Review: Suburbia – It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Suburbia_box

That looks like a great neighborhood for a family with a guitar playing teenage son who skateboards, a crazy old scientist, and a time machine.

Suburbia was on my to-get list for a while. I grew up playing Sim City 2000, carefully planning urban development on a unique map, balancing commercial, industrial, and residential sectors to meet the needs of the population. When I first started to get into board games, most of the “city building” games seemed to focus on either building effects or locations, while ignoring any direct interaction between buildings. (Alhambra comes close, but the setting and scale were not quite what I was looking for)  But then, I happened across the Designer’s Diary for a game called Suburbia on BoardGameGeek. I saw that this game might have the sort of interactions I was looking for, where the building’s abilities, type, and placement all had effects on the game. Now that I have it, I can say that Suburbia lives up to my expectations.

What You Get

Small Cube, Cylinder, and Flat Square markers in each player color.

4 player boards with income and reputation tracks, and 4 turn reference cards.

1 First player marker with building facade stickers

1 Scoring track

1 Market board, with smaller Tile supply and Money supply boards

A big pile of cardboard money

A number of hex shaped building tiles grouped into A B and C stacks, and basic buildings

Circular Goal tokens

I was a bit surprised by the amount of cardboard in the box. There are only a few wooden tokens to track income, reputation and population (score), and the first player (so everyone gets the same number of turns). There is a large pile of cardboard $1, $5 and $10 (million) money tokens. But the heart of the game are all the cardboard buildings. The material is nice and thick, possibly thicker than needed for this game, especially since you have to shuffle the tiles during setup. But the weight of the cardboard helps to keeps the tiles in place in your city.

What You Do

Each player starts with the same setup, one suburb, one park, and one industrial plant in that order, placed in the middle of their city, and $15 million. The population markers all start at the 2 space on the population track, reputation starts at 1, and income starts at $0. The starting positions are helpfully marked so you don’t have to remember. Incidentally, these values can be determined from the starting buildings, as I’ll explain later, which is another nice touch.

Each stack of buildings (A, B, and C) gets shuffled individually. Only a portion of the buildings will get used, with the number depending on the number of players. The rest are returned to the box. The C stack also gets the “one more round” tile shuffled into the bottom 6 spaces, with 4 extra tiles added so every player is guaranteed a final turn, but the exact end of the game is unknown.

The initial “market” is set by revealing the top 7 tiles from the A stack, and placing them in front of the market board, in front of spaces marked $0, $0, $2, $4, $6, $8, and $10. This “market price” is an extra cost that must be paid whenever the tile is taken, in addition to the cost printed on the tile. The tiles in the $0 spots may be taken for face value.

The final step in setup is to select goals. There are 20 different goals, such as having the largest lake or most airports, that give extra points at the end. One goal per player is revealed on the market board. These are public goals that players compete for. Then each player gets to keep 1 of 2 private goals. The game is ready to begin.

On a player’s turn, she chooses one tile, pays the cost (including any extra cost printed on the market board) and places it somewhere in her city. The player can take any building in the market and make it a lake, which costs $0 plus the market price.

Instead of any building in the market, the player can take a basic property (suburbs, park, or industry) and add it to her city for the cost printed on it, but the player must also remove a tile in the market from the game, again paying the market price, but not the normal cost of the removed tile. Lakes and basic tiles are placed like normal buildings from the market.

Suburbia_1

The first game, learning how it works

The building tiles are the main mechanic in the game. In addition to the cost, each tile has a type (yellow industrial, green residential, gray civic/governmental, and blue commercial), a name, and immediate and/or conditional actions. Some tiles have special icons, such as airports, restaurants, office buildings, and skyscrapers. The immediate action is taken immediately when placed. These tend to be simple actions, like gaining or losing reputation, income, or score. Next, the conditional actions are evaluated. The conditional actions provide interaction between buildings like extra income or reputation depending on what buildings are adjacent to them. Others cause the player to lose reputation, such as placing an airport next to residential buildings. Some buildings are more exotic, and apply to all residential buildings in a city, or all restaurants built anywhere. Conditional actions remain in effect after they are placed, so not only do you have to evaluate the new building, but also reevaluate the other buildings, to see if the new building causes any new actions. Lakes, for example, give $2 for each non-lake tile that is adjacent, so if you place a new tile next to an existing lake, you get the $2 in addition to any actions on the new tile. Understanding and mastering these interactions is the real heart of the game.

