Review: Suburbia

By Kelsey Rinella 16 Jan 2014 0
There may be some merit in the theme, if only as a cause to reflect on human folly. The district solved their problem by privatizing school transportation: now all the complaints from irate parents go to someone else.

Suburbia is exactly the sort of board game that I dream of having converted to iOS: it's very well-regarded among frequent boardgamers and employs several mechanics which particularly interest me, but involves rather a lot of tedious calculation which the app can take off my hands.

Bézier Games have kindly donned their shining armor and jumped astride their white charger to ride to our service. The starkly-styled borough-building game that arrives on our iPads mostly lives up to my dreams -- albeit with one or two serious problems. To say the daring knight's faithful steed threw a shoe would probably involve caring more about metaphors than is seemly in a man of my puny poetic talents.

Suburbia consists of laying a tile each turn in your own borough of a shared city. This can affect your four principle statistics: cash on hand, income per turn, residents (victory points), and reputation (change in residents per turn). Tiles are selected from either the three basic tiles which are plentiful at the beginning of the game or drafted from the market, a queue of tiles of which the first two cost only their face value, but each tile thereafter bears an increasing penalty. As a result, the gormless reprobate immediately before you in the turn order will frequently purchase the tile you feel you desperately need (and could see coming a turn ahead, but couldn't yet afford), leaving you no better option than a mild defensive move which prevents the avaricious harpy after you from running away with the game.

It shames me to think on how often I'd use a Back button in a tutorial. Now that I've gotten my wish, and high-quality tutorials are common in quality boardgame conversions, why do I so often accidentally skip a page?

Drafting tends to create interesting player interactions of this sort, but you can also mess with your opponents more directly, because many tiles have effects on the entire city, not just your own borough. These complicated interpersonal dynamics might be a touch forbidding to grapple with for a new player if they were introduced at the same time as basic strategy for building a successful borough. Bézier have thoughtfully provided a marvelous and meaty single-player campaign to address this problem; while the strategies which suit single-player play differ slightly from those which best suit multiplayer (where the game's many balancing tricks show their quality), the familiarity with the game's basics helps tremendously. It also subtly primes the player to appreciate just how much player interaction matters; played single-player, luck in tile drawing seems tremendously important, and it's possible to build up absolutely monster scores. With the various temperaments of AI taking the best tiles and messing with your plans, skill becomes much more obvious and plans far more difficult to execute.

The other element which the multiplayer game adds is variable goals. They're a natural evolution of the bounties paid for Longest Road and Largest Army in Settlers of Catan or the longest route from Ticket to Ride, but different rewards are randomly chosen each game. They're not terribly flavorful–most give a 10- to 20-resident bonus for having the most or fewest tiles of a given type (sometimes contiguous), but they keep players from pursuing a single favored strategy in every game. Furthermore, each player has a secret goal which only they can accomplish, adding a minor element of deduction and bluff.

The benefit of The Farm is way creepier if you've just been playing The Wolf Among Us. Farms reduce the reputation of a borough. I guess it's the smell?

Unfortunately, the multiplayer game not only introduces enough of the finely-balanced mechanics to really let the game shine, it's also where the pus oozes from the few festering wounds in the app. The somewhat clunky online multiplayer interface is a minor disappointment. The fact that the game treats AI opponents as though they are sitting next to you in local play, requiring a confirmation tap before starting their turn, is maddeningly poor design. But there is unfortunately a game-breaking bug that removes a tile from the marketplace in a substantial proportion of the online games played. I've only seen it once in games featuring only AI opponents and never in the campaign, but it alters the dynamics enough that I've little interest in finishing any game in which it shows up.

The theme might help swing a decision about whether to play Suburbia in either direction. Where a game like Lords of Waterdeep can sort of get away with pasting a theme onto an abstract game because of the hints at a deep backstory, Suburbia substitutes familiarity. Many players will have no idea who Nindal Jalbuck is was, but everyone can recognize why it's a great idea to have housing projects but no one wants to be next to them. The trouble is that the game logic tells us everything we know about Waterdeep's Nindal Hlaavin, so properties which conflict with his backstory will go largely unnoticed–not so, components of a borough in Suburbia. It grates a bit when your best move is to put the elementary school on the far side of your industrial area from the homes.

Any Talking Heads fans out there? There exist…discrepancies between Suburbia's model of civic planning and reality. These include the utility of building two highways which go only one place.

Suburbia doesn't really break any new ground, but it deploys a variety of familiar mechanics rarely seen together in an elegant way. There has already been much interest in the forums in a Pocket Tactics tournament, which only cooled when the frequency of the tile-removing bug became clear, and if the wisdom of crowds is valuable, the wisdom of the Pocket Tactics readership seems dramatically moreso.

Suburbia for iPad is awfully close to being a digital board gaming dream come true. I eagerly await the arrival of an update to address this bug and the otiose single-player confirmation taps, as these are the only flaws which keep Suburbia from a full five stars. Even as-is, the campaign and opportunity to experience the design dynamically gave me hours of stimulating play.

Review: Suburbia

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