level will likely be disappointed with Build-a-lot's rather narrow scope. Yet if you can get past this, there's still a surprisingly addictive game underneath its simple exterior.
Setting the Foundation
There are two game modes in Build-a-lot: a linear, level-based campaign that has you completing specific objectives within a time limit, and a casual mode that simply involves trying to earn a certain amount of money at your own pace. Rather than create a neighborhood from scratch, the game has you working in a series of six communities of varying sizes. Each community has a mix of empty lots and developed properties, and is overseen by a mayor who wants you to complete specific tasks.
Your goal is generally to make as much money as you can, as quickly as you can, while building certain types of structures to satisfy the victory conditions. Building a house earns you rent, the amount of which is based on the size of the house and if there are any installed upgrades to increase its value.
You'll start your career with a small amount of money, a few empty lots to build on, some workers, and building materials. From that point on, the gameplay is rather straightforward: you first click on an empty lot, choose an available house or building, and then watch as your workers, represented by yellow hard hats, race over to the lot to begin construction. Once a house is complete, you'll start earning rent after a specific amount of time passes (represented by a horizontal meter).
Getting the Job Done
Your cash can then be spent on ordering new building materials, hiring more workers, researching blueprints for new structures, and purchasing homes that periodically go on the market. Random elements such as property taxes and repairs will periodically throw a wrench in your plans, which means you have to spend time and money to address them. If you don't, you'll stop earning rent in the affected buildings.
While the game's first 18 levels require little strategy, Build-a-lot soon becomes fiendishly difficult due to the limited time you have to complete your steadily increasing objectives. The mayor will start requiring much more of you, such as building seven pricey mansions, earning a sum of one million dollars, and so forth.
Time becomes your biggest adversary, as there's little room for error. A few costly repairs at the wrong time could spell disaster, which means restarting the level from scratch.
Some players may find this extremely frustrating, but the challenges are doable (after some trial and error) by changing the ways you approach a given scenario. While you could coast through early parts of game simply by building the most expensive houses available, later stages require you to vary your plans.
You may decide to sell some of your starting lots to get the extra cash needed for expensive buildings, or you could opt to build cheaper houses, upgrade them, and then sell them off to fund further development. There are also protective buildings to consider, such as banks, that can be used to either generate extra funds or stop the annoying tax collector.
Room to Expand
Build-a-lot's biggest issue is one of depth. There are only a handful of house types, there are no rivals to compete against, and you can't actually choose the types of upgrades on a house. Another slight annoyance is that your rent meter isn't visible on the screen at all times, so you have to constantly click on a menu tab to see how close you are to getting paid.
Despite these limitations, Build-a-lot manages to be a fun little diversion that's a good starting point for those new to building and/or business games. You can grasp the play mechanics within 10 minutes, and there's enough content here to last 15 to 20 hours. Build-a-lot isn't going to turn you into the next Donald Trump, but it will keep you wheeling and dealing for far longer than you might have initially anticipated.