Buzzworthiness: Urban Sprawl

Review time!  I got to play another game I had previously reported on here at the blog:

image by BGG user Rodger MacGowan

Urban Sprawl, as you may remember, was a game designed by Dominant Species designer Chad Jensen and released by GMT.  It’s a game all about building a city.  For a discussion of the basic gameplay, you can take a look back at my July post about the game, or you can go take a look at the game entry on BGG.  For now, I’ll give a very brief rundown of how a game turn works.

On your turn, you’ll first have the opportunity to trade in planning cards for cash in the investment phase.  These cards would ordinarily be used as permits to build buildings, but by discarding them, you might be able to get some much needed capital.  The next phase is the action phase, where you ordinarily have 6 action points to spend.  These will be spent to acquire cards – permits that will allow you to build, and buildings that can be built with the proper combination of permits.  Buildings come in four varieties – civic, commercial, industrial, and residential – and have to be built either by themselves or adjacent to other buildings of that type.  The board is divided into zones, and you’ll have to pay money to build based on the numbers at the ends of the rows your building occupies.  You can hold as many permits as you want, but buildings must be built in the same turn that they’re drawn.  You can save one as a favor that can be built on a later turn for no action points, provided that you have the proper permits.

Once you’ve spent all of your action points, the cards are refilled before play passes to the next person.  First, planning cards are drawn, and could reveal new permits or special events that may or may not help.  Permits may trigger an election of one of the five public offices (mayor, district attorney, treasurer, police chief, and union boss), and also may trigger a cash payout to people in certain rows.  After refilling all the available slots, you’ll refill the building cards, which may trigger more events or point payouts to certain rows.  You begin the game by building from the town deck.  As soon as the airport card comes up (about halfway through the deck), you start building from the city deck.  As soon as the sports arena comes up, you move on to the metropolis deck.  When your metropolis gets the Olympics, the game ends, and a final scoring occurs.  The player with the most points wins.

COMPONENTS: I’m always suspicious of GMT components.  It’s really kind of unfair since I had previously only played one GMT game (Battle Line, with REALLY flimsy cards).  But they seem to be doing better with their components, at least with their Euro-style games.  This one is no exception – the components are really good.  The cards are super stiff, the tiles are nice and solid, and the money…I have not made it a secret how much I hate paper money.  But this is paper money done right.  It’s made of thick card stock, rather than the tissue paper people usually use in their games.  High marks for that alone.

Aesthetically, there’s not much art in the game apart from the cool cover, and everything that is there is kind of bland.  The board, however, is very well laid out.  It’s a pretty big board, and all of the spaces are clearly marked with big writing.  The player aids are helpful in remembering turn sequence (though it’s not that difficult to remember what you need to do).  Cards are marked with symbols to let you know either what kind of building it is, or what your permit can build.  The colors are a little off – the red on the cards doesn’t match the red on the tiles, but it’s a small point.  Overall, I give this game high marks in component quality.

THEME: The theme here of city planning is fairly unique, but it’s also pretty abstracted.  The building cards all have names of unique buildings, but once they’re on the board, it doesn’t matter what they are anymore.  The only thing that matters is type – civic, commercial, industrial, or residential.  If the theme wasn’t present, the only thing that would matter would be color – red, yellow, blue, or purple.  The board is laid out in a nice 6×6 grid system (with each grid square further divided into four sections), with woods on one side and water on the other.  There are no street names, and placement only matters based on the payouts located at the sides, which may change throughout the game.  Elections come up fairly often, but rather than actual votes, it’s based on the value of owned properties.  I like the theme, but it really could have been anything.  At no point did I get the sense that I was actually building a city, it seemed like just more of a way to hold the mechanics together.

MECHANICS: A lot of different mechanics come together to form the Urban Sprawl experience.  There’s area control aspects as you try to gain the majority in various rows so you can earn money and points.  Money management is key, so you can build in those prime areas when the time comes.  The action point system gives you a limit on what you can do per turn, and only having six means that you can never draw more than four cards.  You have to decide if it’s going to be more profitable to get more cards, or to spend extra action points for something that someone else will grab if you don’t.  The selection of buildings and permits is a kind of drafting mechanism, and determining where your buildings will go has some spatial elements, particularly with the restrictions – must be touching either nothing or another building of the same color, and earning points for each building of the same color it touches.

