Welcome to Your Suburban Hellscape
Last month I called out a particular roll-and-write game as handsome but dull. It isn’t necessary to mention the game’s name (it was Ancient Artifacts) but some part of me was left wondering if the entire genre was a flash flood of hype — a dull roar, a rush of water, and the sudden crashing realization that this slot canyon was the wrong place to pitch camp.
Benoit Turpin’s Welcome To is the roll-and-write that changed my mind. And it doesn’t even feature any actual rolling.
Okay, I lied. Sometimes the little golf pencils included in the box fall off the table. That’s a type of rolling.
Welcome To is about setting up the world’s perfectest suburb. Ticky-tacky houses with brick facades, resplendent parks, the occasional pool, fences for ignoring your neighbor’s bad habits… everything your suburbanites need to survive fifteen minutes outside of the city, all the amenities but none of the bustle. No option for managing existential angst. Maybe that will make the cut in Welcome To Two.
But let’s talk about the game itself. Where most roll-and-write games begin with some rolled dice, this one opens with some flipped cards. Every round features three pairs to choose from, each representing the combination of a house number and a bonus action.
This is where Welcome To lurches to life like some sort of paper-pad golem. Each round, everybody leans over those three pairs and selects one, then scratches their selection onto their paper. There are no turns, no limitations on who can pick what, none of that usual malarkey. Much like the universe where monkeys pounding on keyboards might accidentally produce Shakespeare, everybody could pick the same card pair, time after time. That’s okay. After all, as the game pluckily announces on the box, up to a hundred people can play at once, limited only by the included one hundred neighborhood sheets.
Not that everybody will craft an identical suburb. In reality, it takes about two minutes before everybody’s neighborhood takes its own shape, driven by the need to arrange those numbers and bonuses according to some mysterious internal geography. Unlike that other roll-and-write, everything in Welcome To is about wringing some sort of stilted elegance out of the options laid before you. And the challenge is found in doing it with the exact same set of options that everybody else is working with.
So: pick a card pair, then pencil it into your blueprint. Easy as that.
Then again, there’s very little about Welcome To that could rightly be called easy.
Take those house numbers, for instance. Early on, you can pencil them into any open house. But as soon as you place a mark, you’ve limited where you can write future addresses. On each of your streets, the house numbers must be arranged in ascending order. Who’s ever heard of a street where the addresses jump up and down? Other than in Beszel and Ul Qoma, of course. This limitation is always on your mind, especially once your streets begin to fill up. Should you take a rare 14 and place it on the end of a row, or will that prove too limiting on a future turn? You probably don’t want to focus on easy 6s, 7s, and 8s early on, since they’ll likely show up again. But is it best to complete this street now, or spread out your numbers for later?
This conundrum is further complicated by those bonus actions. Some are straightforward utility options like contractors for fudging house numbers or bis marks that let you repeat an address when you’ve written yourself into a corner. Parks slowly grow in value, while pools are tricky to place but earn points in tantalizing spikes.
Then there are fences, which require some explanation. See, it isn’t enough to merely write down a bunch of house numbers. Blocks of houses also need to be divided into estates, ranging from one to six houses a pop. Not only are these worth varying quantities of points at the end of the game — quantities that you can manipulate with some clever real estate advertising — but the city also has some proposed layouts that will earn a hefty bundle of points when fulfilled. Every game features three of these, little objectives like “Have an estate of six houses, two estates of three houses, and an estate of one house.” And best of all, the first city planner to fulfill each contract earns more points than their peers.
But here’s the delicious, probability-screwing thing: in Welcome To, you’re always placing little wagers with yourself. But those wagers are placed without any guarantee that you’ll be able to cash them out. The biggest earners require hefty investments. Like patiently waiting for the right numbers to pair with swimming pools. Or using fences and advertising to set up perfectly expensive blocks of houses. Or leaving an estate partially unfinished because you needed a house elsewhere, and desperately hoping that the game won’t end before you can swing back to the original project.
None of these things are certain. Maybe the right numbers won’t come up, or maybe a competitor will end the game prematurely. Maybe you’ll never see a fence card again. No matter the reason, the final quarter of every play sees your city planners studying the table with held breath, alternately sighing relief and grumbling frustration as each new trio of paired cards is revealed. If I were a business nerd, I might interpret the whole thing as a study in opportunity costs. Through that lens, Welcome To is about far more than counting numbers; it’s about studying probabilities both short- and long-term, gauging the value of one investment over two others, and watching your rivals with the sharpness of a conman for any sign that they’re edging closer to achieving the city’s mandates.
But I’m not a business nerd, and Welcome To is anything but stuffy. Instead, it’s a peculiar and delightful thing, a roll-and-write that features no rolling but a whole mess of beguiling options. I thought I’d grow tired of its repetitive rhythm, especially once I internalized its most basic lessons and went through multiple neighborhoods without once resorting to a points-deducting bis card. Instead, it continues to draw me back with its low overhead, multifaceted optimization puzzle, and the constant Las Vegas dingdingding of incoming points. Truly, few games make counting up your score as gratifying as Welcome To. You earned a ton of points from parks? Well, get a load of my swimming pools.
Gratifying. That’s the word for it. Welcome To is as gratifying as they come, and not only because it knows how to dangle a prize behind every action. It rewards a sharp eye for investments, starts breezy and then squeezes the breath out of you, and begs to be attempted more than once. Guess there’s something to this roll-and-write fad after all.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. My group’s top score in Welcome To is 108. Perhaps you’d care to reward that with some support for one of the internet’s best sources for insightful board game reviews!)