Published on September 13th, 2013 | by Luke Turpeinen
Play This Instead: Monopoly / Urban Sprawl
Summary: A very high-level game with complex area control and action economy elements.
(We recently reviewed a game currently in Kickstarter whose main design goal was to be an updated version of Monopoly, so to some a Play This Instead article exploring that same space may seem redundant. To that I’d point out that the Kickstarted game is not in wide distribution right now, and depending on the funding may never reach that level. The game we’ll be showing you today is currently in print, available and relatively easy to find.)
Oh, Monopoly. The game of urban real estate control and cut throat capitalism that permeated many of our childhoods. Monopoly recieves more mentions on Across the Board Games than any other mainstream board game, and comparing newer games to Monopoly can have a polarizing effect. Many American board gamers tend to have a “you either love it or hate it” attitude towards Monopoly, and opinions can be quite fierce when it comes to the nearly 100 year old game. While feelings run high, there is no reason that an area control real estate management game can’t be fun and complex without being grueling or monotonous. Urban Sprawl is that game.
The problems that Monopoly has, from a game design stand point, are fairly well documented in both the board game community and without, due to its prominent place in American culture. Main concerns with Monopoly tend to be the randomness inherent in its dice rolling movement mechanic, the unbalanced probability of landing on the various properties, the length of the game, lack of fun meaningful choices, and monotony in the end game. Urban Sprawl doesn’t approach all of these concerns specifically to make a better version of Monopoly (unlike Conglomerate), but its creators did do a wonderful job of eliminating these problems from the design of their own game. Let’s take a look at how they do so.
Urban Sprawl is a game designed and published by GMT, which veteran board gamers may know as a company that tends to make large, complex games with sturdy (if not pretty) components and Urban Sprawl is no exception to that. The board is a six-panel set up and includes spaces for the wooden cubes you’ll be placing as well as spots for the cards that you’ll be cycling through. The fake money used is on thick paper, about the durability of (though not the same material as) a playing card. While the graphic design is nothing to get excited about, it’s not horrible and the general durability of all of the components makes up for the somewhat boring layout and colors. Over all I’d rather have durable components than pretty ones, so this category ends up in a slight positive.
Urban Sprawl is really rather deceptive in a lot of ways. The game board itself looks fairly intimidating, there is a large grid full of tiny squares in the middle and there are no less than four decks of cards that require a fairly specific set up process. Along the sides of the grid there are numbers printed on the board as well as blank areas where you have to place numbers later. Even with the help of a friend who has played a couple times before, set up for the game takes at least 15 minutes. It really does its best to intimidate you right from the very beginning, but thankfully it’s bark is worse than its bite.
Simply put, Urban Sprawl is a game about area control and action economy. The idea is to earn the most points before the game ending Event card is drawn, and you get points by constructing buildings next to other buildings and by having the most buildings in a row or column when that line gets called up to generate points. Each line (row or column) starts off with an X-axis yellow number and a y-axis red number: when numbers are pulled up on event cards, the person with the most buildings in that line gets a number of cash or points equal to the number pulled (yellow numbers generate cash, red numbers generate points). Certain buildings you construct will allow a player to place additional yellow and red numbers on a second set of X/Y spaces, which let the properties they overlap become even more valuable as they can now be called with more numbers. The complication to this arises in that the cost to construct a building is equal to the sum of all the numbers that feed into a square. Knowing when and where to place new tokens is key in effectively playing the game.
Another turn-to-turn concern in the game is simple action economy. On your turn you have 6 action points, which you can use to buy permits and titles. If you’re confused, that’s normal. Essentially you’re building the most efficient machine possible. You use action points to buy permits which let you build titles which let you place buildings, which gives you more money to do it all again. You do have a limited hand size, and there is the option of discarding cards at the start of your turn for money, so it’s hard to be completely out of the game. Urban Sprawl seems to really want the game to be as close as possible for as long as possible, which is nice.
Every time I have played Urban Sprawl I’ve lost to the player in first by at least 30 points. I still love it and love playing it. I feel as if every turn I take I am learning something new about the game, the mechanics and the strategy. The first time I played I felt like I was choosing places to build at random, and now I can get a good feel for the board by looking at it. This is definitely a game that you need to take the time to play and be horrible at for a little bit until you learn to think on its terms. Not everyone will be into that, but for those that like to push their boundaries while they play or for those that like complex but not bloated or tedious games should try out Urban Sprawl.