Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: Suburbia




I think that there is a real misconception that deep games need to be complex. Suburbia is just two pages of rules, but the play and depth of the game comes from finding the synergy of the different tiles in the game.

Suburbia is an tile drafting and laying game about building and growing economies as you increase the size of your borough to attract more people to it. For as dry as that theme might sound and for as dull as the tiles might appear at first glance, the truth is that the game tells remarkable stories and is incredibly vibrant with its decisions that it calls on you to make.

Each player begins with a small suburban borough, beginning with just a suburb, a park and a factory. Tiles will be lined up on the Real Estate Market and each turn players will purchase a tile and add it to their borough. Tiles further to the left of the market cost more and after a tile is purchased, the remainder will slide down to the right to fill the vacancies.

The purchased tile is then placed. Many tiles have synergies with other tiles and may affect your borough's Income, your Reputation, or just simply give you an immediate influx of money or population.

After the tile is placed, players collect or pay money based on their Income. Then they increase or decrease their population based on their Reputation.

From simple beginnings...
That is essentially the entire game. And while it sounds dreadfully simple, it is. Which makes it genius. The game itself is simple, but the complexities arrive with what you build.

Tiles affect everything around them and sometimes even other player's boroughs. Your starting factory, for example, causes a loss of one Reputation for every civic or residential tile adjacent to it since no one wants to live next to a factory. So you'll attract fewer residents if they realize that they might have to live next to the pollution.

But that's just the start. Every tile tells an amazing narrative with its placement. The Housing Projects, for example, give you an immediate large influx of population to your borough. However, your Reputation suffers drastically whenever you place other tiles next to the projects as people start to leave your borough. School tiles tend to increase the Reputation and the population of your borough for every Residential tile that you have since a good school system attracts more people to your borough.

What is more than simply the narrative of the individual tiles is the narrative arc of your growing borough. There is a variety of tile types. There are Residential tiles, Commercial tiles, Industrial tiles and Civic tiles. Each tile has its own effects and tells its own story, but together, it tells the story of your growing borough.

Perhaps you'll have a large and efficient school system. Or perhaps you'll have a bustling industrial system in your borough. Maybe you'll have the farms and the slaughterhouse that generates income by providing produce to each of the restaurants in everyone else's boroughs.

And while this sandbox borough building would be entertaining in and of itself, much of it is impacted by another aspect of the game: Goals.

Each game starts with a number of public Goals equal to the number of players and every player also has one private, hidden Goal. Goals are another means of gaining points at the end of the game. For example, you may win +15 Population at the end of the game for having the fewest Industrial tiles with the Environmentalist Goal. Or you might win the Air Traffic Controller Goal with the most Airports and get +10 Population. At the end of the game, the player who qualifies for the Goal (all have a most or least requirement) gets the bonus points. However, if two or more players tie for a Goal, then no one gets the points for it. So there is an inherent risk in a strategy that simply tries to obtain points through Goals.

The real beauty of the Goals, however, is what they do for the game. Every tile has an inherent value to it, based off of the tile's effects itself as well as the synergy of each tile already laid in a borough. However, Goals start to change the value of the tiles in other ways. I may have a lot of Residential tiles laid when a bunch of school tiles come out. This would greatly increase my Population while also adding to my borough's Reputation. However, perhaps the Libertarian Goal is out and I could gain +15 Population at the end of the game if I have the fewest Civic tiles. Suddenly, the value of the school tiles has changed.

It game creates so much variety. If two games were played with the exact same tiles coming out in the same order (a remarkable statistical improbability), but different Goals were available, the games would still end up being played out very differently because of the change in the value of the tiles from the Goals.

There are a couple more strategic elements of the game.

One of them is on the Population track. As your Population grows, you will eventually pass red lines along the track. Every time you pass a red line, your borough loses one Income and one Reputation, as larger boroughs become more difficult to manage and maintain through increased bureaucracy. This means that surging too quickly can be costly in the long run and it requires a more planned growth, especially as the Population track gets higher, the red lines come closer and closer together.

Another element are the Lakes. Instead of purchasing a tile on the Real Estate Market, you can take any tile along it and flip it over (for a cost of $0 instead of the cost of the tile on the front) and place it as a Lake instead. Lakes simply give an immediate payoff of $2 for any tile adjacent to it and $2 for any tiles placed adjacent to them later. This is an effective way of earning quick money, however, it is one less tile that will be continuing to generate Income or Reputation in the future.

