Ted Alspach’s Suburbia combines two simple pleasures, drafting and tile-placement, as well as any game ever made. Like an ice cream parlor displaying its sweet treats in glass-shielded rows, both parts–drafting and placement–offer up a suite of tasty options.
The line between agonizing decisions and a friendly buffet of options in board gaming is thinner than you’d think. After all, good decisions advance you towards victory and bad decisions away from it, no matter what feelings those decisions evoke. Certainly some games set up the bumper pads to soften the pain of tactical mistakes, but others simply offer the illusion of safety. Suburbia pulls off this con with aplomb. I think it might be the art. It’s bright and cheery with its primary colors and clean lines; suburbs as they’re advertised, not as they are. This isn’t a delusion on the part of the game, but a nod of the head to the myth.
In the United States the history of the suburbs is rife with racism and hubristic contempt. That’s not to say that the idea of suburban communities is inherently flawed (I’ve lived in the suburbs almost my entire life), only that people who claim to have figured out how to organize society fail to understand the complexity of life. Even the most noble among us can’t handle such a task.
Tradeoffs are the name of the game, in city planning and in Suburbia, and nothing makes tradeoffs both evident and accessible like drafting. Each turn you’re given a platter of tiles to purchase, but this isn’t all-you-can-eat. Pick one. It better be the right one, because every choice here is important. Few of them will be obvious. Each tile interacts with the others in unique ways, sometimes across the entire spectrum of players, and each tile is dynamically priced. On top of the inherent price of the piece there’s a market price that shrinks over time. The longer a particular tile is on offer the cheaper it gets, a sort of topsy-turvy variation on the Puerto Rico/Twilight Imperium mechanism where unselected actions gain monetary incentives.
Even with a set selection of tiles (that quickly expands when you bring expansions into the picture), no two games of Suburbia ever feel quite the same. Context is everything. Price, timing, your burgeoning tableau, the other player’s–all of it shifts and morphs the valuation of any given tile.
Tile placement has to be one of the most information-dense game mechanisms, and Suburbia uses it to its fullest potential. Every tile placement is followed by a 7-step resolution process, where you check the cost, immediate effects, conditional effects, conditional effects on neighboring tiles, etc. Somehow, after a couple of turns, this process becomes ingrained and intuitive in no small part because of the excellent graphic design. Everything with a circle affects income; a square, population growth. This clean visual language extends to the way tiles are colored and how icons are managed.
Suburbia is effortlessly cool, making the complex simple and the simple complex. Or maybe it simply knows where to be simple and where to be complex. Resources are simple: you’ve got money and you’ve got population (VP) growth. Valuation is complex, with the market and all of the possible interactions. Understanding how things work together is simple: stark colors and easy-to-read icons (something I’ve become much more appreciative of in the past couple of years, either because I’m getting old or because I’ve played too many games with impossible to distinguish from across the table icons.)
Strategy is simple in Suburbia. Tactics are complex. There’s one basic strategy that most people will gravitate towards, and perhaps never leave: high income, low population early before a mid/late pivot towards population. It’s a FOO strategy, though an effective one, as balancing the wire once you go low-income or high population growth in the early game is very difficult. I can attest that it can be done, however. The driving force behind the FOO strat is the speed bump system, which positions Suburbia alongside Power Grid and Mario Kart as having the most influential catch-up mechanisms in gaming.
As your score increases you’ll pass speed bump spaces on the scoring track. Each time you do, both your monetary and population income drop by one space apiece. At the start you’ll encounter these every 10-15 points, but they quickly pinch together, and before you know it you’ll be crashing through three or more each turn. It’s such a significant effect that it threatens to overwhelm the game completely. Some people will hate this, as they do with Power Grid, but I find it endearing. Catch-up mechanisms are often seen as a usually-necessary vestigial mechanisms to keep euro games family-friendly (don’t want young Hans feeling like he’s not in contention the whole time), but why can’t they become core to the experience? It shouldn’t be in every game (indeed, catch-up mechanisms themselves shouldn’t be in every game), but here I love it. Start accumulating too many points early in the game and you get a firm slap across the face. How can you work around this obstacle?
Occasionally the speed bump system can result in the end-of-turn trigger (semi-randomly determined) having an outsized influence on the winner. Similarly, the tiles that mitigate the speed bump’s effects, if gained early, can result in a sizeable advantage to the person who gets them. Knowing those tiles are coming and strategizing with that in mind becomes part of the game once you know what’s up, but it can frustrate new players who don’t have that level of knowledge yet.
Which takes us to the expansion. I’ve only played with the first one, Suburbia Inc., and it has some fantastic new stuff I’ll gladly play with every time. However, it dilutes the tile pool by giving you a larger selection. Normally this would be an unequivocally positive thing–more is good, right? But it creates two problems with Suburbia. First, tile knowledge becomes less important to success because nearly half of the tiles will be randomly taken out of the game. Second, and most importantly, it alters the valuation of tiles that depend on particular icons by reducing how frequently those icons appear. Restaurants, for instance, lose value as more restaurants are acquired by other players. With the expansion the odds of more restaurants showing up is significantly lower. You can see how this quickly becomes an issue.
Still, I almost always play with the expansion because of what it adds, most notably borders. These awkwardly-shaped pieces function the same as a normal hexagon tile except they define a fixed border for your community and are awkward. Like, so awkward. They get in the way of what you want to do and look ridiculous. This is a feature, not a bug. Borders can be some of the most powerful tiles in the game but they limit your future options for growth.
Suburbia Inc. also adds intermediary goals which open up the strategic space a bit by providing rewards for hitting certain milestones that might not be part of the income-then-points FOO strategy. Overall I think it contributes more than it takes away, but I can see why some prefer the tighter, more cutthroat base game.
As I play more board games I find myself seeking out innovation. I’ve seen most of what board gaming has to offer, so what thrills me are the games out on the edge, trying to chart new ground. Along with this interest in novelty I find myself appreciating the games that simply provide comfort more and more. They aren’t flashy, but they do the little things right. Suburbia is one of these comfort games. I’ve gone years between plays, but no matter what it welcomes me back, arms open.