A friend of mine introduced me to the social game SimCity Buildit, currently available for mobile devices and tablets. Since I currently lack a strong mainstream entry in the SimCity franchise, I thought I'd see if this social game does anything to fill my long-neglected need for spline-reticulation or if it presented any new features that could be worth pursuing in a full PC version of the game. I don't generally play social games. I dabbled a bit with CivWorld and Sims Social, but that's about it. So I lack a lot of reference for judging SimCity Buildit in terms of other social games.
Most of the fundamental SimCity elements are here: you set housing, commercial, and industrial zones, link them with roads, and build service buildings in order to satisfy various citizen needs within a certain radius. None of the deeper simulation elements of newer city-builder games are there. Individual citizens don't exist; there's just an abstract population, and happiness levels are set for each residential building. It's understandable for the limitations of the platform, and it provides a retro quality that reminds me of the good ol' days of SimCity 4.
But since this is a social game, the design has to put up numerous barriers to restrict the player's freedom to construct the city that they want. You have to "level up" your city by building new buildings. The number of residences that you can build, as well as the availability of industry and shops are also limited by your level or by the city population.
Upgrading buildings and services
You also don't really have an economy to manage - at least not in the traditional sense. Citizens don't work at factories and shops. Instead, these buildings create certain building materials that are used to "upgrade" your residences into higher-density buildings that generate more tax revenue. This provides the core challenge of the game: you have to build the necessary materials in order to upgrade your buildings. Each of these materials take different amounts of real time to construct in your factories and shops (or you can buy the materials you need through real-money micro-transactions). As you level up, you'll unlock new materials, which residences will suddenly demand in order to upgrade their buildings.
You don't have to manage employment, tax rates, or city ordinances; only resources and service coverage.
The ability to upgrade a building seems to be limited by its happiness level. Only happy residences can be upgraded, so you also need to provide city services such as power, water, waste disposal, emergency services, entertainment, and so on. But these services are very frustrating because they are tied to your city level. New services or entertainments become unlocked when you level up. That's fine. But once those services are unlocked, your entire city starts demanding them, and happiness plummets (as well as tax income, which is tied to happiness) because you don't already have the infrastructure for the services that you just unlocked!
It reminds me a lot of the core problem I had with The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion: leveling up feels more like a punishment than a reward.
Providing enough coverage for your services is one of the few challenges that is carried over from the PC version.
There are other minor challenges to the game, like having to keep dirty industry away from your residential zones. But these are usually trivially-easy to accomplish. Especially considering that buildings can be picked up and moved at any time. So even if you make the mistake of placing a factory too close to a house, or leaving a gap in your police coverage, you can just pick up the respective house or building and move it to a more appropriate open space on the map. And it's a good thing that EA included this ability, since you can only have one city in the game, and irrecoverably screwing it up at the beginning would have turned off a lot of players.
Expanding your city limits
Little balloons will pop-up with opinions of your citizens every now and then. Most often, they will be red icons that will tell you what service(s) they are lacking. But sometimes, they will be blue icons that will give you glowing praise. Reading these may award you with items that you can use to upgrade your city storage or buy adjoining plots of land to further expand your city. Having to expand the land area of your city is the one novel feature that I think should be incorporated into other city simulation games on the PC, since it would add both challenge and realism to such games.
It's a pretty simple mechanic in Buildit, and it does come with its annoyances. The storage and land expansion materials that you collect do take up space in your storage, so they kind of defeat their own purpose to a degree. They're also completely random, which can be frustrating if you're waiting for the one material that you need, but keep getting one of which you already have double of what you need. The city also can't grow indefinitely. There is still an absolute max size for a city. The developers basically just partitioned off chunks of the map for you to unlock.
Cargo challenges are trivial to complete.
There are also cargo missions and disaster challenges to make you think there are other fun things to do. These challenges award you with Golden Keys that are used to buy specialization buildings like schools, casinos, or theaters (hooray for yet another form of in-game currency!).
