The best games seem to marry theme and process in a way that makes you, as a player, feel as though you are engaged in an actual activity. This, as opposed to participating in a random game-mechanic exercise with a theme tacked on to it. As often as I have played Ticket to Ride, for example, I have never gotten the sense that I was a railroad tycoon. Never felt like a farmer playing Agricola. Never felt like a resources-gathering caveman when I played Stone Age.
It didn't take long, however, for me to feel like a suburban planning executive when I sat down to play Suburbia, released in 2012. It's a tile-laying process but the goals and means to accomplish the goals are based on any number of common-sense, suburban planning decisions. You wouldn't, for example, want to place a freeway (tile) near a residential neighborhood (tile) in this game, because it would inhibit population growth in that neighborhood. By the same token, that same freeway tile could increase your income if you place it near an office building. Farm tiles get extra income for being placed near restaurants. Warehouses pick up extra bucks for proximity to businesses, and though a slaughterhouse will reduce population in a neighborhood, it will increase your income when it's near a restaurant.
The ultimate goal is advancement of your population. Player with the largest population (shown on a Population Board/Scoring Track) wins the game. In order to attain and grow this population, though, you're going to have to establish an income stream, which will entail the purchase of building tiles. These buildings offer, dependent on where they're played, a wide variety of income advancement and population increase opportunities; many of them are complex and beyond the scope of this review (we'd be here all night). They're all very clearly spelled out on the tiles you'll place.
Every player starts with what's called a Borough Board. It has both an income and 'reputation' track, as well as three slots, from right to left, at the bottom of the board into which you will be placing the initial hexagonal tiles you'll be adding; others will be arrayed around them. You start with three of these tiles, placed in the center slot. A Suburb tile is nestled into the available center slot on the Borough Board, a Community Park tile is placed below it, and a Heavy Factory tile below that (all showing, not stacked).
You get $15 million at the start (we should all be so lucky to start a real enterprise with that sort of money). You get three Investment markers, which you'll use when you choose to grab up some extra dough, and an individual Goal disc, which will give you a specific 'type' of development to work on that will earn you significant extra population points at game's end. You get to pick two of these Goal discs from a draw pile and select one as a personal goal.
You might choose the Capitalist goal, for example, which will add 10 points to your population total, if, at game's end, you have placed the least number of Residential tiles, or you might choose the Builder goal, which will earn you 15 population points if your developed area has the most Residential tiles. A certain number of player-dependent Goal discs are placed, face-up at the start and are common to all; same types of bonuses, creating the same types of goals, but only one player can pull it off. Ties negate the bonus altogether.
There are, at the start, three piles of tiles, identical to the tiles you have already placed below your Borough Board at the start - Heavy Factory tiles, Suburb Tiles, and Community Park tiles. The Community Park tiles cost $4, while the other two types cost $3. Below the three draw piles of these is a market place with a renewable set of seven tile options. These tiles are drawn from a set of draw tiles, labeled A, B and C, which will emerge in that order, as the game progresses. Prices will range from $0 (a Hostel, which reduces your Reputation by "1" for every adjacent office building) to $22 (for a Casino, which reduces your reputation by "3" initially, but results in negating a series of income losses when you pass certain points on the Population Board/Scoring Track). Any tile drawn can be turned upside down to create an income-generating Lake, when your income stream is low. The Marketplace from where you'll purchase these tiles is arranged in a way that adds $10 to the cost of the tile on the far left, and adds no cost to the two tiles on the far right. As tiles are chosen, the array of them shifts to accommodate the gap created by a player's selection. A new tile is drawn and placed at the far left of the array.
Game ends when a "1 More Round" tile emerges from the "C" pile. At that point, the present round is completed and one more complete round will occur before the game ends. Goal awards are handed out and money is converted to population ("1" population for every $5 million you have at the end of the game). Population leader wins, with tiebreakers of highest advancement in Reputation (on your Borough Board), and secondarily, highest Income. After that, it's the player with the most money left over (after conversion to Population), and beyond that, the rules suggest that instead of determining who won, you set up and play again.
You'll want to play this game with at least one experienced player, at first. There's a complexity to the calculations involved with tile laying (deduct a reputation point for this, add income to that, do something else, somewhere else), followed by your end-of-turn adjustments which can be a little daunting. A veteran player will tell you, "You get two bucks for this, an extra population for that, adjust your income this way, your reputation that way and you're done." To which you reply, "Thank you," as you try to figure out how he/she calculated all that so quickly. You'll get the hang of it eventually (rocket science, it is not).
Suburbia won a 2013 Mensa Select award, which, by definition, defines it as "original, challenging and well-designed," according to a contingent of individuals in the top two percent (tested) of intelligence. A group of these folks get together every year and conduct a marathon of game playing to determine which games win the award (usually, about half a dozen win it in a given year). It's been rated over 2,500 times on BoardGameGeek and boasts a 7.64 average rating. As you might expect, comments accompanying the higher ratings are flush with praise, while the lower end of the rating spectrum declares that the game isn't worth the cardboard that it's printed on.
There's an on-going debate among my local gamers and some forums on the Geek as to whether the Casino tile, and a few others, are over-powered, meaning that possession of them, either individually, or in competition, is an important key to victory. Personally, I have not encountered circumstances in which this proved to be true, but I can see why some people would think so. There are some justifiable grumblings that one of its core mechanics - the pursuit of common goals, laid out at the start of the game is flawed. Each of these goals (combined with your own private/secret goal) will more or less dictate the kinds of decisions you'll want to make as you select building tiles, but you are at the mercy of the randomness by which they appear on the available array of them on your turn. You could be shooting for a goal that gives you 20 points for having the most of a certain type of building, and by luck (or lack) of draw, you might not get a lot of opportunities to add those kinds of building to your development. This would be very frustrating, and there are those who've been frustrated right out of enjoying this game. As with the 'over-powered' debate, I, personally, have not experienced this. Yet.
What I like about the game is its requirement for analysis. On each turn, you will be looking at available tiles to add to your development, and in order to understand the options, you will be reading what's on the tile (there have been complaints about the small print on these tiles, but I was able to read them, so I don't see it as a big problem). This reading exercise will make you aware of the relationships between certain types of developments, and you will be trying to make 'right' decisions; like, not putting an International Airport next to a Slaughterhouse, for example. There are other more subtle kinds of developmental relationships you'll be exploring. You'll do your best, sometimes get sidetracked by other players (who can deliberately take tiles they know you need, off the table), and either win or lose. If you can avoid the frustration of a few of its limitations (tile availability, a strong card in the display of an opponent, and your own learning curve), Suburbia should provide you with a couple of hours of fun.
Suburbia, designed by Ted Alspach, with artwork by Alspach, Klemens Franz and Ollin Timm, is published by a number of companies, including Bezier and Ystari Games. It can be played by 2-4 players, or as a solitaire exercise (haven't tried that, yet). It is recommended for ages 10 and up, although it is hard to imagine a 10-year-old grasping it well enough to be competitive. It would, of course, depend on the 10-year-old. It retails for a little less than $50, and can be found in various places (BoardGameGeek, E-Bay, etc.) for prices in the mid- to high-$30s. There was a copy for sale on E-Bay for $70,which at the time of writing, had yet to find a bidder.