Suburbia is the second of four board games to feature in Roll to Review’s Critical Hit January, so let’s get the verdict out of the way. Suburbia is great, and I highly recommend it. That’s my opinion, but be aware it’s more biased than usual. I have an affinity for these types of build and manage games. In the two and a half months since my wife gave birth, I’ve spent exactly thirteen hours playing video games. That’s wrong. I’ve spent thirteen hours playing a single video game: Planet Coaster. Keep this in the back of your mind as you read, and remember, never have kids.
Suburbia is a 2-4 player tile laying game from Ted Alspach, and published by Bezier Games. The game takes place in a dystopian future where the producer of ‘The Block’ was elected president of the United States. Now, death row inmates battle for their lives trying to create the most liveable towns. At the end of the game the prisoner whose town has the highest population receives a presidential pardon, while the losers face off with the chair. Who am I kidding? It’s a city building game. You lay tiles down and build a city; that’s it.
How to Play
To begin playing Suburbia everyone needs: a player board, a couple of tokens, a few tiles, and fifteen million dollars. Don’t worry, if you don’t have your own, everything is included in the box, except for the fifteen mil. Bezier Games skimped out, providing cardboard chits instead.
Next, set up the real estate market, bank, and scoreboard – noting from now on the word population is synonymous to victory points. Finally, put some communal objectives out on the board, and then give everyone a secret one. Then all that’s left is for the first player to take their turn.
A turn consists of buying either a:
- Marketplace Tile: There is a line seven tiles for sale, the right-most two being tax free. However, the further you travel down this line, the more tax you pay. Each tile has its own benefits attached, which activate when placed, and remain active throughout the game. This effect is usually a combination of increasing or decreasing income, reputation, or population.
- Basic Tile: These tiles are the cheapest in the game, and although their effects aren’t as inspiring as Marketplace Tiles, they’ll get the job done.
- River Tile: Those who are truly desperate, and don’t have access to Loki, the God of Mischief, can find salvation by turning a Marketplace Tile into a river by flipping it over. This gives a small boon to your cash flow but doesn’t provide any extra benefits.
- Investment Marker: No tile is gained for this action, however, you do get this little cardboard “x2” marker which is just as nice. It doubles all the bonuses – positive and negative – provided from a tile already in your town.
A tile must be slotted in adjacently to a previously placed tile. Activate all the effects associated with the current tile, and then the effects of any other tile whose requirements are met.
Next get the amount money of money as displayed on the income track, increase your population from the amount shown on your reputation track, and then update the market for the next player.
This continues until someone draws the last round token, at which point players get one final turn after the current round ends. Then whomever has the most population wins regardless of how unsustainable, un-reputable or broke the town may be.
It should be no surprise that the best thing about this game is its distillation of city building into simple mechanics. Using only three currencies: income, reputation, and population, and limiting the players to two small but impactful decisions per turn. Suburbia is easy to teach, and easier to play.
That ease does not mean it’s shallow, as each tile you add to your town is like throwing said tile into a pond. It creates ripples that will affect how your city grows from start to finish. There are some Forrest Gump or simple tiles where the change is straight forward like plus one income, or minus one reputation. However, most others have deeper effects, for instance a tile that gives one income for every adjacent blue tile. Meaning you’ll buy blue tiles in the future, and to maximize the effect of this tile you’ll need to save its’ adjacent spaces. With every added tile effects accumulate, creating this sprawling web of possibilities, and the winner is usually the person who makes the most of it.
There are four tile types, each having a unique approach to the three currencies. Green tiles for example, focus mainly on population, while yellow tiles earn a lot of income but are also high risk. The other two types differentiate themselves as well. They all seem relatively balanced, although it’s always better to go for the tile that suits your city over tunnelling on one colour.
While we’re talking about strategies, there’s something I left out in the how to play, and that is the Red Lines on the scoreboard. Yes, if you’re wondering, that is their official name in the rule book. Every time a player’s population crosses a Red Line their income and reputation drop by one point. You must manage maintaining these currencies, so as not to fall behind, or worse go bankrupt. This is also a not-so-subtle way of stopping runaway leaders. However, it also means that you need to time your run to the finish. At a certain point there is no more need for income, instead you need to shift and heavily invest in reputation and population if you want to win.
