Suburbia is a game for up to four players (or five players, using the 5* expansion), designed by Ted Alspach and published by Bezier Games in 2012. In the game, players control and develop their own individual city boroughs, competing to see whose borough will boast the largest population by the end of the game.
Much of Suburbia’s gameplay revolves around the accumulation of two things: money and population. At the end of each turn, players gain money according to their level of Income, and population according to their level of Reputation.
During their turns, players can spend money to extend their city boroughs by purchasing and laying down new tiles in front of them. These hexagonal tiles are colour-coded to indicate their types: green for residential, yellow for industrial, grey for civic, and blue for commercial. Each player starts with an identical set of three tiles, laid out in a line:
Suburbs (a residential tile giving +2 Population)
Community Park (a civic tile yielding -1 Income but offering +1 Reputation for each adjacent industrial, residential or commercial tile)
Heavy Factory (an industrial tile yielding +1 Income but giving -1 Reputation for each adjacent civic or residential tile).
Even at this early point in the game, you can already see the elegance with which Suburbia’s city-building theme is mirrored in its mechanisms. Your Suburbs provide a place for citizens to live (so you get +2 Population). However, the presence of heavy industry right next to a civic area is not an appealing juxtaposition (-1 Reputation). Even so, the Community Park offers your citizens a pleasant buffer between the bordering industrial and residential zones, giving the aesthetic appeal of each of these regions a compensatory boost (+2 Reputation).
However, the provision of such an attractive community facility lands you with a financial burden (-1 Income). But this is balanced against the money-making capacity of your Heavy Factory (+1 Income).
The point I really want to get across is that Suburbia is not one of those games where the theme feels pasted onto a bunch of abstract numbers and mechanisms which could have easily been imagined to represent something else entirely (or nothing at all). Every single tile in Suburbia has an effect that feels undeniably “right” in terms of what that tile is supposed to represent and how it should relate to its surroundings.
During the game, players purchase new properties from a row of seven tiles known as the ‘Real Estate Market’ (REM). Whenever a tile is taken from the REM, the resulting gap is filled by sliding the remaining tiles to the right and adding a new tile at the extreme left. Each tile has its own base cost, but additional costs are incurred according to the position of each tile in the REM. This additional cost increases from right to left, meaning that tiles more recently added to the REM, on the left, are more expensive and become gradually cheaper as they slide along the line to the right.
By placing new tiles into their boroughs, players can either gain extra money and population directly, or manipulate their levels of Income and Reputation to affect how much of these resources they gather at the end of each turn. As we’ve already seen in the case of the Community Park and Heavy Factory, the effects of some tiles depend on what lies adjacent to them.
Other effects depend on how many tiles of a certain type you have in your own borough (eg, the Postal Service, which rewards you with +1 Income for each of your commercial tiles). And some depend on all the tiles in the game - including those in your opponents’ boroughs (eg, the Farm, which gives you +1 Income for every single Restaurant in play).
A couple of other significant actions are possible during the game: placing Investment Markers and turning tiles from the REM into Lakes.
Each player starts with three Investment Markers. At any point in the game, instead of purchasing and placing a tile in the normal way, you can choose to place an Investment Marker on one of your borough’s existing tiles (paying the tile’s base cost again) in order to trigger its placement effects a second time. This can be a powerful move, especially later in the game when there are lots of tile types in play and a large number of established adjacencies that can boost a tile’s effects.
Another action that can be taken during your turn is to take a tile from the REM, flip it over, and place it into your borough as a Lake. (Every tile in the game has a Lake printed on its reverse side).
Lakes are cheap (with a $0 base cost - so you pay only the additional price determined by its position in the REM) and give you an immediate $2 for every single adjacent tile (excluding only other Lakes). Placing a Lake is therefore a useful way to gain a quick injection of cash. It’s also a highly effective way of removing tiles from the REM which you don’t want (or can’t afford) to purchase yourself, but which you don’t want to leave available for your opponents.
