Thursday, August 06, 2009

Room Boom: Suburbia Review

Room Boom: Suburbia, developed and published by Mindemia.
The Good: Unique gameplay, content rich with mini-games, success unlocks useful improvements
The Not So Good: Significant influence of luck on results especially in the room design mode, extremely challenging AI, no online multiplayer
What say you? A hybrid click-management and board game that relies too much on poorly balanced chance: 5/8

With ample foreclosures looming, now is the time to enter the real state industry! Or if you are the less adventurous type, do it digitally in the form of computer entertainment! Enter Room Boom: Suburbia, a game in which you design rooms and houses to make fat stacks of cold, hard cash. This casual game is part board game, part click-management game, and part strategy game (which, I guess, is really the board game part), serving up a heterogeneous gaming soup that's all the rage these days. How does it taste? Does it go well with red or white wine? Did you save room for dessert?

Room Boom: Suburbia has simple 2-D graphics, which is fine for the genre. The most important aspect of a click-heavy game is the interface, and Room Boom: Suburbia does a generally decent job making things clear throughout the game. Room type is indicated by the floor design, which can be hard to spot in small rooms given the game's low-ish resolution: squinting may be required. There aren't many special effects to worry about, although the sparsely animated protesters are amusing. Functional at best, the graphics get the job done for the most part. The sound design is minimal, with a handful of effects for in-game events and background music. Overall, Room Boom: Suburbia delivers what is expected for an independent casual game in terms of the presentation.

Room Boom: Suburbia has a good number of features for a budget ($16) game. The tutorial does a good job explaining the straightforward and unique characteristics of the game. You can choose from a series of challenges with specific settings or customize the game yourself, selecting the overall difficulty (AI smarts, turn length), game board size, and availability of nefarious items like crazy bulldozers (that randomly remove a swath of houses) and protesters that prevent construction. Completing games of either type awards points used to purchase a wide range of improvements: larger room templates, additional component slots, and many more. This is way better than useless achievements found in other games, since the improvements in Room Boom: Suburbia actually influence the gameplay and your overall strategy. In addition to the basic game, you get two mini-games: a builder challenge where you construct specific room designs and a picture-matching game. Overall, I was impressed with the amount of content included in Room Boom: Suburbia.

As a whole, Room Boom: Suburbia is quite unique. You need to own a continuous row, column, or diagonal of the square game board in order to win, just like in tic-tac-toe (or, as the British call it, draughts). Square lots first have to be purchased, and more versatile locations towards the center of the board are more expensive. Replenishing your funds is done through rent earned from constructed houses. You own a row by having more houses there, and you make houses in two phases: making rooms and then placing them to make an entire house. The main problem with Room Boom: Suburbia surfaces in the first mode. The way you make rooms is that a series of incomplete rooms comes down a conveyor belt, and you must fill in the blank spots using the pieces that randomly appear on the right side of the screen. Unfortunately, you are given a lot of useless, nonsensical pieces that means you'll only make a couple of rooms within the time limit. The pieces are really designed for larger room designs that are unlocked with the improvement points, but, of course, you only get improvement points by beating the game so everyone has to go through the imbalance early on. The AI seems to have no problem constructing many rooms each turn, of course. Your first couple of games, all you need are corners and end pieces, and you never seem to get enough. This impacts the second phase of the game, placing homes, because you end up with some very inefficient designs. You can buy a set of rooms for a fee, participate in an auction, or even automate the entire process, but I disagree with skipping an significant part of a game simply because it's imbalanced.

Once you have your badly designed rooms ready, it's time to make some houses. Your rooms will randomly appear, and you must make a house that contains at least one room of each type (kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom) and no unconnected doors (which confuses me: how do the people get in?). Optimally, you'll want one room with a lot of doors to connect with single-door rooms. Of course, because of the difficulties associated with the room design mode I mentioned previously, this is hardly ever the case, and you'll typically only be able to successfully place one, or maybe two, houses before time runs out. The AI, again, seems not to encounter these issues, always able to place three or four houses in each zone per turn. I'm not saying they cheat, necessarily, but I think the AI just places some semi-random number each turn and you are expected to keep up. Because you will commonly be out-paced by the AI in your first handful of games, Room Boom: Suburbia is a difficult title. This is too bad, because the game certainly has some unique attributes that separate it effectively from your typical casual title.

Room Boom: Suburbia offers some unique gameplay that almost makes for a notable title if it weren't for some missteps in the formula. We get plentiful game modes, with single player challenges and custom games against the AI or other humans on the same computer (no online play, though), in addition to a couple of mini-games for short moments of free time. Winning unlocks new items and bonuses to tackle the higher-level AI, who is quite adept at the game and provides a formidable challenge. Too formidable, if you ask me, as they magically produce numerous developments (more than what is possible with the pieces the human player is given in the same time frame) and don't seem to be playing by the same rules. The two-phase game flows well as you attempt to control a continuous row of property by designing rooms and placing houses. However, Room Boom: Suburbia trips up in one significant area: designing rooms. There are too many useless and repetitive pieces that require corners or ends and nothing else: it's just a matter of waiting for those to show up and placing them as quickly as possible. Because of this, success in Room Boom: Suburbia relies too heavily on luck and ultimately the remainder of the game suffers. Things get better when you can afford improvements like wider conveyor belts to deliver rooms and more slots of missing pieces, but this requires a significant enough time investment and I feel most people will get frustrated prior to winning a couple of matches. This multiplies when you start laying down the poorly designed rooms and can't quite fit all the pieces together perfectly. It's just easier to automate the process, and thus negate half of the gameplay. I like the idea of Room Boom: Suburbia and some of the ideas it brings, but the game needs to be balanced more for newer players.