Finally, there are the Investment Markers. Instead of taking a tile from the Real Estate Market, a player can discard a tile from the track and instead place one of their three Investment Markers on a tile. In doing so, they need to pay the cost of the tile a second time, but then they immediately double the effects of the tile. Apartments, for example, give +5 Population plus +2 Population for every Commercial tile they are adjacent to. If you place an Investment Marker on it, you immediately get another +5 Population, plus another +2 Population for every Commercial tile it is adjacent to. Each player is only limited to three of them, but they are incredibly strategic in their use and investing in a section of your borough can really help you in the long run.

Suburbia is one of those rare games that is simple in its execution, but carries both a depth and variety that carries such depth and replayability. When the game first arrived, it remained on my table for a week, as it became the evening game between my wife and I.

Playing with more players, I have found that strategies need to deviate away from Goals a bit and players need to focus on the core of their borough for the most reliable way to gain points. But in a four player game, the chances of you getting the tile you wanted on the Market decreases as more people can purchase it before you. Plus, with more players, there is an increased chance of Goal conditions being tied. This doesn't hinder the game's strategies with more players, but simply changes it.

In case you haven't been able to tell, I adore this game. Ted Alspach's designs tend to have a simple ruleset, but offer a lot of variety to them. This game is no exception. However, the game's replayability and variety aren't created by the players (such as in Ultimate Werewolf or One Night Ultimate Werewolf), but rather through the systems and game itself.

I do have a few criticisms of the game, but they are minor.

The first is the aesthetics. At first glance, the game appears rather dry and drab. Everything is fully functional and the color keyed tiles are useful for gameplay, but it is nothing that catches the eye when one walks by.

However, despite this, I've actually grown to appreciate the aesthetics somewhat. I enjoy admiring my borough after it is built. I still think that it could be more vibrant, but since you are often watching for synergy and reactions from tiles in both your borough and your opponents' boroughs, I understand the design choice.

Next is the variety. While it makes the game interesting and adds to the replayability, it also can make some strategic elements difficult to predict. Not all of the tiles are included in each play. You randomly take tiles without looking at them and seed the stacks. You could purchase farms and slaughterhouses and no restaurants may ever appear. You could purchase the first Airport, planning on having a multiple-airport synergy strategy at the end game, but no others may appear.

While the variety is great, it can sometimes force you to focus on tactical purchases rather than strategic design. In fact, you may end up with a game where only a few residential tiles appear. This is by design, however, and while the variety is great, I wish that there was a bit of foreknowledge of the tiles that were included in the game, even if it was simply knowing a rough breakdown of Residential to Commercial to Industrial to Civic ratios.

Ultimately this unknown creates difficulty with strategy, but it does add to tension with Goals. I may be tied with Residential ties, but have the Builder (Most Residential) Goal and be waiting to grab just one more Residential tile... only to find that no more arrive. It creates some interesting decisions, but at the cost of a longer term strategy that might turn off some players.

However, the game plays quick and fluidly enough that I don't mind the loss of the strategic elements too much. The game is just fun to play.

Suburbia is a simple game in terms of rules. It can be learned within minutes. However, it isn't until the first tile is purchased and you realize how differently it will affect your borough just by where you place it that you start to understand the depth of the game. The game forces you to be aware of a lot, but I like that. I have to watch my neighbors to see if anything I purchase will help them or if their purchases will help me. While there isn't any direct interaction, you don't feel isolated or alone. The game is simple enough to introduce to casual gamers, but deep enough that veteran players can sink their teeth into repeated plays.

The game feels like a very light, non-warring civilization building game. And, like most civ-building games, when it is over, I like to look over my empire and, win or lose, I'll puff my chest with pride at the story of my land. True, we may not have the heads of Visigoths on pikes along our borders as trophies of conquest, but we did gain great riches from our neighbors with our Homeowner's Association after they plopped down two Retirement Villages. And when our neighbors starting farming and butchering animals, we defiantly built a Fancy Restaurant to declare our eatery the best in the land and discourage any other restaurants to be built, thus starving the farming peasants of our neighbors. The only thing we envy of our neighbors isn't a moat to keep us away, but rather their Waterfront Reality that kept us at an economic distance.

They may not sound like great war stories, but you still get stories of your growing civilization. We just research station wagons instead of chariots. And I am completely fine with that.

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