Another thing I respect about Suburbia is that it realises its weakness. With these sprawling options, it’s hard to decide what to focus on. There’s a famous study called the Jam Study, which paraphrased and then hacked to fit this review says that most people prefer less choice when making quick and easy decisions. The designers have recognised this issue and provided a solution in the form of objectives. Having both open objectives to create competition between players, and hidden objectives to give each player their own direction.
To describe the theme of Suburbia is to describe a box of chicken nuggets. In the same way each nugget, is a delicious combination of chicken and deep-fried batter, each tile has its own thematic story to tell. One example is the Fancy Restaurant which gives three incomes, but then loses one income for any additional restaurants played. This makes real world sense. More restaurants mean more competition, which in turn means less customers depending on how well they do. However, a single nugget does not a meal make, but adding several nuggets together and you’ll have enough food to at least keep me happy. Likewise adding these tiles together, the story of your city emerges.
The recurring theme in the games I’ve been recommending is growth, and that’s no different here. Creating, upgrading, and making things is always a positive experience, and these mechanics shine brightly throughout Suburbia.
In the good, we talked about the strategic depth in the game, although we left out a big issue. During setup you randomize and grab at most 65% of the tiles, meaning you never know what’s going to come out. This is huge when your strategy revolves around restaurants or airports, as these tiles combo off one another. If there are too many or not enough it greatly changes the strategy of collecting them from amazing to horrendous. This stops players from realising any long-term plans and instead forcing them to bribe Lady Luck with millions of dollars, hoping she doesn’t realise they’re cardboard chits.
Continuing with strategy, the mid game is a bit aimless. You know what you need to do to win, but how to get there with so many options on the board is a question with too many answers. While the objectives help with this, in general they are easily achievable, and without them it’s easy to get lost in the choices. I say that, but in the same breath condemn Suburbia for not having enough choices. When it comes to strategy the amount of options allows for directionless, however, in terms of actual choices it’s generally a decision between the two untaxed tiles, or an investment marker. The increase in tax in the marketplace prices you out of going any higher for tiles.
Another gameplay issue is the interaction between players is limited to Shia Labeouf’s character in Disturbia. The most you can do is look at your neighbours from the safety of your own home, and then seeing if you can disrupt their plans. Usually, this is done by challenging a communal objective or sniping a tile that would work well in their city.
This all leads up to the worst part of the game; the bookkeeping. After every turn, your three currency tracks need to be updated, then there are also the new tiles needing to be added to the market. Aside from this are the tiles with the keywords ‘Every’ or ‘Each of your’ on them. If you recall, these apply every time their conditions are met. These tiles are detriment to your town because you never remember having them, denying you the full value of the tile. Exacerbating this is players who are not used to remembering a lot of rules. It also stops one player from performing all the bookkeeping themselves, as it’s hard enough remembering all the effects of your own city, let alone someone else’s.
Finally, if the theme doesn’t work, then there’s little hope for you. I played this with my friend, and after absolutely obliterating him with the most well-crafted city you’ve ever seen, he went on to say: what’s the point? I’m just putting cardboard pieces beside each other. Firstly, this anecdote is completely unrelated to his unresolved murder, and secondly, it proves that not every theme works for everybody.
Going back to the introduction, we already know where I stand. It’s an easy Critical Hit, creating a city and managing it is one of the things that I like to do for fun, and Suburbia implements it in a way that makes sense for a mid-weight board game. It doesn’t have the depth of Cities: Skyline, or Planet Coaster but does enough to scratch that itch. If you were me, you’d buy Suburbia right now. Thankfully, for both of us, you’re not. Leaving a question only you can answer, is this the right board game for you?
Just a heads up dear readers, I was going to include a review for the two expansions, but at 1800 words I thought it was getting all a bit unwieldy. If you’re interested, here they are. In the meantime, what are your favourite city building games?