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I noticed in my second game, where I'm doing much better than the first, I seem to be unlocking new building research options sooner. However, it's unclear to me what actually causes them to unlock.

Does it require certain amounts of yield, particular buildings or combos, or something else?

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Do you mean being able to research new buildings? –  Ashley Nunn Nov 28 '11 at 2:40
    
@AshleyNunn Yes. –  sjohnston Nov 28 '11 at 2:41
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The in-game documentation states that the Intelligence parameter on residents "aids in discovering new buildings." So although there doesn't seem to be any visible indicator of your progress in researching new buildings, the game is using the total Intelligence of all your town's residents to determine how quickly you progress.

Based on this, the best way to unlock new buildings would be to maximize resident Intelligence. There are three ways to do this:

  • Build more shops and facilities that increase Intelligence when used.
  • Get more residents (always have a house available for newcomers to move into).
  • Change resident professions to jobs with higher natural intelligence rating.

Job Intelligence, from lowest to highest:

  • Farmer
  • Artisan
  • Merchant
  • Warrior
  • Vassal
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