Monday, 29 October 2012

Urban Sprawl

Plays: 2Px1 (with rule mistake)

Boardgame designer Chad Jensen's claim to fame is a wargame series - Combat Commander. His first venture into Eurogames, Dominant Species (2010), was a great success. Urban Sprawl is his next Euro-style boardgame, so naturally there are high expectations.

The Game

In Urban Sprawl, players together develop a city, from humble beginnings to a sprawling metropolis. The board shows a 6x6 grid, and only has a handful of small buildings at the start of the game. Each row and column has one victory point (VP) or money marker, and more may be added during the game. As players construct buildings, they compete for majority in every column and every row. Whenever a card with a payout icon matching the marker in a row (or column) appears, there will be payouts to players with buildings in that row. The more buildings you have, the higher the payout, which is in the form of VP or money. This aspect of the game is an ongoing contest throughout the game, allowing players to earn money to fuel their ongoing construction activities and to score VP's.

On your turn, you get 6 action points to claim cards from the board. There are 5 permit cards and up to 8 building cards to pick from. Cards that have been on the board longer cost fewer action points (Through the Ages style). Each permit card has 1 to 4 permits, and can be used for 1 to 4 types of buildings. A building card depicts a specific building of a specific type, size (1 to 4) and special ability. To construct a building, you pick a building card, pay permits depending on building size, pay money depending on location, and place a building tile of the appropriate type (colour) and size onto the board. The building monetary cost is the total value of the VP and money markers in the row and column the plot of land is in. Land plot costs can change when markers are added or moved. You use the special ability of the building immediately. A building once placed onto the board is only useful for majority competition. The building special abilities are single-use, the building card is removed from the game once the building is constructed on the board.

The early game. The round markers in red and yellow on the western and southern edges of the city are the payout markers. These are pre-printed on the board. There are spaces on the northern and eastern edges for more payout markers. The cards on the left are the permit cards, and those on the right are building cards. There are three decks of building cards, and splitting them into three decks creates a story flow.

To build in the lot with the single red building near the centre of the board now would cost $25, because the relevant markers are 1VP, $8, $10 and $6. 1 + 8 + 10 + 6 = 25.

Build permits. The card on the left can be used for any building type, but the one on the right can only be used for purple (residential) buildings. The election icon at the bottom centre means an election will be done for one office. The round yellow icon means payout for the $12 marker (if it is already on the board).

The lower row are the building cards. The border colour is the building type, the pieces of paper is the number of permits required. The red circles on some of them mean a payout for the specific valued marker is to be done when the card is revealed.

Building special abilities vary greatly. Some give VP's, some give money. Some impact the owner, some impact other players too. The effects often depend on the board situation and who constructs the building. One building that is very useful to one player may only give a small benefit to another. One that is disastrous to one player may only impose a small penalty on another.

Some buildings give vocation tiles, which in turn give VP's and money. Every time another vocation tile of the same type comes into play, everyone who already has such tiles gains VP's or money. So vocation tiles can be a good long-term investment. One tricky thing is in every game only about half the cards will be used, so you won't know exactly what combination of cards will be in play. There will be variations from game to game.

There are six offices in the game, which are basically special powers that players can hold on to as long as they still hold the office. The mayor is the player who has the most vocation tiles, the contractor is the player with the fewest VP's, and the other four offices go to those who own the most buildings of the four types. Benefits of the offices include things like getting 8 instead of 6 action points, and getting payments from other players every round. These offices are another aspect the players compete in. Most offices only enter play mid-game, and elections for specific offices only occur when specific cards with election icons are revealed.

The small squares are the vocation tiles. The big squares are the offices.

The contractor is an interesting "office". It is a catch-up mechanism to help the trailing player. The contractor gets to demolish others' buildings to build his own over the plot of land they occupied. This can greatly alter the majority situation on the board, especially if a few small buildings are demolished at the same time to make way for one big building. Many early-game buildings are small and can easily get built over later in the game. Another privilege of the contractor is his own buildings can't be demolished by the Urban Renewal cards, which are a type of permit card.

Much scoring is done during the course of the game. At game end, there is a payout for every VP marker, bonuses for leftover money, and bonuses for the various offices (e.g. the mayor scores for each of his buildings next to a park). The player with the most VP's wins.

The money is nice and thick.

The Play

Allen and I did a two-player game. The game felt a little tactical, because on your turn what you can do very much depends on what cards are on the board. However there are ways to mitigate this. You have one slot for keeping a building card, i.e. you don't need to build it immediately. This can be very helpful when you desperately need a building, be it to avoid disaster or to claim a windfall, but don't have the means to construct it yet. It is also possible to hoard some permit cards, so that you have flexibility. Many aspects of the game still need a long term view - which building types to focus on, which rows and columns to compete in, which vocation tiles to collect. These all need to be factored in when making your choices turn to turn.

