Indie Wonderland: Concrete Jungle

A few hours in

Okay. The good news is, I managed to work around Selfie Park. The bad news is, that wasn’t the only idea the mayor had.

I have to respect his outside-the-box thinking.

The worse news involves an evil corporate town takeover.

Classic first-time evildoer mistake.

And the absolutely disastrous news is, right afterwards, aliens from the Xor dimension

Okay, you got me. I didn’t actually play the story much further. After a linear early section, Concrete Jungle actually opens up a little in offering you multiple concurrent levels and game modes. So instead of saving Caribou City from a burger joint takeover, I helped an old punk rocker develop his apple farm. And I did some competitive city planning against the mayor.

He’s better than he looks! But then again, that’s not a particularly high barrier.

After that, I… kind of got stuck, on a competitive level that saw me try to out-develop a young man’s hip urban center. I think. Skate parks were involved. It was the only story progress level left, and after three successive failures I decided to maybe leave Concrete Jungle‘s narrative campaign for what it was. I have played some of the interesting non-campaign modes… but more on that in a bit.

So, how did Concrete Jungle do for me? In lieu of directly answering that question, I’m going to talk about other deckbuilding games for a few paragraphs.

The two games that respectively started and solidified my interest in deckbuilding as a genre are Ascension and (surprisingly) Star Realms. Yes, I’m familiar with Dominion, but I didn’t play that one until much later. Ascension and Star Realms are the progenitors for me. You can probably imagine how that skewed my view of the genre at large: compared to (actual genre starter) Dominion and its follow-ups, they have a similar, unorthodox approach to organizing play. The ‘central row’ is a big one, obviously… as are the limited two-element starter decks (10 cards, 8 for 2), the ‘always-available’ buy cards, and the four colours split across mechanical gameplay lines. I own and have played both of them… but while I still play Star Realms more or less every day, I played Ascension for three or so games and then never really opened up the box again. Ascension started me on the path, and then Star Realms just kind of… took over.

So why is that? I’ve thought about this a lot, but I think the core thing that sets the two games apart is: Ascension has strictly more mechanics than Star Realms. For all its interstellar bluster, I can probably explain the entire core of Star Realms in under ten minutes. You start with eight ships that buy and two ships that do damage, and your goal is reduce your opponent’s health from 50 to 0. You use money to buy ships from the center row; those ships go into your graveyard, which is shuffled into a new deck when your old deck runs out. Ships that you play are discarded at end of turn, but bases stay in play until destroyed; bases with a black shield block damage, bases with a white shield don’t. Cards have printed effects that always happen, effects that happen if you remove them from the game, and effects that happen if you have two or more cards of the same colour, of which there are four — blue is about health and money, green deals damage, yellow draws cards and forces opponents to lose cards, and red lets you thin out your deck. There, that’s more or less it.

In contrast, me explaining Ascension will sound like a shy teenager’s first public speaking assignment. There’s still a center row and an 8/2 split starting deck. But the eight cards represent money, and the two cards represent… also money? It’s narrated as ‘attack’, which you use to ‘defeat’ some of the cards in the center row… not all the cards, because some cards are heroes (like ships) or artifacts (like bases, except not really), which you buy with money, but other cards are monsters, which you activate with damage. This has all sorts of effects, but the core thing revolves around getting victory points from a small central pool; when that pool is empty, you count points to determine who wins… except the cards that you buy are also worth points, and you have to add those two together. Oh, and there are four colours here, too: green, which… and blue, which I think draws cards? And purple, I think that one is about deck thinning too? And… I honestly cannot remember the last colour.

Yeah, I’m not explaining it very well. Don’t take this as an indictment of Ascension: if you love it and you think it’s great, you’re probably more right than I am. But the point I’m making is this: it felt/feels to me like Ascension‘s gameplay systems are unconnected entities that all point in different directions, while Star Realms‘ mechanics are more of an interconnected clockwork. After three games of Ascension, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing or why anything was good; I bought cards blindly, couldn’t intuit synergies or plans, and when the game ended, the eventual victor was always a total surprise. In contrast, after three games of Star Realms I had a pretty good idea of what I was doing and why. One spurred me on to keep playing, get other people into it, and eventually develop a sort of constantly-shifting local meta among my friends. The other’s been in a cardboard box for seven or so months now.

Now guess which end of this spectrum Concrete Jungle is gonna end up on.

By way of an answer, have this screen of information that you understand about as well as I do.

Let me defang the previous statement by saying that I do like Concrete Jungle. I like the game’s theming, I think the art style is cute (from a distance), and I particularly admire that breadth of gameplay modes I alluded to. But all the same, after playing both the campaign and the custom games for hours, I don’t feel hooked. I have moment-to-moment fun, but that drive to keep playing, to keep getting better, and to get all my friends into it — that’s missing.

