Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Urban Sprawl - Threat or Menace?

Perhaps no game released this year has been as hotly anticipated yet so berated by the general boardgaming community as Urban Sprawl. Quarriors had it's detractors, but it wasn't seen as the "sequel" to Dominant Species, arguably the best game released in 2010. Merchant of Venus has seen a lot of activity, but there's no game on the shelves at this point. As my friend Chris "The Cat" said in the comment of his rating of the game on BoardGameGeek, "What a disappointment."

I have to admit that, after setting the game up and running through a couple of turns in preparation for my game at BottosCon, I had my concerns. The game did seem to be very chaotic, with about half of each contract deck never seeing play and an overtly tactical feel to the game with little or no chance for long-term planning apparent. What I failed to remember was that Dominant Species' rules and components concerned me as well - most of the "game" was placing action pawns, or so it seemed.

However, if I've learned one thing in boardgaming it is that you can't judge a game by it's rules, or even a few rounds of play. There are a few exceptions here and there, but the basic idea is that looking at part of a system does not show you the entire system at work. Given that, I went into my game this past Saturday with some trepidation but trying to keep an open mind.

First, a quick overview of the core mechanism of the game which should demonstrate why this game has people unhappy with the design. You have two types of cards in the game, permits and contracts. Both cost action points (of which each player has six to spend in their turn) and that cost is dependent on how long the card has been face up on the table (more or less). Permits can be held indefinitely, and have the side effect of providing wealth (money) if discarded at the start of your turn. Contracts, on the other hand, can only be held by a player as a "favor," must be paid for in advance, and only one favor can be held by a player at any given time.

Aside from refreshing the displays, it is the application of permits to contracts that create an on-board property that is the main way of generating both wealth and prestige (VP) in this game, and so much of one's turn is spent scanning the available permits, including those in the player's possession, comparing them with the available contracts, and possibly the player's "favor," and coming up with the best combination for the player, based on the permit's zoning restrictions (suit) and number of permit icons (rank) matching the contract.

That calculus is not limited to the actual property that is placed on the board, however. Some contracts also grant "vocations" which pay out wealth or prestige to those who have gained them with this contract or in the past, and there is often some other card event that will affect wealth and prestige of one or more players based on some criteria, such as owning the most red "Civics" properties on the board or the most valuable property of a type.

In a four player game, as I played, it is entirely possible for players to build two contracts in a turn, perhaps three if they've been planning ahead for their "favor" contract. As such, there is a good chance that by the time their turn comes around again that most of the available cards, both permit and contract, have changed from what was available in their last turn. There are also numerous events that take place, driven by both buying contract cards as well as through the event cards, and one's position is constantly changing as a result. To say this game is "tactical" is an understatement, at least from the perspective of the permit/contract mechanism.

At least, that's how the game appears on it's face.

There are two elements that give you much more control over your fate, however. Note that I'm using relative terminology here, no one is saying that this is an 18xx game where there is no luck other than who goes first, but compared with the core mechanism there is definitely some control to be found. The two elements are vocations and political offices, and it is these elements that should drive your overall strategy.

I've mentioned vocations, which you get when you purchase some contracts, and which pay wealth or prestige to those who already possess them. What isn't apparent is that there are several events that reward the person with the most vocations, or that one of the political offices, the Mayor, is based on who has the most vocations. One in particular, Media, is particularly important in breaking ties for the Mayor as well as involved in several events, although there are very few contracts that I saw that have this particular vocation. As such, initial placement of ownership on the board is important because whoever has the most money in hand (meaning the least value of properties on the board) gets the Media vocation and will likely hold onto it for at least a while. This is an excellent example of how the rules don't begin to show the interrelationships of the various game elements.

The other strategic element is the political offices. There are six of these, of which only the Mayor is used during the "Town" portion of the game, basically the first third of the game. As mentioned above, vocations get you the Mayor office. Each office has a Special Mutant Power that they grant the owning player, in the Mayor's case that means they get to place a one-lot park anywhere on the board, which act as buildings but separate from the other zoning aspects of Civics, Commercial, Residential, and Industrial. Each office also has a special end-game scoring, which in the Mayor's case means you get a prestige point for each building adjacent to a park at the end of the game.

The next four political offices are all related to the four different zoning types, and all have a special power and an end game scoring. All are elected based on having the most valuable property of the given zone, and end game points based on the number of those buildings on the map. The special powers grant extra action points during your turn, or allow you point bonuses, etc.

Offices are passed from player to player based on having the most valuable building of a given type, calculated by the sum of any prestige or wealth marker in that building's rows (all directions are called rows, not columns, in the game). As such, there is some desire to go after those blocks that generate the most value if you want to keep an office. However, there is the opportunity, usually due to events, to manipulate property values on the map.

The last "office" is really not that at all, but an appointment, and it's the Contractor which is given to the player with the least prestige. This office allows the player to build over other people's properties and prevents others from building over the Contractor's properties if they have an Urban Renewal card (which is a special type of permit in the Planning deck). In a close game, this role can be pivotal, and I have to admit that I love games that reward running just behind the pack. In a blowout, it won't matter so much.

