The game: Suburbia by Ted Alspach, published by Bézier Games in 2012.
Elevator pitch: Sim City board game. Manage an economic engine, draft tiles to build your borough, and try to have your tiles interact well with the other tiles in play.
What’s in the box? Lots of hexagon tiles. The tiles look plain by themselves, but when laid on table with other tiles, they look fine and the information – lots of it – is clear enough. Components are generally fine, with no major complaints but won’t wow you. First edition had badly cut tiles, requiring careful punching.
What do you do in the game? On each turn you add a tile to your borough. You either buy a new city tile, get a cheap basic tile, take a free lake if you need money or play a doubler marker on a tile you played before, doubling it. Whatever you do, one tile is removed from the draft queue. Choosing the best tile to play is sometimes obvious, but usually not, so there are interesting decisions to make almost every turn. You’ll also have to manage your economy in order to be able to get the tiles you want to buy, instead of the taking the tiles you can take.
Lucky or skillful? There’s some luck, but it’s moderate. Lucky draws are balanced with a draft queue, where the new tiles are a lot more expensive than the older tiles. There’s a luck element in the goal tiles – there are some common goals and everybody gets one private (chosen from two tiles) and good or bad luck here can have an effect on results – but I don’t think it’s game-breaking at all.
Abstract or thematic? The tile effects are subtle and mechanical (gain or lose income, gain or lose reputation, gain or lose population, gain or lose money), but they are logical and make thematic sense. The combinations of the tiles make sense or are funny; this is not a funny game in itself, but has lots of potential for emergent humour. In the end, win or lose, you can take a look at your borough and be satisfied of what you’ve built. The theme works really well.
Solitaire or interactive? There’s no direct interaction between players – no messing around with somebody else’s borough – but the players compete for the same tiles in the queue and the shared goals mean you’ll have to keep an eye on what your opponents are doing. Also, many tiles interact with the tiles your opponents have. The game will not satisfy those who want lots of direct interaction and conflict, but it’s not all solitaire. Conflict-averse euro gamers should enjoy this.
Players: 1–4. Two-player game is pleasantly swift, but the four-player game isn’t too slow, either. Hard to say what’s best – I haven’t tried the game with three players, but based on playing with two and four, that’s probably the sweet spot. I don’t play solitaire games, so no opinions on that. Me, I’m just waiting for the iPad version that should be in the works.
Who can play? Official age recommendation is 8+, and I think that’s quite accurate, at least for kids accustomed to good games. The game is a wee bit complicated for more casual gamers – following the tile interactions can get complicated, so many people will find that either confusing or unpleasant. Other than that, the game is easy to approach, yet offers enoug depth for more serious gamers to enjoy. The game won a Mensa Select award, which I find a bit odd, considering how light games Mensa usually selects, but I suppose that proves the game has appeal for more casual gamers as well. The theme certainly helps there.
Length: 45–90 minutes, depending on the number of players. A 45-minute two-player game felt pleasantly swift. A 90-minute four-player game less so, but the game doesn’t feel like it drags or takes too long. I could see that happen with players who find the options overwhelming and freeze, but fortunately my group has so far managed this quite well, even the players who usually take more time with their turns.
What’s to like: Developing your city is fun, you can get a good sense of achievement even when you don’t win. The theme works. The game has good variability and you can try different strategies and still be able to win. There’s a good level of interaction: no direct conflict, but you have to keep an eye on your opponents to compete on the goals.
What’s not to like: The book-keeping can be over-whelming and annoying. Variability means there’s luck involved; particularly the hidden goals can feel like a problem. Players prone to slow thinking may freeze. At 90 minutes, the game is a bit on the long side, considering the luck element. There’s lots of information to take in, and lots of small icons you’d like to see across the table.
My verdict: I’m a big fan of the game, in many ways Suburbia is my kind of game. At the same time it’s clear this game is not for everybody. See the long list of things not to like above! Frankly, I’m surprised the game won the Mensa Select award – it does deserve the award, but it’s not the most elegant design. Once you figure out how the tile interactions work, though, it’s quite logical, and I really like how the theme works. Playing this game is fun, because you tend to come up with narrative, explanations why your borough turned out like it did.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Suburbia gets Enthusiastic.