Square Valley takes the idea of the city-builder and turns it into a unique puzzle game where the way players place specific features in relation to each other makes all the difference. It's a bit of an abstract exercise when comparing it to other city-builders, but your end results end up looking like well considered spaces the more you strive to score big points. It's an elegant merging of strict mechanics and player creativity that feels substantial and satisfying, despite a few missing convenience features.
At its most reductive, Square Valley is essentially a worker placement game. You have a pool of items to place on a 9x9 grid, but you draw from that pool as if it is a deck of cards. These items are features you'd find in a rural village like houses, windmills, trees, farm animals, etc. Depending on how you place these items, you can score different amounts of points, and those point totals can change based on how these items are placed in relation to one another.
For example, you can score more points for houses if they are placed along a roadway, and windmills score big if you surround them with wheat fields. Every feature you have at your disposal has a clear explanation of its scoring rules and you can also tap on existing features in on your valley map so you can always double-check how new placements might affect them. Games of Square Valley end when you hit a turn limit, which varies based on the mode and/or level you are playing.
It doesn't take too many rounds of Square Valley's standard chapter-based mode for the variety of features to place on the map to explode. Different breeds of animals, variations on residences, and even blights like haunted buildings or predators make sure you're always encountering some new kind of challenge while trying to score big with the items at your disposal.
Luckily, Square Valley maintains a solid line of logic in how practically all of its features work so building with them or around them starts to feel somewhat intuitive, even when working with them for the first time. Through the lengthy primary mode, nearly 50 levels are divided into three chapters that differentiate themselves by land type (valleys, plateaus, islands), all of which require some alternate strategies and creative thinking to score well enough to move on to the next challenge.
The balance of all of Square Valley's various pieces is remarkable in how it both manages to consistently provide satisfying challenge while also--when played well--produce village landscapes with walled-in city centers, witch huts buried in the woods, and farmland that sprawls out by livestock pens. Even if you don't want to ride the slow ramp of unlocked features, Square Valley lets you roll right into a Sandbox Mode where you can mix and match all of the rules and items to set your own challenge or compete in a daily challenge to compare your score against other players using the same map and elements provided to you.
As great as all of this is, there are a few annoying aspects of Square Valley's design. The most glaring of these issues is that the game doesn't suspend or save your sessions, forcing you to either sit and play through a full puzzle map or risk having to restart it from the beginning when you come back to the game. There's also a few building features like walls and rivers that aren't entirely clear about how the rules of how "painting" them onto the map work, and can lead to situations where a ton of your planned out moves can go to waste because a wall can't run alongside a plateau, for example.
The bottom line
By and large, Square Valley is a highly compelling puzzle game that captures the spirit of city-building in a pretty flexible and fun package. I just wish I could pop in and out of it a little more easily. Despite this (and a small handful of rulesets that could be a smidge clearer), Square Valley is well worth checking out.