Monday, December 19, 2011

It takes a village (Urban Sprawl)

Chad Jensen is a designer of many games that lots of people like. Mostly, the Combat Commander series and Dominant Species. Although Kozure and Bearbomb are fans of CC, I prefer Conflict of Heroes. We've played Dominant Species a few times, and although I recognize that it's a good game it seems too long by a turn or two, and in my opinion El Grande does a very similar thing in a much tighter package. Anyway, this is a long winded way of saying that although I looked forward to playing Urban Sprawl, i didn't expect to love it.

Kozure and I were once again accompanied by Bearbomb, but this time he brought along a friend. 4 is the maximum number of players for US, so I was a little worried that a long game would go even longer.

Let's start at the beginning. Urban Sprawl is a game about city building. The board is a grid representing a town, and it starts with some buildings built. Over the course of the game, players will take out permits to allow them to build buildings in different parts of the city. Various buildings are randomly made available for construction, depending on the stage of the game. A host of random events come up throughout, giving bonuses or allowing a player to change the landscape in some way. Finally, in the second stage of the game onwards, certain roles are handed out, such as mayor or union boss, based on specific criteria (such as the player controlling the most valuable factory building).

The placement scoring rules encourage players to play similar buildings adjacent to each other, but other rules will motivate players to play elsewhere. The end result is that the city organically grows with some semblance of zoning intact (industrial zones, residential zones, etc), but it's not at all rigid so the final city is realistically diverse and quirky in it's layout... Just like real cities are. That part was pretty cool and well realized. The various building powers are interesting and working out good combos of buildings to play and clever placements of said buildings is definitely fun.

But. But.

Wow, it's long. and the events are really frequent and random. And don't even think that your money or board position will look anything like it does now on your next turn, because it won't.

The main decision a player will have to make revolves around working out the best placement for the buildings he wants to build. It isn't a simple or easy decision, as it requires some calculation and analysis of a fairly busy board, but it's not bad and certainly reasonable and enjoyable. Unfortunately, for me, the sheer number of random events that happen at the end of each turn felt excessive. They often have a significant impact on the game, but more than anything they just added too much time.

From his earlier designs, I know that the designer likes a heavy dose of chaos in his games. Similarly, length almost seems likes a preference. In my opinion, what worked in combat commander didn't really work here as well. It was a fun game, but after nearly 4 hours we still had over an hour to go... That kind of play time isn't justified by the mechanics. I realize that removing the events entirely would kill some of the flavor that the designer intended but a reduction would certainly help.

Anyway, there was quite a bit of movement in points throughout the game, though generally Bearbomb and I exchanged first and second place throughout most of the game. I had concentrated on civic buildings, And gathered the media marker early after Bearbomb had said a number of events gave bonuses for it. He wasn't kidding! It seemed like I was getting an endless supply of 1 dollar + 1 vp awards from all the events.
Bearbomb and Dale seemed to be very good judges of how to place on the board to reap majority bonuses.

At the end of the game, the roles give bonuses to the players that happen to have them. Like Dominant Species, these felt too large to me. I had the mayor and the lawyer, which netted me and absurd amount of points, stealing the game from Bearbomb.

So, I liked it. Some parts were really fun, and quite innovative. However the length, and particularly the wild randomness in relation to the length, bring it down a notch for me.


  1. This game shares a feature in common with Dominant Species, which, for a lack of a better term, I will call "What's-The-Pointsitis".

    Not "what's the point of playing", but let me see if I can make a analogy to better explain:

    Say you played a game of baseball where some players who crossed home plate scored 1 run as usual, but others scored 5 runs, and still others scored 10. In general, with a few exceptions, the players who scored 1 run were the hitters who were easiest to get on base, but the hitters who scored ten weren't all that much harder to get on base, and generally required the same amount of effort to move around the diamond.

    Sometimes you're scoring one point and sometimes you're scoring ten points, and you're generally taking almost the same amount of time getting either player onto home base.

    Now, add to that an umpire who changes randomly from inning to inning, who also changes how many points each runner gets for crossing the plate. Also, each team has a different set of randomly changing umpires.

    You find yourself saying, "why should I spend "X" amount of effort to score player "A", when I can effectively ignore player "A" and concentrate on player "B" to score more points, still spending "X" amount of effort?"

    That's what I mean by "What's-the-pointitis".

    But then, the umpire changes, and player "A" is suddenly worth twice as much (or player "B" is worth half as much, or both).

    Basically there are so many shifting victory multipliers which can be taken away (or conversely given to an opponent) that small point gains seem pointless (BUT, I hasten to add, they are NOT pointless - that's the devious genius of Jensen), and if you miss the correct combination of multiplier/combos to score the little empire you've been building so far, you don't score the big runner multipliers.

    So, in early games of Dominant Species and Urban Sprawl, until you get a handle on all of the moving parts, you have a tremendous risk of blowout, especially by someone who has the right combination of innate skill and sheer luck. As you play additional games (I imagine, as this is still my first game of Urban Sprawl), the gaps narrow.

    The trouble is that, like baseball, the resolution takes many hours. Unlike a Puerto Rico or El Grande or Tikal or even Power Grid, which take from 75 minutes to 120-150 minutes to get through, a four player game of Urban Sprawl seems like it would consistently take 180 minutes (plus) to finish, all the while fiddling with 1 point runners (which you NEED for the squeak win at the end) as well as 10 point runners (which you need to even be a contender at the end).

    If I only ever had one or two games to play and unlimited time to play them in, Urban Sprawl and Dominant Species seem like games with enough depth and variability to sustain that level of focus.

    As it is, they seem like overly drawn out battles where one side can surge forward dramatically, then the other, see-sawing back and forth, until the end where the points are relatively close... and then you see that maybe all the big point scores wash out, and you win by a few small points.

    Fun, thematic, but overlong and feels unstable to play - I like randomness, but this feels like "giving one person a BB Gun and the other person a plasma cannon" randomness. It's sort of okay, because sometimes the other person gets given a limp noodle and you get given a two-handed sword, but you start asking yourself why don't we still get random weapons, but ones which are more evenly matched at some level.

    Anyhow, would like to play again, but I find myself agreeing with a lot of Easy's criticisms.

  2. This is exactly how I felt when playing 1960: the making of a president. Every turn things seemed to change so much that I wondered what the point of the previous rounds were. By extrapolation, I haven't wanted to try Twilight Struggle since I'm told they are similar in this regard.

    Between dominant species and urban sprawl, ds gets the balance a little better. Putting the final round windfalls aside, a player is much more in charge of his fate. There are a ton of variables, but the wildest ones, the event cards, are known ahead of time. If you really need one, or need to prevent one from being played against you, there is decent ability to make that happen (supposing. You've invested enough in the turn order track to be in a position to do that). The rest of the game is reasonably incremental, and decisions seem to matter.

    Urban sprawl is different. As you say, when a card comes up which allows a player to move the column/row multiplier around, the impact is substantial and completely at the mercy of the player who's turn it happened to be at the time it came up. The events are just as significant as dominant species, but there is no foreknowledge or ability to plan. It really boils down to gambling on a strategy and hoping things go your way.

    Experience with the game is likely to reduce the perceived chaos, but I don't suspect it will drop dramatically. As I said, I enjoyed it as an experience, but it should be shorter for this amount of craziness.