As I see it, there are three elements that make a good gateway game: elegance, theme, and depth. It has to be easy to teach, have a theme that doesn’t turn people away, and it has to keep people interested. That’s why I was excited to see Ted Alspach’s Suburbia. It’s a game where players take turns buying and placing tiles, the players are developing their own boroughs on the edge of a large city, and those tiles offer tremendous levels of variety and interaction with the others on your board.
For those who don’t know, “gateway games” are games that are particularly good for introducing someone to the hobby. Some people dislike the term because it reminds them of the term “gateway drugs,” but regardless, it’s a wonderful role to fill. I’m passionate about board games as a hobby, and I want to share it with others—it’s a way to build shared experiences, and to introduce someone to something you think they’d really enjoy.
…I may have just steered away from a drug connotation toward something that sounds like a cult. Sorry about that. Anyway, moving on.
So, is Suburbia a good game, and, moreover, is it a good gateway game? Let’s take a closer look.
In Suburbia, the players take on the role of city planners trying to create the most popular borough around a city. Whoever has the highest population in their borough at the end of the game wins. There are three things you can do on your turn: first, and most commonly, you can purchase a tile from a central supply and immediately place it in your borough; second, you can buy from a limited supply of basic tiles; third, you can pay for a tile you already own again, which lets you place a marker on it to double its effects.
Each tile has some kind of effect, whether positive or negative, major or minor. Most will be influenced by the tiles surrounding them—an airport, for example, will lower your borough’s popularity if it’s right next to a residential area. Some are influenced by tiles anywhere on your board, and a few even interact with tiles anywhere in the game. It’s up to you to figure out which tile to buy and where to place it to the greatest effect.
I’d like to briefly take a look at the designer, Ted Alspach, since I think this game shows his strengths as a designer.
One of Alspach’s most popular releases is a game called Ultimate Werewolf. You may already be familiar with Werewolf, or as I first heard it, Mafia. If you aren’t, here’s the summary from Wikipedia:
Mafia (… also known as Werewolf) is a party game created in the USSR by Dimitry Davidoff in 1986 modeling a conflict between an informed minority (the mafia) and an uninformed majority (the innocents). At the start of the game each player is secretly assigned a role affiliated with one of these teams. The game has two alternating phases: “night”, during which the mafia may covertly “murder” an innocent, and “day”, in which surviving players debate the identities of the mafiosi and vote to eliminate a suspect. Play continues until all of the mafia has been eliminated, or until the mafia outnumbers the innocents.
So, what makes Ted Alspach’s version “Ultimate”? Well, there’s more than just werewolves and villagers. There are seers who can learn one player’s true allegiance every night; there are Idiots who always vote to kill; there are pacifists who always vote against killing; there are minions who work with the werewolves… and there are dozens of other hidden roles, too.
And that’s where I think his strength as a designer really shines. He can take a framework for a game and come up novel variations and adjustments to make it shine—it’s no surprise that if you look through his resume, you’ll also find a whole lot of game expansions. I think this approach is evident even in Suburbia, a game he designed from whole cloth.
Well, as much as any game can be made from whole cloth. In the words of Mark Twain, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
Suburbia looks a whole heck of a lot like Alhambra, a game where you purchase tiles from a central market and place them on your board to create the most impressive building. (Side note: one of Alspach’s upcoming games, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, looks like it’s going to strike even closer to Alhambra.) Where it really differs is that it creates a framework of basic game-play and then goes absolutely bonkers with variations on that structure. It’s more than just what color a tile is, but what it does, and it’s more that making some placements legal or illegal, but about how everything interacts with its neighbors.
The biggest flaw in the game, though, may be that it gets too complicated. I gave a very basic overview of the game, but it still has to come with reference cards to make sure that when you place a tile, everything is sorted out. When I first played, I followed those instructions. Mid=game, I stopped because I didn’t need it. By the late-game, well, I knew it wasn’t just a learning aid.
There’s also the fact that there are two resources in the game—money and population—but two other, related values you need to keep in mind: income and reputation, which are the money and population you gain or lose at the end of each turn. There are also red lines on the population track that set your income and reputation back one level each time you pass them. It’s a nice addition to make a glorified score track more interesting, but it means you’re faced with a lot of information to consider—you can raise your reputation, which will increase your population, but soon you’ll pass red lines, which will lower your reputation and your income, but if you just buy the casino…
At least the neat thing about these dilemmas is that they’re visual, reflected in the layout of your borough. I still remember playing with a friend of mine who ended up with an airport district in his borough. Sure, we could have imagined it as one giant airport, but I was so amused by the idea that, in his town, there was just an area full of neighboring airports, competing for business. A part of me wishes that there was some more color to the game, but a narrative can still seep into those gaps.
On the other hand, the theme and the mechanisms don’t always make sense together. In general, though, the trade off is worth it. Instead of buying a tile, you can instead take it, ignoring its cost, and place it in your town as a lake. I’m struggling to think of any way to explain that in the narrative of the game, but it’s delightfully mean to snatch a tile your opponent wanted and not even use its face-side.
Okay, so maybe Suburbia isn’t a great gateway game. It’s got a manageable amount of complexity, but if you want to get someone to try a board game and enjoy themselves, it just poses too much of a risk for turning people off. That said, it still has a lovely theme and has enough depth to stay interesting. Remember how I said Alspach creates interesting variations on a basic framework? It feels like Suburbia, at it’s heart, is a much more elegant design, but it came packaged with expansions that played on those basic ideas. Even that criticism sounds flattering. (By the way, there is an expansion out—Suburbia, Inc.—but that’s for another article.)
So what if it’s not the best introduction to the hobby? If you like the theme or find the mechanisms interesting, you’re going to find a well-made game behind them. You really ought to try it.
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