Sunday, March 30, 2014

Suburbia, by Ted Alspach

Did you play SimCity 2000 in 1994, or any year thereafter? I did, and I loved it. There's something about "god mode" and managing an economy that's always held my attention and kept me coming back to the genre for more games - but I didn't expect the latest version to be a tabletop game!

Suburbia is a tile-building game of economic management and city development. It's a pretty deep game, on the level of a game like Power Grid or Concordia, and takes about 90-120 minutes to play. If you're a fan of interactions and building an economy, you should try this game!

I'm including a Q & A with my wife, Amy, and I both answering some general questions after my review. Enjoy!

In Suburbia, players build individual "cities" full of hex-shaped tiles that represent residential, industrial, commercial, and other types of "plots." The winner is the player who has the most victory points, called "Populatoin" in Suburbia, when the game ends.

Each player is given two secret "goals" at the start of the game, and chooses one to keep for the game. Additional goals equal to the number of players are drawn and placed face-up as shared goals for each player. Each provides a certain number of bonus points to the player best able to meet the goal - usually by having more of something than every other player, or fewer of something than every other player. Though these goals aren't the only way to earn victory points, in my experience they've determined the victor in every close game. They also provide players a general strategy to follow when the game starts. 

Each turn, the active player either purchases a tile from the available stacks, or builds a "lake" in their city plot by taking a tile and placing it face down. In this way each player's city expands by a single tile each turn. Though players start with identical setups, the variance and distinct differences in the types of plot tiles that are available and the hidden bonus goals lead players to quickly build unique cities.


Players begin with three tiles and a strip of land from which their burgeoning suburb will expand. All new tiles must be places so that they share an edge with an existing tile. The strip sets the starting setup for players, and provides the two tracks each player maintains during the game - "Reputation" and "Income" - and these tracks represent victory point accumulation and the economic power of the player's city. 

At the end of each turn, after the tile for the turn has been placed and all affects and tracks have been attended to, the active player gains (or loses) money equal to the player's place on his or her income track, then gains (or loses)  victory points equal to the player's placing on his or her reputation track. Play continues until the "One More Round" tile is revealed (in the second half of the third stack of tiles), at which point players play another round and the game ends. 

Most of the drama in Suburbia comes from the shared row of tiles that players can purchase from, because there's a lot of hoping your opponents don't pick up the tile you really want. There's very little hidden information, and the only variance in the game comes from the stack of tiles that refill the row from which players purchase. The variance is significant though, because many of the tiles, particularly commercial tiles, reward players for matching symbols with other tiles that may appear later in the game - but those tiles aren't certain to be included in the tiles randomly chosen when the game began.

This isn't really a high-drama game, but instead a game of meticulous planning and building advantages over time. It's a neat piece of design that many of the tiles check to see what tiles have been built in other player's cities, meaning that players are required to keep tabs on what everybody else is doing. If it weren't for this then Suburbia would feel a lot like 4-player solitaire, and at times still does - it is a Euro, after all.

If you enjoy Power Grid, you'll like this game. I can't think of a better comp in terms of the "feel" of the game - it's a great Euro game with interesting mechanics, and there's a nice sense of enjoyment in watching your city stretch out in front of you during the game. This, more than anything, reminds me of SimCity, and I dearly enjoy that. This is not a game for kids, nor is it a gateway game, in my opinion - it's definitely dry, and the art isn't going to capture the attention of a non-gamer. If you've got an experienced group of game players, then pick this up and try it out - I think you'll like it!

If you'd like to try this before buying it, Suburbia is available on iOS, and according to the internet it should be available on Android soon as well.

Here's Q&A with five questions I sent to Amy, with my responses included as well:

1. How'd you do in your first game? 

Amy: I was the lucky winner in my first game of Suburbia. I wish I could take the credit for the win but honestly it had everything to do with the quests that were dealt out. I guess I'll take credit for optimizing my situation.

