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Designer Diary: Suburbia Wasn't Built in a Day

Ted Alspach
United States
San Jose
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I'm a huge fan of SimCity. I like the idea of planning, building, and most importantly, seeing how everything fits together. I like the idea that you should build your factories far from your residential areas. And that you'll make everyone in your city happy by building parks. And that you'll increase your city income by having lots of shops. And that the more people you have, the idea that overhead costs soon start to spiral out of control. And that it's really difficult to reign those costs in and still be both profitable and be a place where people want to live.

So it's no surprise that I like the idea of city-building board games; however, none of the city-building games I've played scratched that itch. Therefore, like many game designers, I decided to try my hand at building my own city-building game. I set out with a single goal in mind: I wanted buildings to interact with each other in believable ways.

For instance, If you put an airport next to the suburbs, that's going to make people unhappy. However, if you put in a bunch of schools, people will go out of their way to move there. You should get more money from shops that are located near where people live and work. And this is how Suburbia works: at its core, it's less about what you build than how your buildings interact with each other.

The Original Design

I started work on Suburbia in January 2009. For this game, I wrote up a brief summary of how I wanted the game to work, including the goal stated above. The summary was less than two paragraphs. Under that I had a list of components that I thought would be needed: 100 tiles; 100 cubes (20 for each player color); a "City Planning" board that contained the score, Tax Rate and Reputation tracker; and the tile pool where players could buy tiles. I called the game "Urb". (The idea was that the game was a microeconomic view of the "Urbanization" ability in Age of Steam, which most players refer to as "Urb".)

For the first several iterations of the game, the tiles were square. This allowed up to four tiles to be adjacent to each tile, so a lot of combinations could be had. I briefly considered hex tiles at this stage, but two things stopped me: (1) cities should be square, not hexagonal, and (2) cutting out hexes is a nightmare (a lot more on this later).

I was pretty excited about getting the game printed so that I could try it out, so I slapped together some tiles really quick in Illustrator for a concept test:

Here are the items that existed in the initial iteration of the game that ended up making it through to the game as it will ship to stores:

-----1. The base three tiles are essentially the same (Suburbs, Factory, Park) with various tweaks.
-----2. Income and Desirability (would change to Reputation) charts.
-----3. A bunch of the tiles that ended up making it into the final game.
-----4. Green, Yellow, Gray and Blue tiles.
-----5. The three basic steps to a turn were there: Place a tile, collect/pay income, and adjust population.
-----6. A row of tiles from which to choose (though the row held eight tiles initially).

Here's one of the first game boards:

The list of items that made it through seems like a lot – until you start listing the differences (things that were scrapped or significantly modified) from then:

-----1. There was a separate Taxes chart. Higher taxes meant more income and less desirability. Players could adjust taxes one step at a time.
-----2. The Income chart went from 1 to 30, and the Desirability (Reputation) chart went from -6 to 23.
-----3. Players built out from the same central area and could take advantage of adjacency effects of their competitors' tiles if they built next to them.
-----4. Colored cubes were used to indicate who owned which tile.
-----5. You could sell placed tiles at any time for half their original cost to get cash.
-----6. There were event cards. 'Nuff said.
-----7. Some tiles were multi-colored.
-----8. Players received more money the later they were in the turn order.
-----9. The game played up to five players.

That initial version never made it out of the self-test phase as it had all sorts of problems, like spiraling player income, weirdness with the tax rate behavior, and those really annoying event cards. So an overhaul was necessary. Within a week of the initial design and self test, I had a new version ready to go, this time with some fancy graphics.

A note on graphics: I spend way too much time on the initial prototype graphic design/artwork, but it helps the process for me to get from A to B. And I would be embarrassed to show the wireframe versions of games to other people, so I feel it's necessary to make it look good. I do this knowing that the final artwork will undoubtedly change, but it helps with the theme and the future art direction.

