Urban Space, man – Urban Sprawl review

It always ended up in one of two ways. Sometimes – rarely – I’d end up with the statue of Mario in the middle of my thriving metropolis. Most of the time the whole damn thing would go to the dogs, a horrendous series of disasters culminating in Bowser tearing my work to pieces once again, destroying the fine city I had created. Delete the save file. Start from the beginning again. Roads. Power. Blocks. I’ll get it to work this time.

Sim City on the SNES pretty much destroyed my mid-teens and I loved every second of it. Now, as my focus in recent years has turned to more cardboard based pursuits, I get to do it all over again. This time, however, it’s against other players and not the game itself. All the joy of building and planning a city with the added edge of competition, crushing your enemies before you. Urban Sprawl is here and it is excellent.

Behind the simple conceit and straightforward gameplay lies a wonderful game that demands you pay attention and consider each move you make. While it’s certainly a cerebral affair, Urban Sprawl never feels like it’s punishing you – it’s a heavy game, sure, but it’s a huge amount of fun…

A (relatively) quick runthrough on how to play. The aim of Urban Sprawl is to gain more Prestige than your opponents by constructing and claiming buildings on the map. By paying a certain amount of Action Points – you get a maximum of 6AP per turn – you grab permits and contracts to build. Placing them on the map costs money, signified by numbers dotted around the outside of the map. Add up the numbers on the rows and columns of the site you’re building on, hand over the cash and claim it for your own.

These buildings will (hopefully) get you some income and Prestige points as the game goes on. Some cards trigger a payout phase, worked out by seeing who has the most amount of buildings in a row or column and canny players will use their funds to try and get yet more control of the board. Not everything is rosy though – there are events that can cause a lot trouble for players. Conversely, some can be rather lucrative, gaining you yet more wealth or Prestige.

The board screams functional (a bit like Dominant Species), but everything's there for a reason.

There are other things to consider too. Vocations appear on some contract cards that allow players to take similarly labelled tiles; Education, Transport and the like. These offer some decent bonuses so making sure that you have a hand in at least a few is a good strategy. Also useful are the various Elected Positions, all of which grant you great powers. Most offer bonuses relating to one of the four types of building (Civic, Residential, Industrial or Government) but only the Mayor gets to beautify the town by placing parkland. The fact that the Mayor also gets a lovely bonus at the end of the game relating to parks doesn’t hurt either…

The Elected Positions change hands frequently during the game, so never get too settled! Clever play can ensure that you keep your hands on the role that you want though. As each election is decided in a different fashion when a Building Permits card showing the Election Box symbol pops up from the deck, it is possible to finagle yourself into a position to make sure you claim a certain role. It’s not easy, no… but it is possible.

As the game continues and the town fills up, bigger and better buildings are made available as new decks are brought into play. Starting the game with the Town deck, you swiftly move on to the City cards and finally the Metropolis stack. When the card stating that the Olympics are coming to your creation, the game ends and the winner decided. And that’s it! In a nutshell, get permits and contracts, build stuff, get cash, keep doing it. Simple!

But it’s not simple. Even with only two players, lucrative spaces on the board quickly get taken. With a full complement of four it swiftly becomes a bit nasty (in the best possible way, of course). You have to take so much into consideration; from restrictions on where buildings can be played to making sure you’ve got enough money to actually get them on the table, Urban Sprawl requires decent forward planning as well as your being able to adapt when someone else builds in the exact space you’ve had your eye on for the past couple of turns.

A golden rule is definitely Keep Your Options Open – you’ll need to. Or smash the other players’ buildings down and take over the spaces for yourself. They’re both good options. Perhaps try and combine the two?

The full game in all its glory. Utterly brilliant. (Photo by Chad Jensen)

If you’ve played designer Chad Jensen’s excellent Dominant Species, you’ll see a couple of similarities between that and Urban Sprawl; the wealth of available options, the ever increasing play area… however, they’re very different games. This latest release from GMT feels a little easier to get your head around when compared to Species, but that doesn’t mean that Urban Sprawl is light in comparison. Both games are highly challenging but – dare I say it – the later game feels… a little bit more joyous?

Perhaps it’s all down to those wasted hours with a SNES pad in my hands when I should have been sitting in a park drinking nasty cider, but Urban Sprawl just really appeals to my Inner City Planner. Creating this little town from scratch is all well and good but when you add in the competition element it’s even better. Yes, you’re all working together to make the thing, building off each other’s plays to keep yourself ahead of the rest, but it’s so much fun stomping over someone else’s hard earned expensive construction and replacing it with your own.

Who’d have thought that city development could be so gloriously cutthroat? Certainly not me, but after spotting Urban Sprawl on GMT’s p500 list all those months ago, I’m delighted that Chad Jensen has created such a wonderful game. I have a feeling this one is going to be on an awful lot of people’s Best of 2011 lists come the end of the year.

Urban Sprawl is available from the GMT site for pre-order now and will set you back $50 (though if you’re not quick, that’s going to go up, so get on it). Designed by Chad Jensen and released in 2011, it handles between two and four players in around two-and-a-half to three hours.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some building permit applications to submit…

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