Allen and I remained quite close in VP's in the early game. However one crucial moment completely changed that. There was one building which if built by me would allow me take 24VP from Allen. We both saw it coming. I couldn't build it or claim it into my temporary card slot. However when Allen's turn came, he was distracted by another lucrative building, and forgot to construct this building in order to deny me its special ability. So on my next turn, I constructed it, and robbed 24VP from him. That effectively created a 48VP gap! Allen never managed to catch up.

As the trailing player, he did enjoy the contractor office for most of the late game though. He demolished many of my buildings and steadily sapped my strength. One strange thing that I noticed was the Urban Renewal cards became quite useless in the late game. These cards are supposed to be very powerful because they allow you to demolish others' buildings. However in a 2-player game, once the contractor office comes in play, these cards become useless. The contractor doesn't need them to demolish his opponent's buildings. His opponent can't demolish his buildings in the first place, so Urban Renewal cards are useless. I wonder whether I'm missing something.

We made one big mistake in our game. When payout icons appeared, the payout should be in the form of either VP or money. We had misunderstood that we could choose any combination of VP and money. This benefited me more, because I was better positioned for most of the big money payouts, and many times I collected VP instead of money. I would not have been able to maintain such a big lead if we had played correctly. However, that also meant Allen might not have monopolised the contractor role for so long. Our game really shouldn't count. My impression of the game is not fully accurate.

Late game. The city is still not very full yet. Now there are a few parks around (green tiles).

The Thoughts

It seems many people feel there is too much randomness in Urban Sprawl. I don't think it has much more randomness than Dominant Species. Although there is randomness in which building cards will be in play and what order they will turn up, the players can make long-term plans, e.g. which building types to focus on, which rows and columns to compete in, which offices to fight for, and which vocation tiles to collect. If you go in with a plan and you stick to it, you can mitigate some luck. Having a strong foundation in a few areas will help to protect you when bad events related to such areas come up, and will also set you up when good effects or good buildings related to such areas come up. Despite the ever changing nature of the pool of available cards on the board, I feel that players do have much control in this game. I would say this is a game of controlling chaos and not letting it control your fate, at least not too much.

Allen quite liked the game. I think it's because of the variety of the building special abilities. There are many interesting effects, and it is often interesting trying to figure out how to make the most out of a particular situation. I am quite lukewarm towards the game, not unlike my reaction to Dominant Species. I don't think I can articulate well why. I think one reason is I don't like the area majority mechanism. Another possible reason is the game feels rather "mathematical" to me. Most games are just their settings being converted into a manageable, mathematical form, with rules governing the mechanisms and providing a framework for players to compete in. Urban Sprawl has many thematic elements, e.g. how land prices increase and fluctuate, how old buildings are demolished to make way for new ones, and how certain buildings contribute to certain industries (the vocations). However when I played the game, I keep seeing the mathy mechanisms instead of the story of a developing city. I keep getting reminded about it being real life converted to a simplified, mathematical form, instead of being able to immerse in the setting. Somehow I don't quite click with Chad Jensen's designs, and I'm quite sure I'm in the minority.

Urban Sprawl is a game where players need a long-term strategy, but their immediate actions are restricted by what cards are available on their turns. The long-term strategy will often steer the immediate actions, but sometimes where feasible you may want to adjust your strategy. There are many different aspects for the players to compete in, and most are inter-related.

One thing that got me thinking is the contractor role. It is a catch-up mechanism for the sake of balancing the game. Helping the trailing player is good because it helps to keep everyone in the competition. If everyone still has hopes of winning, everyone will remain interested and the tension can be maintained till game end. However, having played a number of Splotter games recently, it gives me second thoughts about catch-up mechanisms. The Splotter guys don't put catch-up mechanisms in their games. Their games are unforgiving. If you make a bad move in the early game, you can be as good as eliminated (yikes... "player elimination" is often frowned upon by Eurogamers). However, if it is your poor play that got you into trouble, then perhaps you deserve to suffer. Why should the leading player's good play be diminished? Catch-up mechanisms can feel artificial, existing for the sake of making scores close in order to maintain excitement. Chess doesn't have any catch-up mechanism. You can handicap yourself when playing against a weaker player, but once a game starts, you just play your best to beat the opponent.

I'm going a bit off tangent, but I think this can be an interesting debate.


Sue said...

Hi-Nice review. Re your comment about the urban renewal cards in a 2p game, you can use them also to destroy your own buildings--e.g., to make way for a bigger building that is harder to demolish, thereby protecting an office. They could also be useful just a discards or a card to give to another player if there is text that specifies that on one of the cards.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thanks Sue. It hadn't occurred to me to demolish my own buildings. That sounds counter-intuitive, but indeed it can be very useful under the right circumstances. I don't understand about discards though. How do I use the Urban Renewal cards as discards? You mean to pick them up cheaply (1AP), and then in case forced to discard cards, I can discard them instead of more valuable cards?