Bright Lights Big City – Suburbia review

Who doesn’t love city building games? All the fun of creating a place for imaginary citizens to live with none of the mess that comes from messing about with cement, and no danger of stepping on Lego bricks (unless, of course, you’re playing Town Center by Alban Viard). At this year’s Essen there were a few new games to add to the category, and of the lot my favourite is most definitely Ted Alspach’s new design, Suburbia, released through his own Bezier Games imprint in association with Lookout Games.

Why? In short, it scratches that Sim City itch that has plagued me since I first slotted that cartridge into my Super Nintendo all those years ago and started messing about with zoning laws and shaping the lives of countless digital citzens. Distilled to its purest essence, Suburbia is a game requiring that you build the best engine with what’s on offer to you at the time but once you get into the meat of it, there’s so much more to it…

Between two and four can play – there are also two different sets of rules for a single player game – and the objective is to get the highest population out of all involved. Everyone starts off with the same set-up of three hexagonal tiles; Suburbs, a CommunityPark and a Heavy Factory, and these represent the beginning of your own corner of paradise. Maybe. After all, you may choose to turn the whole thing into a wasteland that’s slightly less appealing than a two-week trip to sunny Pripyat – Suburbia gives you that freedom.

As the game progresses, you buy industrial, civic, residential and business tiles and develop your tiny borough into something more substantial. Of course, as your playing area grows, so will your population (hopefully), and it’s these little folks that will potentially win you the game. However, it’s not just down to what you build that will affect your borough; your opponents will also have a little sway over what happens to you, just as you will with their boroughs, and it’s this interaction that is just one part of what turns Suburbia from yet another multiplayer solitaire experience into something a little more special.

Midway through a game and things are looking pretty good so far. Could do with a bit more money, but isn’t that true of everyone?

In order to get your population as high as possible, you’ll be managing two elements: income and reputation. More money coming in will, obviously, allow you to buy those more expensive tiles. Reputation adds to your population at the end of every turn, but you don’t want to race this up as high as possible at the start of the game as there’s a little mechanism that will keep you in check. Looking at the scoretrack will reveal lots of little red bars, and every time you cross one you must knock your Reputation and Income down by one point each. It’s a logical way of stopping a runaway leader; just think about it. As more and more people move to your part of the world, it will become just that little bit less appealing – it makes perfect sense.

To win the game, you’ll need to encourage decent growth of both your Income and Reputation without speeding ahead. Sadly, impetuous fool that I am, I’ve already messed this up a few times thanks to the desire to build everything immediately – it still hasn’t been suppressed since my Sim City days. But despite the fact that I regularly perform pretty poorly in Suburbia, I still find it an incredibly fun game to play. Eventually I’ll learn to curb my need to build the most expensive stuff early and actually manage to create a decent engine…

Even if you firmly believe that you’re out of the running, you still have the chance to claw back some dignity thanks to the bonuses that are handed out at the end of the game. Some are public targets that need to be met; depending on how many people are playing, these will be placed face-up and if you manage to achieve it, you’ll get a substantial population boost at the game’s end. You will also be given two targets of your own at the start of play; discard one secretly and you’ll have something to aim for that is just for you. Should someone else manage to hit your target (which can be anything from having the most green spaces in your borough to having the fewest lakes) they don’t get the points, but then again, neither do you…

A selection of the tiles available in the three phases of the game. As things progress, the buildings get bigger and better.

Once you’ve punched out and bagged up everything in the box (and there is a LOT of cardboard in there), you’ll see that Suburbia has been really well produced. The art is lovely throughout, and Lookout’s Klemenz Franz has done a sterling job on the graphic design. Everything is gloriously clear and straightforward, essential in a game where you need to handle more and more information as play progresses. You also get some of the most useful player aids I’ve seen in a very long time – after a couple of plays you’ll barely need the rulebook to hand (although it’s very useful as it has detailed information on every single tile that’s in the box).

So, it’s a great city building game with just the right amount of player interaction but are there any downsides? If there are, I’m yet to spot anything major. Some have declared a problem with how the game looks, but I personally enjoy the functional style displayed in Suburbia. Things can get a little analytical at times, but that’s to be expected in a game which has a large focus on numbers – deciding precisely where to place a tile that could maybe get you a couple of new residents at the expense of a few dollars can be an agonising decision…

If I were to compare this to any other game, I’d put it up there with my perennial favourite, Power Grid. Lots of planning, sure, but there’s also plenty of opportunities to mess about with the other players by stealing stuff they want from right under their noses. And if you know what a fan of Power Grid I am, you’ll immediately see that it’s high praise to rank Suburbia on an equal footing. It’s an excellent euro that I hope will find its audience quickly and give Ted Alspach the attention he richly deserves.

Suburbia, by Ted Alspach, is a co-production between Bezier Games and Lookout Games and was released at Essen 2012. Between one and four people can play and games will generally take around 60-90 minutes. Copies are available from Gameslore now for £39.99 and – if you’re quick enough – come with the exclusive Essen promo featuring the Messe, U-Bahn Station and Gruga Park tiles. Very nice!

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