Winner of the Mensa Select Award in 2013, Ted Alspach’s Suburbia quickly became one of my favorite board games over the last year. City building has always been one of my favorite game mechanics, dating back to the hours and hours I spent with the original SimCity video game. Plotting your city’s growth with necessary expansion while managing a budget is something that gives me warm, fuzzy feelings inside. So when the iPad version of Suburbia was announced, I was ecstatic to indulge my city planning desires at any time I wanted. And, for the most part, the digital recreation of Suburbia is very satisfying, but not without a few caveats.
In case you’ve never played…
On the surface, Suburbia isn’t a terribly complex game. Players start with a small borough consisting of a heavy factory, a suburb, and a community park and expand from there. Each building tile is a certain color, which represents different types of development: residential (green), industrial (yellow), commercial (blue), and civic (grey). Players purchase new tiles and place them next to their existing pieces, attempting to synergize their developments by gaining bonuses from neighboring tiles. Placing a yellow industrial tile might increase your income by two, but setting it next to a community park reduces your borough’s reputation by one. This is where much of the strategy emerges in Suburbia, as each tile you place could exponentially increase or decrease other aspects of the city.
There are two primary resources to track in Suburbia, income and reputation. At the end of each turn, the active player receives cash based on his current income level and advances on the population track by the amount of his/her current reputation. Money is necessary to buy new tiles, while population determines who the victor is at the end of each game. Randomly determined goals also provide end-game population bonuses for achieving specific tasks, such as having the fewest lakes or the most industrial tiles. Balancing your resources while expanding your borough to acquire goals is the core of Suburbia, and the sheer variety of development tiles means you’ll likely alter your strategy each time you play.
However, keeping your income and reputation at desired levels is trickier than it sounds. Scattered throughout the population tracker are red lines that, when crossed, drop your resource levels by one. Early on, these lines are spread far and wide, but as your population climbs, the barriers get closer and closer together. If you cross red lines too early before you’re prepared, you may find your income dipping to dangerous levels. I find it’s usually smart to build your income meter first before reputation, as you only advance on the population tracker based on your current reputation. The red lines provide much of the tension in Suburbia and prevent players from blasting ahead in points too quickly.
For those new to Suburbia, the iOS version contains a short yet functional tutorial that walks you through the basics. If you need further clarification on specific tiles or mechanics though, there is a clean and robust rulebook included that is a fantastic resource for new players and experienced city builders alike.
A campaign of city conquest
In a neat twist, developer Jeremiah Maher included an actual single player campaign in addition to playing against the AI. Each level is very loosely based on a real American city, and players are required to accomplish certain goals to successfully complete a stage. There aren’t other opponents to compete against; the only enemy is yourself, as the game ends when you run out of development tiles. If you haven’t achieved all the goals when the last tile is revealed, you’ll have to restart and try again. Thankfully, there are multiple difficulty options for each level, so it’s easy to drop to an easier mode if you find yourself stuck on a particular stage. The campaign is by far my favorite feature and I wish more digital tabletop games included something similar.
However, there is one major blemish on Suburbia’s campaign mode that holds it back. For whatever reason, you cannot save your game in the middle of a stage. When I play by myself, I like to take my time and plot out my upcoming turns, especially when playing on the hard difficulty. However, if I need to put the iPad down and do something else, or if it’s late and I want to go to sleep, there’s no way to save your current progress. From my experience with the app, if you leave Suburbia running in the background it will usually resume where you left it. Unfortunately, I’ve had situations where it exited back to the main menu, possibly because I left it idle for too long, and had to restart the mission. It’s not a game breaker but it’s certainly a major annoyance, especially when the app allows you to save multiplayer games with no issue. I’m hoping this feature will be patched in at a later point.
Speaking of multiplayer, Suburbia for iOS includes all the standard features you’d expect. There’s an option for pass-and-play for up to four local players, and Game Center support for online matchmaking. You can enable or disable variant rules for multiplayer games as well, giving a high level of customization when playing with others. Suburbia plays well with any number of players, though I’ve always preferred two player matches.
When the game first launched on the App Store, there were a number of bugs that caused the game to crash when playing multiplayer matches. Most of these issues have been resolved, but you might still run into an odd application crash here and there when playing against others. In the several hours I’ve put into the game so far, I’ve experienced crashes twice. The stability isn’t quite there yet, but it’s getting there.
Visually, Suburbia looks fine on the iPad. It’s a very accurate recreation of the board game and the user interface is clean and easy to navigate. Suburbia has a lot of information to absorb at times, with each tile having a different effect on your borough. Everything is easy to read, and there’s a button that provides a helpful overlay to explain each part of the screen in case you forget something important. There’s nothing flashy like in Lords of Waterdeep or Pandemic, but Suburbia’s visual minimalism helps keep all the game’s information organized and pleasing.
Unfortunately, there’s very little audio to speak of. When I play digital board games alone, I appreciate when a game features background music; it enhances the presentation and pulls me deeper into what’s happening on the screen. Games like Ticket to Ride and Pandemic have fantastic background music that enhances my mood when playing, but the lack of music in Suburbia allows for easy distractions outside of the game. I know many people won’t care and always disable the music when they play games, but it’s one of my favorite features when implemented well and I feel Suburbia could have benefited from it.
Even though it has issues, Suburbia for iOS is a solid game that stands out as one of the most fun board games on the platform. None of my complaints are mechanical in nature and could all potentially be addressed in a future update. As it is, I still highly recommend it if you’re looking for a new board game to add to your digital collection, especially if you have a SimCity-sized hole in your heart that needs to be filled.