Come With Me to the Burbs!
I thought I’d venture away from my usual topical discussion to provide a review of one of my favorite games: Suburbia. I don’t remember where or when I was introduced to this game, but it immediately appealed to me. I was the first person in my game group to purchase the game. In fact, I like the game so much that I bought two copies, one to keep at work, and one to keep at home. I almost bought a third copy when they kickstarted a collector’s edition (still kind of regret not pulling the trigger on that one), though it was a big enough hit with the game group that one of the other guys bought the collector’s edition. The electronic version is also one of the first games I install on my tablets.
Suburbia is a tile placement and city building game released in 2012. It plays in 60 - 90 minutes. My experience has been that it can be longer than 90 minutes with new players, or less than 60 minutes with players familiar with the game. You may remember that my game group favors games that can be played in about an hour because we would play at work, and this game is one that we have been able to fit in that timeframe without modification. The base game supports one to four players, while the collector’s edition adds a potential fifth player. Players take turns purchasing tiles representing different aspects of a city with the goal of encouraging population growth. The end is determined by a randomly placed tile. The winner is determined by the city with the largest population. At the end of the game, a number of hidden and shared goals are evaluated. These goals usually take the form of a player having the most of something or the least of something, and are randomly selected at the beginning of the game. The goals provide a population increase of 10, 15, or 20 population. A number of goals equal to the number of players are placed face up on one of the game boards. These are common goals, and all players are eligible to compete for them. Each player is dealt two goals, from which they select one hidden goal. This goal is only known to the player, and only they are eligible for the reward, but if another player completes the goal, then no one gets the reward. Players may wait until the game setup is complete before selecting their hidden goal.
Each player selects a different colored borough board. This board acts as both the starting place for their city, as well as tracking two attributes of their city: income, and reputation. Both of these stats go from a maximum of 15 down to a minimum of negative five, and will fluctuate based mostly on tiles placed in their own city, though they may be altered by tiles placed in other player’s cities as well. Three starting city tiles are placed adjacent to the borough board in the center. These consist of a green “suburbs” tile, a gray “community park” tile, and a yellow “heavy factory” tile. These tiles are stacked green-gray-yellow in a straight line perpendicular to the borough board in the center bay. Additional tiles for each of these are stacked and placed in the real estate market and may be purchased by any player until they run out. Tokens matching the color of the board and representing the income position, and reputation position are placed on the borough board, and a token representing the population of the city is placed on the population tracker board. The places that these tokens start at are shown by an indicator, but are derived from the way that the starting tiles are placed. We’ll go over the tile interactions in a bit. Each player starts with $15, and three investment tokens that will make more sense after we talk about the tiles.
The rest of the real estate market consists of a tile river that is fed from three stacks of tiles that are placed face down. An A stack, B stack, and C stack. The stack a tile goes into is indicated on the back of the tile, and is organized by when they will enter the river. The stacks are selected from a larger pool for each group, so the set of tiles in the stacks are different from game to game. The tiles from the A stack go in first until it is exhausted, then the B stack, and finally the C stack. The end game tile is placed randomly in the C stack. The tiles are also organized into four categories: blue “commercial”, green “residential”, yellow “industry” and gray “civic”. Some of the goals mentioned before are based on having the most or fewest tiles for one of these categories. Starting with the A group, tiles are pulled from the top of the stack, and fill in the tile river from left to right. Each tile has a base cost that can be altered based on the tiles position in the river. The two slots at the far right of the river have zero additional cost, with each slot farther to the left getting more expensive by $2 with a max of $10 additional for the tile at the far left. Each time a tile is purchased or removed for other actions, tiles to its left slide over to fill in the gap, and a new tile is placed at the end. This is one of the first games I had played that featured this river style of laying out components, and it’s one of the mechanics that I really like, while at the same time it drives me nuts. I hate seeing a tile critical to my strategy sitting over at the high end, and knowing that someone else is going to be able to purchase the tile before I can afford to do so.
Now that we’ve gotten through the basic setup, let’s talk tiles. On the front side of the tile, we have a background color indicating the category of tile it is. Each tile has a cost found on the left side of the tile, and a name banner across the top. Optionally, a tile may have an immediate effect that is found immediately below the banner, an additional category icon in the left and/or right side of the tile, and a conditional tableau effect in a banner at the bottom of the tile. The conditional effect is usually positive (though in some cases is negative), and may be based on tiles in your own city, or other cities based on the wording, but generally are pretty clear on what the effect will be. The conditional effect is also usually ongoing, meaning that if other tiles are placed that meet the condition, you get that benefit. For instance, one tile called the “shipping center” gets you $2 for each commercial tile in the game. That means that when you place it in your city, you total up the number of commercial tiles in your city and in your opponents cities and get $2 for each one of them (including the shipping center, which is a commercial building too). If someone buys a commercial building after you have placed the shipping center, you get an additional $2. The back side of the A, B, and C tiles is a lake tile. Lakes are $0 cost tiles and are the fastest way to get money in the game. When placed in your city they give you $2 for each non-lake tile adjacent to it. Placing additional non lake tiles around it gets an additional $2.
Starting with the first player, each player in turn either purchases a tile from the river, a tile from the set of starter tiles, or an improvement. An improvement is placed on a tile already in the city. When you place the improvement, you pay the cost of the tile a second time, and then do all the tile effects a second time. From that point on, any conditional effects are doubled. When one of the starter tiles or an improvement is purchased, the player removes a tile from the river. The player doesn’t pay the base cost, but does pay the cost of the river position. After purchasing, the player receives (or pays) money based on their current income, then moves their population marker based on their current reputation. On the population track there are red lines that when crossed reduce the player’s income and reputation. Play continues until the “One more round” token is revealed in the C stack. One more full round is completed so that all players have an equal number of turns. Then the players gain population according to the amount of end money. Finally, goals are evaluated with population being awarded to the winner of each public goal, and if a player won their private goal.
OK, so what do I like and dislike about the game? The river appealed to me right away. It has aspects of opportunity cost for purchasing early, and adds some mild conflict in that all players are purchasing from the same pool of tiles. This adds some tension and drama, especially as the public goals may be related to the categories of tiles in the river. The goals are also interesting, but a mixed bag. I struggle with the “fewest” goals because trying to go for them can represent a significant obstruction to some aspects of the game, but also adds a challenge. Also, for the public goals there can sometimes be a race to “fail” a goal and not be one of the last two that are still in the running for a “fewest” goal. When that happens, there’s a lot of pressure not to fail the goal because you would then just be handing the other player end-game population. Even worse is a “fewest” goal as a private goal, because then it’s only you struggling to work around the restriction. Another aspect of the goals is that because the stacks of tiles are randomly selected from a pool, it’s possible that a category of tiles for a goal are not seen frequently, which can render the goal useless. There are also some “must buy” tiles, and so there can be a lot of competition to grab those. Other tiles seem like a great buy on the surface, but when they come out in the river can have a large impact on their utility. Two tiles reduce the impact of the red lines on the population track, but they are very expensive and only appear in the B and C stacks. If they come out late in those stacks, then you generally don’t get enough value out of them to make it worth it. There can also be a little “take that” if you make your strategy too clear. Even if a player can’t afford a tile that you have your eye on, they can turn it into a lake, or destroy it with a starter tile purchase or an improvement.
That said, even with the negatives, I still love playing the game. I’d compare this game’s effect on me to Hogwarts for Logan. I’m down to play, any time, anywhere.