Pile Up! is a city builder in which pretty much everyone’s always angry

Pile Up! is a city builder in which pretty much everyone's always angry

I swear that London used to have a palace situated on a bridge. I’ve been googling around this morning and I think I might have been thinking of Nonsuch House, which was on the old London Bridge. Four storeys and built in 1579, I’ve also just learned that Nonsuch House was the first recorded pre-fab building in history, having been built and then dismantled in the Netherlands and then shipped over to London where they put it back together again.

The reason I’ve been thinking about all this comes down to an old picture I once saw of London Bridge with this palace on it, and all these other buildings stacked around it too, fairly crowding off the bridge itself in every direction and hanging out over the water. It’s exactly the kind of look that Pile Up! traffics in, and I’m getting quietly hooked on Pile Up! at the moment. (That said, I’m going to skip the exclamation point from now on because it keeps bodging up my typing.)

I first read about the game on RPS, where Katharine Castle referred to it as a sort of spin on Townscaper with a bit more actual game to it. That’s spot on. Another way of putting it might be: it’s Townscaper but everyone’s furious with you from the start.

Pile Up!’s early access trailer.

This is because, in Pile Up, you don’t just place buildings and make pleasing dioramas, you also have to keep everybody who lives in your rickety structures happy. That’s in-game terminology, BTW: the three states your population can fall into are Happy, Sad and Dead.

So you are dealt a range of houses at the start of each turn, and you have to place them on the limited ground available to you. People start off furious because I tend to draw house cards before I draw cards which provide the houses with any of the kinds of resources they require – water, energy, gas. Missing those things will sort of take it out of you.

But actually, even when I eventually draw those cards people often remain furious, because there’s placing a resource and then there’s placing it properly. You want to get houses and people within the catchment area of your resource for starters, but water tanks come with the friendly reminder that if you place them on a standard roof they will collapse and destroy the building beneath it, meaning you’re really looking for something reinforced. Equally, gas should not be near anything that sparks and all that jazz. Parks, which improve people’s moods, are a lot easier to place without accidentally killing people, but you can’t then build on them afterwards.

Pile Up makes a slightly awkward first impression, then, what with everyone being miserable at me and not much I could instantly do about it. But I’m a few games in now and I’m learning every time. As I play I unlock new cards for future runs, but I also learn to navigate the game’s UI and interpret its slightly wonky tool tips a bit better. I’m also always attuned to the meaningful accident. Too many unhappy people in town, and your run ends, but this morning I accidentally managed to kill a chunk of unhappy people with a poorly placed water tank and everyone who survived was more cheerful about things. My game continued, but I did not feel particularly good about myself.

This is the thing, I reckon. Pile Up is a satirical strategy game, so even when you’re doing badly you’re kind of getting a useful message about how bad things can be and how complicity can shape other peoples’ experience of the world. I love Townscaper, but I also love trying to save the rickety, hideously structured hell-holes I build here. I want to redeem the town I’ve built. I want it to have been worth it for everyone.