Growing Up Free and Wild

Crane rental income when?

Back when cities regularly burned down, Seattle burned down too. That’s the starting point for Rebuilding Seattle, an optimistic title by Quinn Brander that does exactly what it says on the tin. Like so many modern games chasing mass appeal, it plays like a pastiche of a best hits album: there are polyominoes and a wide-open card drafting market, limited currencies and special powers. On their own, these elements are baggy and ill-defined. In tying them together, however, Brander manages to elevate Rebuilding Seattle to more than the sum of its parts.

The part of Seattle that's all about DANCING baybee

Seattle! Part of it, anyway.

Good thing, too, because setting up Rebuilding Seattle feels like a homage to at least three other games. Here are the stacks of building polyominoes, organized by size and color. Here’s the sprawling market, too big for its britches, like walking into a restaurant that’s put everything on the menu rather than highlighting a few quality dishes. Everybody receives not one, not two, but three unique setup options, a combination of city district (complete with special powers), neighborhood (with its own selection of surviving structures), and a choice of two out of three landmark structures that bestow, you guessed it, special powers alongside their end-game scoring bonuses. One gets the sense that they’ve played this before. Maybe five or six times.

In fairness to Brander’s grab-bag of disparate mechanisms, this parade doesn’t prompt fatigue so much as comforting familiarity. Nor is it long before the game starts to exhibit its own identity. In stark contrast to the modern Eurogame tendency of making even the simplest of actions as complicated as possible, Rebuilding Seattle goes to lengths to keep its steps manageable. The main action, constructing a building, is as simple as selecting an option from its overflowing menu. Expanding your boundaries by annexing a nearby suburb is similarly easy. Meanwhile, as a nice touch, every building is attached to an upgrade. This keeps the pacing lively. As your city’s banks, mass transit hubs, schools, and amenities expand, you also gain new sources of revenue, extra scoring opportunities, and all-important upgrades that make your dance halls, shops, and restaurants more valuable. Even though you’re only taking one action at a time, it’s a rare turn that doesn’t feel like you aren’t double-dipping from the options on display.

And this is the offer with three players. Wait until you see it at five. Two more rows are added. It's a lot.

The card market often feels a little overgrown.

Of course, the real test of your developer’s chops is how well you’re prioritizing those double dips in the first place. Upgrading the quality of your district’s restaurants doesn’t much matter if you’ve only built a single corner deli. There are avenues aplenty, mostly focused on the game’s three main amenities, but also informed by your landmarks. In one game, I erected a massive financial district with high-end entertainment and restaurants. In another, train stations and universities kept my neighborhood’s population so low that I barely had to build anything else.

Speaking of which, population is a crucial factor in Rebuilding Seattle. Historically, the reconstruction of Seattle witnessed a doubling of population within a single year. Here, that influx of bodies is faithfully reproduced. It functions as a moving target. You only score an amenity if there are enough of the corresponding structures to cover your population’s needs, or near enough. The resulting paradox is a familiar one to students of urban development: your marching orders are to attract more residents, but the incoming population presents new challenges as you struggle to accommodate them.

This highlights the best part of Rebuilding Seattle. On the one hand, the polyomino placement is flabby. It’s rare that you won’t have enough space for new structures, even if you’re side-stepping the parks and hills that bestow periodic perks. But negative space need not be considered a bad thing. In fact, one of the best tableau-builders of all time, Josh Wood’s Santa Monica, demonstrated how to use negative space to accentuate the positive. Something similar happens here. While this isn’t the sort of game that sees every corner getting filled in, that soon works to its benefit. Before long, your neighborhood has crowded downtowns, distant landmarks, little patches of wetlands, stations that must surely be bustling with activity and others that don’t demand more from passing trains than a rolling stop. The gameplay isn’t as tight as it might have been, but it makes up for that sparsity with a density of character. These neighborhoods feel cluttered and organic, alive even, like a city worth getting lost in.

This scoring system is so smart. I want more of this. Less all-or-nothing scoring, more "I didn't quite meet my people's needs, but I still met enough to earn some points."

Georgetown. Town of Georges.

The sense that this place is lived-in extends to the game’s mechanical side as well. While the market and polyominoes aren’t anything to write home about, Brander infuses each round with the tempo of a jittering knee.

Meet the event cards. There are six of the things, each splayed face-up in the market at the outset of the round. Alongside the usual actions, players are allowed to spend a turn triggering an event. What sets them apart is how they inform what comes afterward. Three of them are largely identical, initiating the scoring of an amenity. The others are more interesting. One, graduation, sees some portion of your population leaving the city. The more schools you’ve built, the greater the departure. Another sees the hills, parks, and marshy parts of the city spilling out bonuses. The last, expansion, turns everybody’s train stations into free annexed suburbs.

It’s hard to overstate how clever these events are. The entirety of Rebuilding Seattle is like running a race; your goal is to nab the best buildings before anybody else. It’s helpful, then, that events act to pad your bank account in the middle of the round. Rather than setting everybody on the same track — one of steadily diminishing velocity as your wallet runs dry — this generates little spikes of activity. You spend what you can, trigger an event, keep spending, and hope that nobody claims the final event, and thus ends the round, before you meet your personal goals.

This is the glue that holds everything together, adding some much-needed anxiety to a game that’s otherwise cozy. Brander seems to have identified the truism that in game design drama stems from restriction, not permission. That’s manifest in every single turn of Rebuilding Seattle. Will you build the Space Needle before the round ends? Will you nab that bank before a rival mayor? Will you land another train station or school before migration and graduation season? Or will you trigger the scoring of restaurant amenities before the game’s restaurant baron can build enough eateries to catch up to demand? There’s never enough cash or time to do everything. Better make the best of what you’ve got.

As in, it isn't complicated. It still needs a lot of table space.

It looks like a lot, but it’s fairly restrained.

In the end, Rebuilding Seattle is a good game that could have been exceptional. Its city-building could have been more interesting, and its card offer is the game equivalent of digging through a pile of loose clothing for the right pair of pants. Still, it has an undeniable character to it, a rhythm that trims even its baggier elements to fit. It may not be perfect, yet it captures the appeal of half-kempt urban wilderness, sprawling in every direction, logical but disorderly, and oh so human. It’s a space worthy of exploration.


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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on May 1, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I had a complicated reaction to this game when I encountered it as a convention, because (1) it seemingly evolved from a game about ‘overpopulation’ where keeping population down is the best thing you can do, which… I’ll just say I have feelings about, and (2) it then scaled that down to a setting of my home city, making that ideological rock in my shoe personal.

    But to this game’s credit, gosh if it wasn’t fun to play anyway. For a game with its grab bag of systems, the pace was pleasingly punchy, and it was one of my favorite experiences of the convention. And I do respect a game that has an ‘argument’ to wrestle with.

    • Every time we’ve played, the “keep the population down!” thing has come up, usually in the context of how weird it seems. I don’t think it’s going for an intentional Malthusian catastrophe thing, but… yeah. I can see that being a hangup.

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