The First Playtests

One of the first playtests was particularly memorable. I often playtest with people in our core FNVPs group (Friday Night VPs). The first time I brought this out it was a long ways from what it is today. One of the players – we'll just call him "Clark" to keep his identity secret – was having a miserable time. (I forget the specific circumstances, but he was just miserable, and in his frustration tried to "break" the game by eliminating himself through intentionally poor play.) This resulted in some heated words between us (much to the amusement of the other three players).

Following that initial session, I wrote up the following notes to myself:

-----• Reduce number of total tiles – (17x4+7=75, three of each kind would be 25 tiles instead of 39, so get rid of 14 tile types).
-----• Change board pricing: 10 10 5 5 0 0 0.
-----• Reduce the number of cliffs (these became "Red Lines" in Suburbia) even more – split into reputation/revenue early on.
-----• Make tiles bigger.
-----• Fix revenue/rep indicators; make different shapes and colors (maybe black boxes for Revenue).
-----• Make description text bigger.
-----• Make iconography for tile types clearer.
-----• Provide chart with tile manifest.
-----• Don't invite "Clark" to any more playtest sessions.

I sat down, made a bunch of changes based on those notes, then I sent out the following list of changes to the playtesters:

-----• Tiles have been reduced in variety from 39 different tiles (in addition to the three base tiles) to only 25 different tiles. Instead of two of each kind, there are three of each kind.
-----• No more dual-type tiles. Tiles are a single type now.
-----• Clearer, consistent characteristics of tile types:
----------• Industrial tiles (yellow) add revenue and hurt reputation
----------• Public tiles (gray) hurt revenue and add population, revenue, or reputation
----------• Residential tiles (green) add population and occasionally impact reputation
----------• Commercial tiles (blue) add revenue and occasionally add population or reputation
-----• The spacing for the revenue/reputation has increased, making it easier in the first half of the game to gain population
-----• Tiles that required counting of other player tile types have been removed (for instance, tiles like the Resort, which gave population for every residential tile on the board, have been removed). Three Public tiles and one Residential tile still give population bonuses for each of your residential tiles.
-----• Five player rules have been removed; the gameplay was too slow and choices were too limited due to the space limitations.
-----• Cost for selecting face-up tiles has been reduced: The 20 space has been removed and a new free space added. The costs are now 10 10 5 5 0 0 0.

Most of those rule changes moved the game in the right direction. In fact, after several more playtests, I was feeling bold enough to show the game to publishers at The Gathering of Friends about one month later.

Initial Submissions to Publishers

At this time, Bézier Games was way too small to be able to undertake publishing a game as big as Urb, so I was looking for a publisher for the game. I showed it to a number of publishers, including Ystari, Hans im Glück, and eggertspiele, but my real hope was with Hasbro, as I thought the game could really be a SimCity board game.

Hans im Glück liked the game enough to take it back and do internal playtesting, but Hasbro turned it down, saying it was too complex for the mass market appeal that a SimCity board game needed. However, they did say they would eagerly look at it again if it were simplified in some way.

Not long after the Gathering, I received an email from Hans im Glück turning down Urb, with them saying, "It was too slow and too long and was also a major problem to see the interactions between the cards." (In Germany, they call tiles "cards" quite often, which is a little annoying sometimes.)

One major problem that was happening at that time was when certain tiles were just too expensive for players to buy early on in the game. Also, towards the end of the game, certain tiles just had no real value. However, I thought it was good enough as it was. Wrong! At this point, I was frustrated and I was also a bit burned out on the development of the game, and it was shelved until mid-2010.

ABC – Easy as 123

Oftentimes I will put a game design away for some time and come back to it months or even years later. This tends to happen most with Age of Steam expansions, but it also happens with regular games. In August 2010 I pulled out Urb, renamed it City Planner, and added one of the most important features of the game: Separating tiles into A, B and C stacks, solving the issue that Hans im Glück mentioned.