If it isn't apparent, the way to win this game is to control as many vocations as possible and as many offices as possible. The guy who had played before, Art, achieved this in the midgame, and rode it to victory in the end. Once we'd figured out to go after vocations and offices, the game tightened up considerably but the damage was done.

In other words, this isn't just a game about matching permits to contracts and withstanding events. You need to also go for vocations and offices as well through selection of contracts but also building in the right spots.

I freely admit that this assessment is based off of a single play, but I have seen others online who have said the same thing after repeated plays - if you think this game is solely tactical, you are mistaken. It is *heavily* tactical, but that is different. Knowing full well that this will convince my good friend Eric that he should never play this game, I would compare it to the excellent Warriors of God, which is very chaotic but still gives you enough information to make long-term decisions.

This is not to say that the game is for everyone, far from it. In many respects, where Dominant Species is a social game, Urban Sprawl is more of a puzzle game where you have to balance short term abilities with long term goals. There are cards that are very powerful that will give you an advantage if they come up right before your turn, and the semi-random end-game trigger (a card in the Metropolitan deck) will often screw you for points if it takes just a little too long to show up, as it did in our game for me.

I would not play this game with four unless it was in a difficult situation (at a con, for example, or if I was teaching the game) as there is simply too much downtime between turns, especially early in the game when there isn't as much interaction (not that there's much in the late game either). It's a little like the Knizia classic Samurai but about three times as long and with a more complex set of choices to make. For example, there's a great property that you really want to control (and get a vocation from) but it will take all of your action points for the turn and you won't have any permits to build with, but you can buy it as a favor for later and prevent others from taking it. However, you may have to choose between it and another property that will give you a short term but large wealth benefit that will almost certainly go to someone else. Making these assessments is what makes this game interesting, but it also makes it long and less interactive.

I'm not saying this is a great game that everyone should love. I liked it quite a bit more than I expected, but it's not Dominant Species. I think of it more as a double bordering on a triple rather than a home run, as the designer has tended to do in the past.

If you are on the fence about this game, or got it in preorder and were disappointed enough by the negative buzz online or the ruleset, I would strongly consider you give it a couple of games to sink in (as is necessary for good play with, say, Dominant Species) if you meet some of the following criteria:

  • Like puzzles
  • Like three-player games
  • Can tolerate short-term chaos but still recognize long-term strategy
  • Can tolerate a three-hour play time for the above
  • Understand that "tolerate" isn't a four-letter word, nor is "chaos"
The fourth item is probably the most critical, as a game like Ascension, especially when played on an iPad, is very similar. However, it's played in around 10 minutes, and many gamers recognize that the more chaos in a game, especially in the absence of an interesting narrative (like, say, Arkham Horror or Fortune and Glory) means it needs to be shorter rather than longer. While I disliked the downtime in our game, I was engaged the entire time and found the last few turns to be very exciting, especially whether or not I would be able to keep the Police Chief office or whether Art would steal it back were an election to be held due to the right (or wrong) planning card to be revealed. 

I should also note that the final phase of each player turn can be extremely involved. As such, it's important to make sure that the Active Player marker is passed religiously or else you may well find yourselves without the vaguest idea of who goes next. We had a couple of cleanup phases that lasted for a good five minutes, with up to ten or twelve cards turned face up due to multiple events, and up to seven or eight specific board situations evaluated. With a little repetition, these become pretty fast, as you can get a good sense of what blocks on the board are the most valuable (a common computation) by identifying the intersection of the most valuable rows. We found counting the number of buildings owned for payouts to be pretty quick with everyone helping out. I would suggest that the person next taking their turn not be involved in the computations but rather in deciding what they would be doing as their selection of cards is revealed to help speed things up, so in a three-player game that means the active player and the person just before them doing the calculations. It sounds onerous, but I think of it as being a lot like the domination calculations in Dominant Species, which didn't prevent that game from being a huge hit and critical success. 

If you are a fence-sitter, and unsure as to whether this game is really for you or not, I hope this analysis gives you a better sense of the game and counters some of what I consider to be knee-jerk negative buzz about the game. Note that while I did quote my friend Chris at the top of this post, I haven't spoken to him about how he reached his conclusion about the game and so I make no judgement, although I thought it was a pretty succinct summary of the general reception of the game. I'm more referring to the many who played one game with two or four players and pronounced their own judgement. 

And yeah, I'm kinda doing that too, but I like to think I'm doing it with an open mind and an engineer's eye for systems and design. I don't think that this is anywhere near the best game of the year, but I do think it most definitely has a place on my shelf. I also think that it would make a *killer* iPad app as the social interaction isn't as important (you can do some kibitzing, but nothing like in many other games of this length). 

As I finish up this entry, it also occurs to me that there is another game that is similar in a lot of ways, although with a lot more apparent choices in how action points are spent, and that's Through The Ages. If you like TtA, you should definitely give US a much closer look, as the decision making is very similar and also similarly tactical although action points are used in much different ways. 

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