JR: I played pretty well in my first game, and took an early lead but ended up losing by about a 20-point margin. I really fell behind once other players' economies started to function properly, as I didn't build a strong income base early in the game, and focused only on reputation. 

The starting setup for each player - iOS style
2. What are your general impressions? (theme, components, rules, etc)

Amy: Overall, the game seemed pretty straight forward. During my first game I had to take some time to understand what each tile did but I feel if I played another game I would be more familiar with the game in general. 

The one thing I had a difficult time grasping was the constant board recheck. Anytime a player places a tile on the board, that tile and the placement of the tile can impact the player's reputation and income. It's also possible that a tile placed by one player can have an effect on another player.  

While this is very much a Euro game, I feel this constant rechecking, forced every player to pay attention to what everyone else was doing. In most Euro games the play is very independent but in Suburbia the players are forced to pay attention to game play.

JR: This isn't a particularly "pretty" game, and I think that throws me off. I'm used to games with strong art and graphic design that supports the theme, and Suburbia feels very "Euro", even in the way the tiles are designed and information is presented. I think it keeps me from getting immersed as much as I'd like to - I'd definitely love to see a redesign with prettier art.

Beyond that, I love tile-building games, and I really dig the feeling of placing hexes in my city and having to think and plan for how early placement will affect future payoffs. Each game of this I've played has taken around 2 hours, and I think we could get that a little shorter if each person knew how to play. It's funny that even though it's a "long" game by our normal game night standards, I usually feel at the end of Suburbia like I'd like to play a few more rounds and build out my empire a little more - EXACTLY like I feel at the end of a game of Civilization or SimCity.

3. What "tension" did you feel during the game?

Amy: I honestly don't remember feeling much if any tension. (Editor's Note: Amy CRUSHED us in her first game by about 40 points - it was a massacre. There was no need for her to feel any tension!)

JR: It's definitely hard to manage income and reputation without falling behind in the game. There's a pressure to build an economy immediately so you can have enough money to buy the nice tiles, but if you don't get the commercial tiles that enable higher incomes then it can be rough to catch up.

4. Did it feel like any other games you've played? Which ones, and how?

Amy: If Sim City could be a board game I feel it would be Suburbia. The basic concept of SimCity is to build a city, so if you throw in quests then you have Suburbia. Oh, and for whatever reason I feel that if Carcassonne and Power Grid had a baby it would be kind of like Suburbia. 

JR: My closest comparison is Power Grid, and I made that call before I read Amy's response to this. Both games require that you manage an economy over multiple rounds, but Suburbia has hidden information in the form of each player's private goal that create some uncertainty that isn't present in Power Grid.

5. What advice would you give to a first-time player?

Amy: Take time to look at all the quests that are given. If you can accomplish more quests than try to focus on those. Also, towards the end I was stressed for some resources based on my set up, make sure to pay attention to reputation and income so you don't get shorted by the end of the game. 

JR: Don't think too much about winning if you're playing with experienced players. Like 7 Wonders, this game requires that you have a pretty good sense of what's coming later in the game to plan well, so instead just try to focus on hitting your bonus goal and one or two of the public ones. Try to keep your income and reputation above zero, and don't blow out your budget for a single tile - it's almost never worth it!

6. Would you play Suburbia again?

Amy: I couldn't really buy into Suburbia because I'm not a huge city building fan but I would probably play it again with the right game group. If you like city building games than I would highly recommend it.

JR: Yes, and I'd like to get it to the table with a full group of people who are experienced at the game, because I think a 2-hour play time is a little long. I'm pretty sure we could get a game finished in under 90 minutes with a good group, and that seems a little more reasonable given the depth of the game.

So many hexes!
Suburbia on Shut Up and Sit Down

Watch Tom Vasel review Suburbia at The Dice Tower

Read Board Game Quest's review of Suburbia

English Rulebook for Suburbia

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JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.