A lot of playtesting occurred in August of that year, primarily focusing on getting the tile mix right for each of the stacks. But it still was missing something...


Cities are created out of square city blocks. I had entertained the idea of hexes at various times during development, but always felt it was wrong thematically. After all, who wants to live in Hexville? But one year after the ABC stacks had been created, I couldn't get City Planner out of my mind and decided to create a set of the game that had hex tiles instead of square tiles. What a huge difference in gameplay! Suddenly the interactivity between the tiles skyrocketed, and the game was tremendously more interesting than it had been before.

I also added the concept of "Investment Markers" to the game, though they were meeples ("workers"). Because they were meeples, and I was using meeples as the icon for population, and because I was about to launch TieBreaker, another meeple-based game, I decided to rename the game again, this time to "Meeptropolis".

Strategicon & the Addition of Goals

Lots more playtesting occurred, and I took the game with me to Strategicon (in LA) that September, where I had the good fortune of hosting a playtest session with Kevin Wilson (one of the designers of Descent, Arkham Horror, and many more Fantasy Flight games). After playing, we talked about what could be done to improve the game, and he strongly suggested adding goals to the game.

At first, I balked as I had considered doing that before but couldn't seem to make it work. Kevin's feedback was primarily on "secret goals", one for each player. I like games that have that mechanism, but the bad taste of Railroad Tycoon's secret goals had prevented me from including that in anything I've worked on.

As I was toying with the idea, I thought, what if there were both secret and public goals? So everyone is vying for the same set of goals, but each player has his own goal that's specific to him? It didn't take long for goals to evolve into how they work today.

And with that, the game suddenly had even greater replayability than it had before. Not only was each game different due to the tile mix, but in addition, each game was different thanks to the set of goals on the board and the secret goal in each player's hands. This was when I decided that I would be publishing Meeptropolis myself.

Tile Art

One of my playtesters had lamented that while he enjoyed playing the game, it was hard to get into it with the abstract nature of the tiles vs. actual buildings. Since I was going to publish Meeptropolis, I knew I would need "real" artwork for the tiles anyway, so I went about finding an artist to create the buildings. At this time, I was still thinking the game would exist in the "Board 2 Pieces" universe, so I found an artist who could do some simplistic 3D renderings to match the style of my comic strip artwork.

While the resulting artwork does match that style a bit, its simplicity ended up working really well for the design that was eventually used; the roads set up a grid for the city, and also each of the buildings is slightly tinted to match the overall tile color.

Bringing on a Developer

Before the game would be ready for publication, I knew I needed to do a great deal of additional development work to balance the tiles. At the time, that's all I thought the game really needed. (I was wrong, of course, but at least I realized it needed something.) At Spiel 2011, I talked to Dale Yu, who I had worked with as a playtester when he was developing Dominion and its expansions.

As a playtester for Dominion, I knew the amount of testing needed for a game to be balanced properly so that it's fun out of the box while also providing a long-term gaming experience for players. While Dale will be posting a separate entry to discuss in detail how the game got from Meeptropolis to the game that will be published in mid-to-late 2012, I do have some important things to say about the development process:

Having an outside party who is invested (paid) to make the game better was invaluable for Suburbia. Without Dale's input (and there was a lot of it), the game wouldn't be as good. I'm certain of that.

As a publisher who publishes primarily my own games, I was missing out on the development process that is typical of how larger game companies work with designers. It's probably acceptable for smaller games, but it's hugely beneficial for larger ones.

The amount of polish in Suburbia is HUGE. Everything just fits together incredibly well, and this is due to the development process. As I think about big box games from smaller publishers (and some larger ones), this has become very obvious to me. I can think of a lot of games from smaller publishers that just didn't have that polish, and I wonder what might have been had they had the input of a seasoned game developer.

