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Fortune Builder (Colecovision) artwork

Fortune Builder (Colecovision) review

"It's more fun to watch the little dot-cars that multiply and move between businesses and residences as your town grows--or even turn away from the long dead-end road you forgot to industrialize. Single pixels were never so cute."

I remember when my friends showed me Fortune Builder (FB) on the ColecoVision. After seeing them play for five minutes, I wondered why commercials didn't show people playing it instead of another port of an arcade game that never lasted long enough. It's one of the earliest building simulations I'm aware of, and I still enjoy playing today. The goal is to parlay your small fortune into a large one in five years, which amounts to thirty game-minutes. You populating a map with roads, factories, homes, stores, and amusement. There're mountains in the west, an ocean to the east, and a river in the southwest. Each area has a different set of developments to despoil its natural beauty for maximum profit.

And once you figure out how to work the controls, it's quite a ride. The ColecoVision's number pad, with its buttons on the side and * and #, felt like one of those fancy car phones over twenty years ago, but it's just plain awkward today. Because of the two-player mode, which is a lot of fun, you only get half the screen for menus. Twiddling them properly to place the developments you want on the right squares takes a good deal of time. While they're divided into sensible sub-categories, good luck remembering if a campground is closer above or below the starting point in a scrolling menu. Borrowing money also requires a lot of futzing with the number pad, so you'll probably chuck a few games just learning the mechanics. Selling's also possible but convoluted--there's no in-game money penalty, but it really takes a while. So there's a definite learning curve, but if you're a big retro gamer, you'll probably just appreciate the engineering that made this all work--and be disappointed this sort of game never made it to a personal computer, where a keyboard would work more naturally.

Still it doesn't take long to be able to fill the map. One square per second's pretty easy, especially since you can lump condos or apartments, and most critically, you can pause the action with a scrolling view of your developments. Since FB tracks a property's income by what it is and what's around it, you can plan clusters during this break time. For instance, a fast-food restaurant by a casino makes lots of money. A cinema by a campground is a bad idea. Apartments and hotels cost and earn more if they're by a boardwalk or a marina. Conversely, too many fishing boats together reduce the profits the other makes. Common sense will help you win on easy mode, but there're enough possible interactions that you really need to read the manual to figure all the details. But that's no fun the first time through. It's more fun to watch the little dot-cars that multiply and move between businesses and residences as your town grows--or even turn away from the long dead-end road you forgot to industrialize. Single pixels were never so cute.

Hard mode, though, is anything but cute. I spent time studying the manual and drawing my own little development clumps based on the programmers' recommendations and even practicing ways through the menu to make them quickly. I borrowed heinously, because 20% interest rates were nothing compared to the profits I'd make and need to make. You see, $100000 to $250000 is not bad, but try 50k, 25k and, most crazily, 2.5k. And while we've all been subjected to snoozy lectures on how compound interest adds up--eight percent compounded quarterly is a whopping EIGHT POINT TWO FOUR, kids--the whole exponential wealth thing fooled me into thinking I'd probably lose. I would be making 5k a month and need 80 or so in the last twelve--and even accounting for exponents, I was pretty sure I'd fall short. Oops. So I felt like I'd made an improbable comeback. It's actually a mathematical illusion, and given that I've had too much math hammered into me to ever enjoy a lottery or casinos, this rush I got from this must be similar to that.

Organizing properties slips in more mathy learning because, at its base, FB is a discrete tiling problem. Some businesses are 2x2, others take one square, and some fit perfectly along a shoreline. Each needs roads, which don't add to your net worth but provide access. So there's a big question as to the right size and direction of a city block and what to put there, or even how far from a coast to put a road. I was disappointed to see myself creating more gridlike structures as I played to win--my early efforts were all kinds of eclectic bendy streets and t-bone intersections with wasted squares. Optimizing things would ruin things completely, and for me there is still a struggle between creating cookie-cutter city blocks and having a town that is fun to look at in the panoramic view.

Because the amusement parks and fishing boats and even the factories and oil rigs (environmentally dangerous buildings are helpfully covered black, entertainment a bright red or yellow) give the whole landscape--itself a nice mix of sands and grass and ice and water--the feeling of something you've created that's almost worth framing. And though I always have that place where I lump the boardwalk and marina and hotel and casino to start, I always try to futz with a property I haven't used for a bit. About the only complaint is that some of the smaller icons look too much alike, but they only had so much to work with.

The two-player version offers, delightfully, backstabbing well beyond the shooting action that was the norm for early consoles. There, you can place a factory by your friend's campgrounds or even create a toll booth to take his profits. My friends, after watching me beat the easy levels, cut me down to size with this, and I still can imagine my revenge after a good game, placing coal mines and factories by ski resorts and such.

All this comes to the tune of Vivaldi's "Spring" in 8-bit glory, with beepy little updates if fish catches flounder (THEIR joke!) or a horror movie scared people from motels. Sometimes things work the other way and casinos become all the rage, and it's nice to have this variety when the terrain is constant across games. Sometimes apartments and condos rack up fines that turn my net worth negative, but that's part of the fun.

FB's a great and simple game that teaches concepts in a way that other early and amusing efforts Number Munchers or Type Attack can't. They're too direct. Certainly there are a lot of strategy games today, and they are probably more polished and can show you the details of why certain properties are valuable. I can't say it helped me understand urban commerce or interest rates or anything like that, but the experimentation it forces is fun. Playing it kind of recaptured my time as a kid building with Legos and such, and without the annoying clean-up at the end, either. I'm grateful it somehow got packed into something the Coleco could handle.

aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (April 14, 2012)

Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.

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JoeTheDestroyer posted April 19, 2012:

This game sounds very interesting, and possibly another reason I should try to track down a Colecovision one of these days. I've always wanted either one of those or Intellivision, but I think they're still going for quite a bit on eBay. I would emulate, but both have such unique controllers that I would rather have the actual systems to know precisely how they played. It's either that or see if they have custom made USB controllers for either system like they do with NES.
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aschultz posted April 20, 2012:

Glad the review got you interested. An original ColecoVision would help here, I think--and since the Coleco number pad maps to the keyboard on ColEm, and the joystick maps to the number pad, there's a ton of confusion. It did however make for some interesting hybrid games that wouldn't have been around otherwise where you had to pan between screens a lot.

Pity the ColecoVision didn't REALLY catch on. It had some good games but you couldn't just throw the cartridge in and fire at will and figure things out.

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