Most games, good ones at least, have some aspect of game play that takes some getting used to. City locations and optimum routes in Thurn Und Taxis comes to mind. Understanding the benefits of all of the cards in London, or how role selection and turn order play out in Puerto Rico. They’re the kinds of things that inhibit a newcomer’s ability to be competitive the first time around.
With Mayfair Games’ new Urbania, the issue is visual. On a 7 X 7 grid (the board), 49 tiles representing seven different types of buildings are laid out at the start. One of four possible actions on your turn, from which you select two, will entail turning these tiles over (one per turn action) and collecting victory points associated with that individual tile. Each building type is defined by a shape and a color. At the start, and throughout most of the game, the resultant board display is disorienting, in part because the colors of the tiles themselves lack contrast. The blue Residential buildings, the green Parks and the brown Factories are easily distinguishable, but the Bank and School tiles are very similar, as are the Hospitals and Businesses. The Bank tiles are tan, and are inexplicably linked to grey cards and value markers, while the Schools are gold, and linked to white value markers. The Hospital tiles are red and the Businesses are a not-too-far-off pink.
Mark and I, both members of the Wilmington (NC) Board Game group, talked a newcomer, Annette, into joining us for a game. Annette was basically just hanging around Cape Fear Games, half-watching her son play Settlers of Catan, so while we were all new to Urbania, she was new to the group. Within minutes of setup, and the start of play, she was commenting on the different ways that the color scheme could have been improved to enhance game play. Like an interior decorator, she launched into a set of specifics that entailed changing the background colors of the board, and a host of other options for improving the color schemes of the building tiles, cards and markers. It was not, in other words, just me.
We never did get used to the visual confusion, which impacted game play on every turn, because it was difficult to see and determine which buildings (tiles) were available for development (turning over). Not an insurmountable problem, but like the cities and routes in Thurn and Taxis, the cards in London, and the roles in Puerto Rico, it took some getting used to.
As to the game beneath the surface of this color issue, I ended up liking it, and not merely because I won (though that usually helps). Simple mechanics, with a dash of complexity, related to issues of short and long-term planning in a game that played out, with three, in less than an hour. I think the end of the game came as a bit of surprise to all of us.
As noted above, the basic premise is the acquisition of victory points, 360 of them, minus the value of five tiles placed at the start, to be precise. The available points are distributed across the seven building types. Six of the building types offer 43 points each; a 15, 11, 8, 4, 3 and 2, while the residential (blue) buildings offer 102 of the points; three 15s, two 11s, two 8s, two 4s, three 3s, and a 2. These are randomly distributed across the board at the start of the game, which will have a way of making the experience a little different each time you play. None of us scored more than 100 of the available 360 (minus those five start tiles, known in the parlance of the game as the ‘city center’).
On your turn, you will select two actions from four available – Draw, Renew, Hire or Submit. The currency of the game is represented by cards (you get five at the start) with images of hard hats (construction workers) and coins. Each building tile bears information regarding the number of victory points you’ll acquire for developing that tile with the Renew action, and the cost (in hard hats) to do so. Each card in the deck of 60 (10 per suit/color, with no cards for Residential because you can use any color of hard hat to develop that) has three components in some combination; three hard hats, two hard hats and a coin, two coins and a hard hat, three coins. ‘Rainbow’ hard hats and coins represent wild cards, available for the development of any buildings or specialists. When you Draw (two cards), you can do so blind from a draw deck, or from five (renewable) cards on display. You can also select a Project Card, related to the Submit action (more on this in a minute).
From your hand, you match the number of hard hats of a particular color you have to a particular building you wish to Renew and lay them down. You turn the relevant tile over (it must be adjacent to an already Renewed tile) and collect the victory points associated with that tile. You also advance a building marker of that type (color) along a 1 to 8 scoring track. Cards with all hard hats are placed in a discard pile, cards with coins are retained for purchases in the Hire action.
The Hire action entails the purchase of what’s referred to as a building specialist. There is one for every color of building type (six). You pay, in coins, either previously played via the Renew action, or from your hand. What you pay depends on the value of the specialist at the time of purchase. A marker for each specialist is moved along a 1 to 8 track each time a specialist is purchased, so their cost will increase. You can actually buy (steal) one from an opponent. What’s significant about the specialists is that at the end of your turn, you will collect victory points equal to the building value of the building your specialist represents (not the value of the specialist).
The Submit action is about committing Project Cards you’ve drawn from the deck of them during your Draw action. These Project Cards add bonuses (decent ones) for fulfilling certain criteria detailed on the card, like 4 points for every building developed in a particular quadrant of the board (the one I collected), or 6 points for every building of a certain type that’s developed anywhere (Annette), or three times the game-ending value of the specialists in your possession (Mark). Mark added 12 to his score with his Project Card, Annette added 24 and I picked up 40, giving me the win. This leads me to suspect that certain Project Cards are overly powerful. Mine, for example, during this game.
Development of contiguous buildings in a given quadrant is easier than trying to develop certain types of buildings that are scattered all over the board, because in order to ‘reach’ a specific type, you might have to develop other buildings, just to develop the adjacency required to reach the ones you’re looking to score bonuses with. Mark’s type of card, which scored bonuses based on the end-game value of building specialists in his possession at the time is a) hard to control because your specialist can, in effect, be stolen, and b) the accumulated value of said specialists doesn’t really climb all that significantly as the game progresses. This leads to a further suspicion that you should keep collecting Project Cards until you find a good one, related to areas of the board (one of them offers 48 bonus points if you can successfully develop the four tiles at the four corners of the board).
Bear in mind that Mark really worked his Specialist Project Card. He had one with two specialists on it, offering three times the value of each of the specialists at the end of the game. But because their value was not increased beyond his initial purchase (no one tried to steal them from him and he couldn’t re-purchase them to move the marker along the scoring track), he ended up with only 12. Annette, too, did her best to get the building type she needed to match the bonus of her Project card, but I kept building in the area I needed, and not only scored the 40 points, but created the endgame condition of having two or less buildings in a given quadrant.
There is no incentive to steal a specialist from an opponent, unless by chance you’ve drawn a similar Project card. This keeps a specialist’s value and any potential bonuses low. The addition of a Re-Submit action would help; a means by which a player in possession of a particular specialist (and looking to collect a matching bonus) could increase that specialist’s value as the game progressed, thereby increasing the value of the potential bonus involved. This Re-Submit action might have to be capped at four, just to prevent those types of bonuses from becoming as powerful as the board area bonuses; too powerful. I will probably add this as a house rule the next time the game hits the table.
It’s a little early for any significant reaction from the BoardGameGeek crowd (where it is being listed as an “unreleased game”). Only 16 people have rated it, none giving it higher than a 7. Similar reactions regarding the confusion of the color scheme are evident, as is the fact that the Project cards are “really strong. It seems (says contributor i7dealer) like (they) literally decide the game,” which lowered his rating from an 8 to a 6.
Personally, I think further play, with knowledge of the power of the Project cards and the aforementioned house rule, will improve one’s initial reactions to this game. The components (tiles and cards) are sturdy, and the combination of its replayability, its short term/long term decision making processes, and its relatively quick playing time, make Urbania worthy of a few attempts.
Designed by Simone Luciani, with artwork by Franz Vohwinkel, Urbania is published by Mayfair Games. It can be played by 2-5 players with an age range beginning at 10 years old. It can be played in less than an hour. MSRP is $35, but, as always can be found for less with diligent shopping.