URBO is a relaxing blend of city builder and merge game

By John Walker, Contributor
The worlds of PC gaming and mobile gaming are in separate solar systems. What’s massive and popular in one is alien or unknown in the other—to the degree that a hardcore PC player could be completely unaware of "merge games," a hit mobile genre.

But it feels like chilled-out city building game URBO could be the ambassador for the genre on your home computer. Developer Door 407 is best known for its crazed battle simulator, Diplomacy Is Not An Option. However, during the ongoing development of that colony sim, the studio hired a bunch of new employees and set them a task. That, in turn, became URBO—and it’s about to be your next obsession.
01 Urbo
URBO was sort-of a pilot project for the fresh blood we'd just hired back then,” says Door 407’s Andrey Belousov. “We needed to build a team capable of creating and developing a next-gen city builder. The task was a bit experimental and quite challenging: To create a relaxing, yet enticing, game with simple core mechanics.”

Merge games are a specific branch of the ludicrously popular genre known as idle games, other forms of which—like clickers—have already broken through. Think Cookie Clicker or AdVenture Capitalist.

But PC players should not underestimate how big merge games are on that other planet. The core conceit is that you start with a bunch of objects representing 1s, which merge with other 1s to make 2s, then 2s with 2s for 4s, and so on. Merging usually takes place on a grid, meaning it’s about managing tile space and tactically combining items such that you can create the highest values.
05 Urbo
URBO takes this core concept and adapts it into something that feels far more fitting on PC—a city building sim in which you’re attempting to create towns with the highest possible populations. Buildings are placed on grids of varying sizes, such that placing three or more “one block” buildings next to each other causes them to merge onto the tile of the last placed building as a two-block place to live.

Merging three buildings is the minimum, but merging more than three at once, or stringing together combos, gains you points on a five-point meter that (when full) unlocks “cards." Ding that meter, and it lets you pick between four randomized bonus cards, which could be as simple as a free five-block building, or perhaps letting you merge two buildings that aren’t adjacent, move a building to an empty tile, or swap the location of two buildings.

This all adds up to an incredibly engaging and complex game, but one that also feels remarkably peaceful. It's a stark contrast to Diplomacy Is Not An Option—though Door 407 maintains they're more similar than people realize. “We didn't intend them to be opposites,” explains Belousov. "Our games may look completely different from the player's perspective, but actually, they both are strategy games. And making strategy games is our specialty.”
02 Urbo
URBO lets you plan at least four moves ahead, revealing the next four buildings you'll be placing and helping you chain merges. If you know you’ve got four horrible 1-block buildings in a row, you can place these in such a way that a fifth appearing at any point will fit between the two pairs and complete a run of five—and if you’ve arranged those tiles so that the new 2-block aligns with two other 2-blocks, that’ll chain together and create a 3-block. And so on.

Buildings go up to 8-blocks, which you’ll definitely want to ensure are built on the edges of your grid, or moved there soon after using bonus cards. You will run out of space, no matter how perfectly you might play—this isn’t Tetris and eventually too many high-block buildings mixed with a streak of 1s and 2s will finish you off.

But what’s so joyful here is this isn’t a moment of failure. Instead, URBO cheerfully announces, “Town Is Built!” You did it! You finished building a lovely town! Jump into photo mode and take some screenshots of your fine work! It makes such a psychological difference.
04 Urbo
“To be honest, you never know how it works,” said Belousov when I asked how the team went about creating something so compelling. “It is a question of balance, art style, pace of the game, and how all the elements fit together. There were many internal tests during the development. At each stage, we wanted to ensure that the game we were creating was the game we wanted to release in the end.”

URBO's satisfying moment-to-moment is boosted by some lovely art, with a variety of unlockable building designs, each available in a range of locations with differing grid sizes and unique elements. Some levels, for instance, have two or three plateaus, the later stages opening up when the earlier ones have been “lost” (yet again emphasizing how any loss is really a win). There’s one level that introduces an idol of sorts that generates boosts when buildings are merged in contiguous tiles. Another causes help to arrive by boat!

It all seems so simple on the surface that I thought I’d enjoy URBO only briefly, but then ended up losing an entire day’s work to it—and staying up far too late the same night. It's an exceptionally relaxing game, where failure feels like success and where the process of playing is calm, satisfying, and engaging.

URBO is available now on the Epic Games Store.