The cargo challenges just require you to construct some set of three resources before the cargo ship departs. It's pretty trivial, and hardly different than the fundamental mechanic of collecting resources to upgrade buildings.
The disaster challenges are similarly uninteresting. You expend some special items in order to trigger a meteor shower, tornado, alien attack, etc that destroys one or more buildings in your city. Then you just have to spend materials to repair it. You basically spend items to de-grade a building, then spend more materials to re-upgrade it again. Once the building is rebuilt, you get a Golden Key. Big whoop.
Dead ends and sloppy design
The most frustrating thing about this game is that it becomes annoyingly difficult to progress once you get far enough into the game. The fact that the important storage and city-expansion items clog up your inventory is just one such progress-blocking problem. And once you get to a high enough population and level to unlock the disaster challenges, then items for that start showing up too, which just decreases the odds of getting the storage and expansion items that you want. You'll even start getting the disaster challenge items before you've paid to fully unlocked the disaster challenges, and you can't turn them off in order to go back to getting supply and expansion items.
Residence upgrades rarely require the expensive items, so they feel worthless.
You eventually get to the point where you can't buy useful items from the exchange anymore because it is so full of useless crap like doughnuts and disaster batteries. These items have almost no utility in the game, so anybody who makes the mistake of actually creating or collecting them has to try to pawn it off on some other poor dumb bastard. But since they aren't used for anything, and they are very expensive, nobody buys them. In fact, simple resources like nails and hammers end up being the major bottlenecks, even after you've paid to expand the queue of the shops that produce them.
This is very bad design! If the advanced materials like doughnuts, wristwatches, and ice cream sandwhiches aren't used for anything, then why are they even in the game? And if they just aren't used until much later, then why are they available so early?
At this point, your only recourse is to just keep refreshing the exchange in the hopes of seeing the item you want, or spend your hard-earned SimBucks to buy the item(s) you need. Or, you can do what EA wants you to do, and spend real money to buy the SimBucks necessary to purchase the items that the game simply won't give you anymore, so that you can keep playing the game. If you're a sucker, then this is what you'll do. If not, this is probably where you will fall off the SimCity Buildit bandwagon.
And even if you're lucky enough to find an item you need on the exchange, you can't immediately buy it. You have to load up the other player's city, by which time, the item is probably already gone.
Eventually, the Global Exchange becomes full of useless, expensive items,
and you can't find the things that you need to progress the game!
And if you do stick around long enough to fully upgrade all your residences, you may be disappointed to see that there's only about half a dozen different skyscraper models. You can't upgrade your houses into palatial mansions; only the same five or six apartments and condominium skyscrapers. So the end city lacks visual variety and just doesn't look that impressive.
I also had trouble getting BuildIt to recognize my Facebook friends who play the game (since you can trade with them and earn achievements for having friends). I thought it was kind of funny that a social game had trouble recognizing my Facebook friends list.
Queuing, queuing, and more queuing, and waiting (or paying)...
Like most social games, SimCity Buildit isn't intended to be a game that you sit down and play continuously for hours on end; you're supposed to just sit down for a few minutes at a time to queue up resources, and spend real money to progress more quickly. It accomplishes this task perfectly adequately, and is a decent diversion for your cell phone. But it just doesn't require much thought or skill, and it eventually dead-ends. If I'm going to start gaming on my phone, I'd much rather play the active puzzle games like Candy Crush or Angry Birds that require active participation and genuine skill.
Earning achievements gives you SimBucks that are otherwise only acquired via real-money micro-transactions.
But then again, EA is offering Buildit for FREE! (probably because they recognize that it isn't a worthwhile enough game to sell). So it can't hurt to download it and try it out. Just be careful about syncing it to your credit card or bank account. And make sure you have wi-fi access, since it can eat through your data plan pretty quickly.