Even up close, the art style is still *nice*. But I’m disappointed it doesn’t actually CSI-enhance.

Concrete Jungle has two problems, which together encompass most of it: there are too many parallel, interfering systems, and there is a lack of clarity in the way it presents information.

The first problem neatly contrasts how Concrete Jungle has tried to grow over its older sibling Megacity. Megacity used a similar scoring system and grid layout, but — by and large — its building cards were a lot simpler. At least early on, you had essentially four ‘classes’ of cards: green (residential) cards, which scored points, purple (civic) cards, which extended blue point-boosting squares, red (industrial) cards, which had red point-draining effects, and blue (commercial) cards, which often contained a combination of red and blue squares — a bonus in one direction traded off by a penalty in another. Obviously there was a lot of variation in the cards themselves, and I won’t pretend to have unlocked even a fraction of the new cards you could get. So maybe it got more complex later on. But again, at least early on, the division was easy to grasp.

Concrete Jungle took it upon itself to improve on this system. And in some ways this actually worked. Side-tracking the complainathon for a moment, I really like how, through the inclusion of the economy and expenditure bars, the card system is more involved now than just ‘red cards bad, purple cards good’. In Megacity, you would never be happy getting a factory or a pollution plant in your list; in Concrete Jungle, the point-draining red cards are often great for your economy and for lowering expenditure, while the purple and green ‘victory’ cards drain your finances like a broken piggy bank in an unplugged bath tub.

It makes narrative sense *and* has gameplay effects: of course a job-producing factory is good for your economy, and of course that enormous library drains tax dollars. And you’ll *have* to balance the two, lest later in the game your expenditures keep rising and you get stuck with weak economy-tier-1 cards.

But Concrete Jungle isn’t content with just this addition. More systems are needed. So it adds yellow (nature) cards, which often improve targeted areas directly next to them. And now some of the purple civic cards aren’t buildings, but decrees, like renovation or government protection, which modulate existing squares. And let’s add another card colour: teal cards, farming cards, which… I guess do a little bit of everything? They score points and they boost other cards and they gain you economic benefits?

I’m a little confused about a game called ‘Concrete Jungle’ that involves *farmland*, but eh.

The farming stuff is actually related to another new Concrete Jungle mechanic, ‘blocks’, where contiguous buildings of the same colour are connected into a single city block. That was briefly alluded to in the tutorial, and those of you with a keen screenshot eye might have noticed that not all houses are fully surrounded by roads — that’s a block indicator. And blocks do… something? As far as I can tell, completing a 4-building block of any colour has some effects, that may or may not be related to the colour it’s in. I’ve seen economy boosts, and extra card draws, and I think maybe some expenditure lowering?

And we can’t very well introduce a mechanic like that and not do anything with it, can we? So now some buildings boost targeted blocks. Or allow blocks to grow bigger. Or boost themselves, based on the size of the block they’re attached to. And we get buildings that lower expenditure, and buildings that buff economy, and buildings that allow for extra card draws or card plays, and buildings that remove themselves from play after X-amount of turns, and, and, and…

I’m only playing up this confusion a little bit. Obviously, a wide spread of cards with rule-bending and rule-breaking effects is a deckbuilder’s modus operandi. But like Ascension, Concrete Jungle has so much vaguely-connected stuff that it’s just hard to grasp the entirety of it. Do colours really share mechanical themes in the long run? Are they the themes that I think they are? And is it worth it to ‘focus’ on one colour in particular? Is that even possible? Intuitively, maybe it’s possible to only use purple and green cards to speed-clear columns before the expenditure target goes too high. But only red? That would only give you more tech cards that don’t actually boost points. And you have to use green cards, right? Right? Or are they maybe cards in other colours that…

The effect of this incredibly deluge of possibility and information is that I don’t feel I’m getting better at Concrete Jungle. I’ve played it for hours, and I still routinely make preventable mistakes, and lose oversight, and throw my hands in the air to go ‘fuck it, I guess we’re bulldozing these seven schools‘. I don’t feel like I’m good at it. I don’t feel like I’m bad at it, either. I feel like Concrete Jungle is turning me into a random-number generator in the shape of a man.

I *legitimately* don’t know how to discern this!

If Concrete Jungle‘s mechanical content is the basis of it being hard to parse, Concrete Jungle‘s systemization is the M.C. Escher house on top. One of the most crucially underrated systems in the app version of Star Realms (and genre mates) is giving the player the ability to see which cards they own, and where all those cards are. Star Realms lets you see, at will, which of your cards are in your deck (in no particular order), which cards are in your discard pile, and which cards are in your hand. This isn’t just very useful to let absent-minded players get back to their pass-and-play games after a full day — although it is useful for this. But it also gives players full information for making strategic decisions. I can at any moment see which cards I’ve bought and what strategy I was playing for, but also which cards I’ve already played in this deck cycle and how many more draws I can expect before it resets. This is important information! If I draw and play a valuable card early in my deck cycle, I know I won’t see that card again for a few turns, but if I draw it near the end, it’s entirely possible I’ll draw it again next turn, when my deck shuffles. That’s something I might want to gamble on (and I have, often).