Lookout Games and Klemens Franz

After Dale started development, we worked together on several items in addition to gameplay, including getting additional publishers on board. Both of us have a lot of contacts in the industry, but we targeted a few specific publishers for the German version. At the top of the list for Suburbia was Lookout Games, as Suburbia seemed like a good fit for its line of deeper games. It didn't take long for Lookout to scoop up the German publishing rights, and in addition to having a German publisher, we ended up getting a great partner, being able to utilize the considerable talents of Klemens Franz and his graphic design skills to do a makeover on the style of the tiles, board and other components. Here's an example of the before/after tile design for a few of the tiles in the game:

Of course, now that the game was full of hex tiles – more than 125 of 'em! – which meant that new artwork would result in me having to cut more tiles. Earlier this year, I bruised a nerve in my thumb cutting out hex tiles. It was tingly for about two months, and only now is it completely healed. Cutting hexes sucks as you can use a paper cutter only for long straight lines (two of the six hex sides), and the rest have to be done manually – and I make the process even more painful because I adhere the printed sheets to cardboard, then cut them.

But the versions (yes, there have been several) from Klemens have been so much better each time that the cutting again (and again) has been worth it. Even now, with the files set to go to the printer this week, I have an outdated set that I know I need to update to the current version. (After all, Meeplefest is coming up next week.)

Aside from the tiles, Klemens did great work on the rest of the components as well. But he's promised to write up the details on all of this within the next few months, so I won't go through the iterations here. But I have to call out his work on the player aids because they're phenomenal!

Equally important as the artwork was the input from both Klemens and Hanno Girke at Lookout for all sorts of little details, from terminology to what to put on the player aids. As the project moved forward, there was a definite sense of collaboration between Lookout, Dale and myself, with all of us striving to make the game as good as possible.

The Essen Expansion

I've been working on various expansions to Suburbia ever since I brought Dale on as a developer. Initially I had considered a larger initial expansion, but because the game was so solid by itself, it was scaled back to a set of three new tiles (seven tiles total) that could be added into the game without breaking anything or changing any of the rules drastically.

Because the game was going to be launched at Spiel and I absolutely love Spiel – this will be the eighth year in a row I've attended and the fifth with my Bézier Games booth in Hall 5 at stand 100 – I decided to do an expansion about Essen, and more specifically Spiel. There are three different tiles in it:

The game is totally playable and fun with or without the expansion, and it adds a little extra flavor for Spiel attendees as everyone has been to the Messe (the hall where Spiel takes place), most people have ridden the U-bahn that dumps people in front of the Messe, and a few have been to the Grugapark that's right up against the Messe (and if you've been to Essen and haven't been there, I encourage you to do so). Since Spiel both enhances the reputation and brings money into the city, the tiles do the same.

The rules for the expansion couldn't be simpler: Mix the tiles into their appropriate stacks (Grugapark in A, U-Bahn in B, and Messe in C), and play. For playtesting, we often "forced" the Essen tiles into the stacks that were actually used, but since then they've been included (or not) just like the other tiles – as the tiles stacks are created from a random set of tiles – and it works great that way.

Final Thoughts

Suburbia has consumed more design/development time than any other game I've worked on ever. Only Ultimate Werewolf comes close, and that's primarily because I've played so many Werewolf games and continue to put out expansions for it. (Three so far, including the critically-acclaimed Ultimate Werewolf Artifacts!) I've played Suburbia in its various incarnations more than one hundred times and will undoubtedly play it quite a bit once it's published and available in the final months of 2012.

These past few months have been about rules and component polishing – and even that has resulted in some pretty significant improvements, from a really tight set-up guide on the first page of the rules (which has gone through a number of enhancements as well), to tightening up the language on the tiles, to maintaining consistency and enhancing readability.

Now comes the really fun part: getting a "real" advance copy of the game in a few months, then showing it off at Spiel. I hope that everyone who plays it gets that great feeling of building something that I was striving for!

Ted Alspach
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