Suburbia_3

The second game. The gloves are off

After taking and placing a building tile, and evaluating all the conditional actions, the player collects income equal to her space on the income track, and then gains population equal to her space on the reputation track. If income is negative, the amount must be paid instead, or lose equal amount of population. Each time a red line is crossed due to gaining population (at any time during a turn) the player loses 1 reputation and 1 income. Fortunately, the revese is also true, and if you lose population (due to having negative reputation or other losses) and cross a line, you gain an income and reputation instead. Finally, the market is refilled from the left (most expensive) end with tiles from the stacks, first placing the As, then the Bs, and finally the Cs. When the one more round tile appears the current round finishes, and then each player, starting with the first player, takes a final turn. After players have taken their final turns, private goals are revealed, and all the goals are scored. the public goals are scored by the single player who meets the condition, while any ties score no points. Private goals can only be scored by players who hold them, but they must still solely meet the condition.

What I Liked

The thing I liked most was the importance of tile placement in addition to tile selection. The interaction between the four building types provides for a variety of strategies. You can play a safe balanced strategy, or completely ignore the balance and go for a specialized strategy. And the number of different buildings and goals makes each game completely different. This game captures the sense of scale of building and running a large city, and the elegant income and reputation system handles the challenge of maintaining a balance.

What I Disliked

When first punching the game out, I noticed there were a few sheets printed off-center, which could be distracting to some. I’ve heard of others having problems, but I think most copies have no problems with this, and it doesn’t impact gameplay in my copy.

Suburbia_punch

A few unfortunate cuts, but not game-changing

The main thing that stood out was the occasional imbalance between goals. Not all of the goals are equal in points, which makes sense since they are not equally difficult, but a player who can only choose between 10-point private goals will be at a slight disadvantage against a player choosing between 20-point private goals. Some of the goals also directly contradict each other (most lakes and fewest lakes is most obvious) which can leave a player with fewer options for scoring. My understanding from reading others’ reviews is that this is a smaller issue with more players.

After a few games, we felt that there can be a little too much to track sometimes. (Demonstrated by this review’s having my longest “what you do” section to-date). Although the designer did a great job of simplifying a lot of complex behavior into a playable game, we occasionally found ourselves missing something while playing. The also game took as a bit longer to play than expected (especially with only 2 players), but I’m hoping both of these minor issues will improve once we know the buildings better and have a better handle on gameplay.

Conclusions

Suburbia is one of the entries in a recent boom in city building games. (The past few years have seen games such as The Capitals, Card City, The City, City Council, City Hall, City, Inc., Construction Zone, Gingkopolis, Steel Towers, Sunrise City, Town Center, and Urban Sprawl, as well as fictional and Historical cities like Belfort, London, and Canterbury). The City Building category on BoardGameGeek includes wildly different interpretations of the term, including anything where you can build something called a city, like Carcassonne, more abstract games that just have a “city” theme, and games like Suburbia that have a tightly integrated theme of city-building.

I like to think that there is a difference between Town Building and City Building: In a town, everything is close enough together that the placement doesn’t matter. But in a City, neighborhoods matter. Buildings separated by just a few blocks may, in fact, be worlds away. Suburbia does an excellent job of recreating this complex behavior, and capturing the feel of the old Sim City games. I’m looking forward to getting the expansion, Suburbia, Inc., to continue the great experience, and keep this game entertaining for a long time.

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