In 2014, when everyone seems to be making video games, you can happen upon creative, impressive ones just about anywhere. Random Googling and Web surfing can lead to games that provide endless hours of entertainment.
That was the case for me with “Lexicopolis: A-B-City,” a very well-done little strategy puzzle game by a developer who goes by vampirewalrus. It can be played on or downloaded from the website Gamejolt.com (just Google the name of the game). I was pointed to the game by Indie Statik, a website that does a nice job of highlighting under-the-radar indie efforts.
On paper, the game’s goal is simple: Build a city with as high a value as possible. The twist, and it’s a pretty brilliant one, is that you’re building on a grid with letters, and you build different structures by typing them out. “Town Hall” is the required first building, so if you build it over a part of the grid that contains H, O, U, S, and E, on your next turn you can build a HOUSE. You’re effectively mining the letters contained wherever you place a new building.
Different structures are worth different amounts of cash, and add different values to the game’s three types of points: “POP” (or population), “JOBS,” and “FUN.” Population can be boosted by building houses, apartments, and other domiciles; jobs can be created by building factories and businesses; and fun can be had by building bars, restaurants, and the like. To maximize the value of your city, you want both to use rare letters, which are worth more (as in Scrabble), and to keep an eye on the equilibrium between the three stats: If POP is higher than FUN, for example, you’ll get a bonus for building a bar, while if JOBS is higher than POP, you’ll garner a bonus from building more housing .
What makes the game so engrossing — and the reason it has so thoroughly defeated me — is the way it forces the player to keep several things in his or her head at once. Once you’ve done the initial legwork of figuring out which buildings garner which amounts of cash, jobs, population, and fun, which is itself a process of trial and error, you then need to figure out which is the best building to build at a given moment given the letters you have on hand — and where to put it.
Games like those in the “SimCity” series have shown us that the geometry and geography of simulated urban planning are hard enough, but the alphabet grid of “Lexicopolis” adds a devious element. For good players — and again, I am not one — every new building leads directly and logically into the next one. So if you build a HOUSE over tiles that contain an M, an N, and an O, maybe for your next move you can build a MANSION.
There’s always a risk of squandering space and resources, though. Should you build several houses or one mansion? A bar or a bank? It’s a game with a million ways to screw up. It seems like there’s always something you could have done better, some money you left on the table by not building a couple spaces to the right. This need for foresight, combined with the constant pressure of balancing population and fun, makes for a deceptively deep puzzle experience.
I’m very glad I randomly stumbled upon “Lexicopolis,” even though I feel less intelligent than I did when I first started playing it. And I’ll say it again: It’s very cool we live in an age when such an interesting game can pop out of nowhere.Jesse Singal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.