As far as I can tell, Concrete Jungle does not give a player that information. I barely know how to check which cards are in my deck in the first place. And I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to see which of those cards are currently on-deck and which are on-discard. The game doesn’t even indicate when your deck is shuffled, letting old cards enter the fray. All you get to see is an endlessly refreshing list of cards on the side of the screen.

I must have gone through at least four deck cycles, because I’ve stacked this office tower up four times. I think? Or do I have multiple office towers? Or…

And I understand why they do it this way! Being able to see your upcoming cards is core to the Concrete Jungle planning gameplay, you have to know what’s coming to properly prepare. So just having that column end and reshuffle… yeah, I get why that’s a no-show. But all the same, I can’t understand what’s going on this way. My deck is always endlessly refreshing in the background. Which cards are in there? Which cards are not? Without this information… it’s almost hard to call Concrete Jungle a deckbuilding game, if I want to be brutally honest. It purports to be different from Megacity with its card-choosing and its deckbuilding, but without insight into what your deck is doing, it’s functionally the same as Megacity‘s random list of buildings.

In fact, you can totally choose to play Concrete Jungle this way. Of the three gameplay modes I mentioned, one is the game proper as described: deckbuilding and teching and reaching the final column. Then there’s ‘Classic’ mode, which takes out all that card-choosing and technology cruft in favour of giving you random buildings. I like this mode a lot, it’s… relaxing, almost. Fairer about what it does well and what it wants to be than the core gameplay mode. Yeah, you get random buildings, and yeah, sometimes those are shit, but at least it’s not pretending like that’s my fault. Finally, the multiplayer VS mode is a clever twist on the formula: both players play on one half of the screen, trying to score more points in any column than their opponent — winner takes all, per column, so there’s something to be said for picking your battles.

In this column, I have 6 points and my opponent has 2. So when it clears, I get everything — 8 points for me, none for them.

As you can see, there is a lot of content in Concrete Jungle. Three gameplay modes, randomly-generated card list, potentially different strategies, tech levels… and I don’t even think I’ve gotten to the unlockable characters and their different skill trees.

Final thoughts

But every review has to end somewhere.

And this one’s already running on the rambling-long side.

Concrete Jungle is a game that dreams big, and I respect that. It tries to improve over its older sibling in clever ways, and many of those ideas actually work out: economy and expenditure add interesting decisions, three gameplay modes are great for replayability, unlockable characters support or at least suggest meaningfully different gameplay styles…

But in its hurry to overtake Megacity, Concrete Jungle often ends up stumbling over its own feet. A combination of information overload and poor presentation modality makes it almost impossible to overview and parse everything that’s going on at any given time. And in a deckbuilding game, a genre strongly dependent on long-term planning and total oversight, that’s a significant stumble to make.

Would I recommend Concrete Jungle? I’m going to say… maybe. It is a clever game, in a genre I like, with a neat art style and good voice acting. And most of the moment-to-moment gameplay is either fun, or at least non-frustrating. If these are things that appeal to you, consider if you’re willing to part with a mere thirteen dollars. I don’t consider it pricey for the amount of fun I’ve had with it. But all the same, it is almost incontrovertibly a flawed game, a game that could have been more than it is with better design choices and information visualization. I’ll probably leave it on my desktop for a little while longer — maybe try out the versus mode with other people, if I have interested friends. But unless it discovers load-bearing niche appeal, I don’t see Concrete Jungle making much of a long-term splash

<< Back to page 1.

Jarenth couldn’t think of a good Guns ‘N Roses joke. Make on to him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

8 comments

  1. Hey, readers, do me a favor, okay? Check if the images and links on this one load correctly and let me know if they don’t. We just swapped over to Cloudflare and I think it’s messing with my image uploading.

    1. The penultimate image on the first page has no mouseover text. Otherwise, everything seems fine.

      1. Huh. Both load on my end. I… genuinely don’t know what could be causing that; I’d hoped that Cloudflare resolved its DNS issues at this point in time.

  2. Did you ever try out Cthulhu Realms?

    It was made by licensing the Star Realms system but they upped the complexity and reduced the faction count in the process.

    1. I have not! You know I haven’t, because I’d be playing it with you, probably. :P But thanks for the reminder, I’d been meaning to but it keeps getting delayed for other stuff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *