Alone with 18 Cards
Posted by The Innocent
Webster’s Dictionary defines “Sprawlopolis” as “Noun: sprȯl-ä-p(ə-)ləs: An 18-card wallet game published by Button Shy and from the same design trio behind the rather-good Circle the Wagons.”
Huh! Informative and entertaining, Webster! And for once, I’m not going to split hairs. Everything you said is true.
As for the quality of the game, however…
Nah, it’s good. Really good.
Like many of the best puzzle games, Sprawlopolis straddles a tightrope between simple and brain-burning. The setup is as quick as riffling the deck, dealing out three goal cards, and — nope, that’s the setup. In contrast, the gameplay only sounds easy. You’re holding three cards at a time, and a turn is about depositing one of them somewhere within the expanding sprawl of your city. No problem, right?
Except that’s as reductive as saying “you take some actions to earn victory points” to describe, well, any other game. Right away, the conundrums of city zoning are numerous. While each turn only sees you mulling over three cards, you’re also burdened with an entire Thanksgiving parade of tricky decisions.
I’ll give you an example. Let’s say one of your goals is to create a spacious central park. How pleasant! Well, every card features all four districts — beautiful green parks, yes, but also residential houses, commercial storefronts, and the Chemical Plant Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Which means that clustering parks together will likely require you to stack some cards over portions of those you’ve already laid on the table. Still not too bad. Except! You also need to remember that solid blocks of any district are worth points, that you have two other goals to accomplish, and that every road will subtract a point from your final score. Chopping too many cards into pieces for the sake of swings and shade trees may result in terribly congested traffic, no jobs, or other missed directives, and see you marched to the guillotine no matter how many baseball diamonds you’ve crammed into pleasantville.
Okay, so I have no idea what happens to disgraced urban planners. Like you do.
The point is, every single play matters, usually at the expense of another opportunity. Crud, another five or six opportunities. Keeping your roads connected will minimize their damage to your score, but is it pulling in points? Well, possibly. After all, much of Sprawlopolis’s appeal is found in the way each set of goals offers a fresh challenge. While every city looks the same to the uninitiated, it only takes a couple plays before the differences make themselves known. Each evolving arrangement is unique, driven by competing forces, and a city with road-based goals will turn out distinctly from one where your job was to avoid constructing houses in the shade of smokestacks.
If this sounds suspiciously similar to Circle the Wagons, it isn’t far off. The biggest change is that Sprawlopolis is purely cooperative or solo. The cooperative game is identical but for the added uncertainty of a partner’s hidden hand — which, frankly, is less pleasant to execute than the simple joy of arranging all those roads and blocks according to the designs of a single rational mind. Where Circle the Wagons was about staking claims both smartly and quickly, Sprawlopolis is a bit more measured, a bit more thoughtful. You’re only competing against the target score set by your three goal cards, so feel free to rotate and arrange and maybe take back the occasional placement. I won’t tell. Promise.
In fact, while I miss that competitive edge, Sprawlopolis feels superior in nearly every other regard. The roads are a constant pain in the ass, as modern roads are wont to be. Those competing goals rarely align in an easy manner, and every draw seems to kick up a headache. Perfect. That’s all exactly as it should be.
If anything, Sprawlopolis is one of those rare microgames that doesn’t feel like it’s been drilled and dieted until it can squeeze into its 18-card corset. Fewer cards and it would feel emaciated; a few more and it would bloat. Instead, it does exactly what it’s supposed to do, letting you arrange an entire city on a span of table no larger than an airplane tray table. This is Button Shy at its absolute best.
A complimentary copy was provided.
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