Overall, the game works very well.  One of the problems with action point games, in my experience, is that you have such a wide range of choices that it makes analysis paralysis a real problem.  The good thing about Urban Sprawl is, while there is that problem, you can remain engaged between turns due to the possibilities of point or cash payouts, as well as events and elections.  The addition of vocation tiles gives you more opportunities to collect payouts, and you can choose whether you want cash or points.  To me, the between turns scoring is one of the strongest selling points for this game.

There’s a bit of a puzzle element in the game as you try to find the most valuable position.  Numbers are printed on the board that indicate cash and point payouts for their respective rows.  On the other end are empty spaces that can be filled with more valuable numbers.  As these numbers come out, you can place them on the board where you want, either to increase the value of your position, or to make it more difficult for someone else to get in.  These numbers may move during the game, giving you the opportunity to change your fortunes.

The mechanics of Urban Sprawl are very solid, and feel very unique to me.  There are lots of opportunities for points, and lots of opportunities to make choices.  I like the way they all come together to form a very deep game.

STRATEGY LEVEL: I used to call this category “strategy vs. luck”, but I think I want to focus more on strategy and how it is influenced by random elements in the game.  As I’ve mentioned, there are lots of opportunities to make choices in this game, but your choices really are dependent on the random cards that come up.  I’ve only played with four players, and that means that you may see cards you want and never have a chance to grab them just because of when they come out of the deck.  It supposedly balances out because of the large number of cards in the deck, but if a lot of one type of building wind up in the bottom half of the deck, you may never see them (the cards that advance the game to the next deck are seeded halfway through).  So you have to plan ahead and hope for the best – collect permits so you can build cards you really need, make sure you have enough money to pay for placements, and try to get as many vocations as possible.  Particularly the media tile – all of the events in the town/city/metropolis decks pay out a dollar and a point to the media tile holder.  Plus they break ties for the mayor.  Still, you can’t really plan for the events which could really help the wrong person if you’re not careful.  These give experienced players an edge because they’ll know more about what to plan for.

There is a lot of strategy in the game, but a good amount of luck can really throw a monkey wrench in your plans.  Think ahead.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is not a game for the casual gamer.  This is definitely a game for gamers, and particularly for those who like longer games.  There’s not that much to remember in terms of the rules, but there’s a lot of little things going on at once.  People with severe AP may enjoy it, but those who play with them will not.  For people who don’t really like randomness, there will probably be a little too much for them.  But for people who don’t mind a little chaos, I think this will be a good choice.  I’m pretty sure it’s a game my wife would not enjoy simply because of the length.  This can be changed by putting the trigger card higher up in the decks, but that would increase the randomness.

REPLAYABILITY: Because you only use half of the town/city/metropolis decks, each game may feature a different combination of buildings.  The rotating nature of some of the row numbers will also provide some variability from game to game.  But again, due to the length, I doubt that this is a game that would come out very often.  I can imagine that games would start to feel similar after a few plays.  I’ve only played once, and though I’d be happy to play again, I’m pretty sure that it will be a while for me.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY?  Yes.  It’s a very good game.  The mechanics are very tight, and there are a lot of elements that feel very fresh.  Will it be as successful as Dominant Species?  Probably not, but you never can tell.  I’m still looking forward to getting in my first game of DS, at which time I can better compare the two.  But for now, I’d recommend this game if it seems like your thing.  Thanks for reading!



  1. Besides the same designer and publisher and some shared components, DS and US are pretty distinct from each other. Only the end condition is the same – when a certain card is drawn, the game is over. But in DS it takes it a step further and someone actually has to take the card so you have a better sense and control over it.

    We’ll have to set up a time to do DS as well. I’d also like to see how quickly we can move through US now that we have a better sense of the scope of the game.

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