When I contemplate Haakon Gaarder’s Villagers, its defining characteristic is its “light touch,” a careful avoidance of going too far with its complexity or authorial intrusion. Instead, it employs sparing strokes: a few abilities, sparse rules, a shared social space that made immediate sense to everyone involved.
Streets is a follow-up to Villagers in more ways than one. And it could have used a heavier touch.
Like Villagers before it, Streets is about building a town. No Black Death has descended on its nameless community, unless the group noun for a bunch of tourists is “a plague.” A number of factors have led to a real estate boom. Low prices. A forward-thinking city council. Unearthed architecture. Every state has one or two such cities, up-and-comers that serve as havens for roving Californians and tech startups. In Utah, those destinations are Park City and Silicon Slopes. Appropriately generic names that will soon be remolded in a new image.
In Streets, that remolding has everything to do with — you guessed it — an expanding layout of streets. Via the magic of tile-laying, discrete rows of properties accumulate one segment at a time, each with their own characteristics that ultimately boil down to a scoring value and one of four types of citizenry. Here’s the burger franchise, attracting over-tired families and scoring when placed on an intersection between blocks. There’s the shopping area, ostensible destination of tourists and consumers. Down the road is an indie stage, a wild tile that can appeal to a wide range of people, but in practice mostly draws in the hipster crowd.
Like an overly gracious host, the rules go out of their way to make you feel at home. Also like an overly gracious host, this somehow loops around and becomes irritating. Tiles are drawn from a stack — not drafted — and then placed into a town shared between players. There are only a few specifics to remember: tiles must be placed so their street either aligns with those already on the table or so that it makes a T intersection, and a street can only be five properties long. That’s it. Like Villagers, Streets gets you playing within two minutes.
The more involved task, as well as the problem with the game, arrives when a street is completed. Each tile’s owner collects money both for its scoring bonus and for any people stationed on it. With the expanded rules, you also grab that building’s type from the supply for an endgame bonus. Afterward, the people on that street are moved to new buildings, provided there are active destinations to host them. Otherwise they remain standing in place, paralyzed by FOMO until an accommodating tile is placed, at which point they’ll pop over there. It’s all uncomplicated and very cute, especially the first time you learn that FOMO, “fear of missing out,” is an actual in-game term. It’s also a lot of above-the-table work for very little. Placing people, making sure they’re lying down or standing up, tallying all these minor sums, moving things around, making exact change with the wooden money… despite the very lovely production, these tasks soon feel like chores that have piled up. Soon, the completion of a street draws sighs. Time to pause the game. Time to count sums and move things around.
Which is what I mean when I say that Streets is so slight that it would have benefited from a firmer hand. In theory, you’re creating this player-driven space, complete with both shared and competing incentives. It isn’t uncommon to design a street that will benefit multiple people — say, by giving me a bunch of points from my nine visiting hipsters, but also giving you those points thanks to your building next door.
If only such moments felt like they weren’t the exception. Because tiles are drawn from the top of a pile rather than drafted, there’s really no telling whether you’ll pick up something that will enable you to take advantage of the town’s current layout. In Villagers, the draft was half the game. Here, there’s a slender difference between a mediocre move and a good move, whereas the occasional fantastic placement can swing the game in somebody’s favor outright. In all cases, the absence of any conscious input behind which tiles wind up in your hand makes the process seem capricious rather than whimsical.
What do you get when a game is too fickle to be thinky, but too full of busywork to be light? Streets is what you get. It’s adorable, beautifully produced, and strives to generate lighthearted friction with its shared living spaces. Unfortunately, it neither recaptures the spark of Villagers nor provides its own reason to visit. As far as destinations go, this one’s a tourist trap.
A complimentary copy was provided.