Money & Population
Gaining money is always a good thing in Suburbia. During the game, you’ll want to maximise your purchasing power to ensure you can get your hands on the tiles you want or need the most. At the end of the game, any remaining money is converted into population (at the rate of $5 for 1 population).
Population is a different matter entirely. In one sense, it’s the most important resource in the entire game, since the player who ends up with the highest population will, ultimately, win. However, during the game, increasing your population brings negative consequences in its wake.
As a town developer, what else would you expect? As your borough develops and gets increasingly crowded with citizens, it becomes both more expensive to run and, inevitably, a slightly less desirable place to live. In order to model this real-world dynamic, the board on which players track their populations is interspersed with red lines. Whenever a population increase pushes your marker over one of those red lines, you are forced to drop both your Income and your Reputation by 1.
The further up the population track you go, the more frequent the red lines become. (This is another great example of how Suburbia deploys mechanisms that are essentially quite simple, yet succeed in capturing the city-building theme of the game in what feels like a rich and satisfying way).
As a consequence, players must be extremely careful about how quickly they attempt to boost their reputations in the early game. It’s vital to establish a reasonable economy first, as your rate of income will continually drop the more your population grows.
In the mid-to-late game, it’s all about judging whether your financial position is strong enough to stop concentrating mainly on effects that yield money / income and switch your focus over to effects that boost population / reputation. Timing when and how to make this switch is one of the most interesting and subtle challenges in the whole of Suburbia, and one of the reasons I enjoy the game so much.
If you run your population up too quickly, you might ruin your finances and grind to a halt. If you wait too long, you risk failing to establish a large enough population to win outright.
I’ve already tried to emphasize how masterfully Suburbia’s city-building theme is embodied by its mechanisms. I have to admit, though, that there is one aspect of the game where mechanisms and theme don’t really gel. It’s the Goal tiles, which reward bonus population at the end of the game for players who satisfy certain criteria - such as having the most lakes, or the highest income, or the fewest industrial tiles, etc.
It doesn’t make much sense, thematically, why (for instance) the borough with the least money would get +10 population. This is a shame, since every other element of the game has such a strong thematic justification.
Even so, the goal tiles do add interest to the gameplay itself. A certain number of goals are randomly dealt to the table as open information, and players also choose (from two they are randomly dealt) to keep one as a secret personal goal. The introduction of this hidden information adds a lot more beefiness to mid-game considerations about whether, and how, you should aim to manipulate the options available to your opponents.
Given that the goals offer up a significant number of bonus points (usually enough to have a definite impact on final scores), their potential to swing the game one way or another must constantly be factored into the decision-making of each player.
Overall, the quality of Suburbia’s components is fine. The graphic design on the tiles - with the simple colour-coding and the use of white circles to denote income and black squares to denote reputation - is clear and intuitive.
The only issue I have found is that the three triangular boards (used for placing stacks of tiles / money and setting out the REM) have a tendency to get their pointy corners dented when the game is boxed and moved around, and this can cause the cardboard to start peeling into layers. (Although I’m guessing the use of triangles allowed the game to fit a smaller box).
I can’t say enough about how well the city-building theme of Suburbia coheres with the mechanisms of its gameplay. The game also does a fantastic job of combining an economic-engine building challenge with a spatial tile-laying puzzle.
Had it been designed slightly differently, Suburbia could very easily have ended up as a ’multiplayer solitaire’ game in which each player simply gets on with doing their own thing with very little scope to affect or be affected by the actions of opponents. However, the way in which the REM works (including the possibility of taking tiles as Lakes) does provide at least some scope for directly manipulating or restricting the choices of your opponents, while the presence of the hidden Goals forces players to keep a close eye on one another and form appropriately reactive strategies.
Overall, Suburbia is a game designed with a deceptively simple elegance and which offers more than enough depth of strategy through its tile-laying / engine-building mechanics to make me want to keep coming back to it again and again.