Game Review: Sprawlopolis

sprawlopolis from button shy games review solo card game puzzleLet me just start out by saying that it’s rare I acquire a game and immediately fall in love with it, but Sprawlopolis is just that sort of game. It’s a card game without any tokens, chits, scoreboards, inserts, folding boards, miniatures or dice. You know, all the accoutrements of modern board game design that require big boxes and a substantial price tag. Sprawlopolis is representative of a different class of game known in the biz as “mint tin” titles. The idea is that the entire game should be able to fit into an Altoids tin. Some companies take that constraint and create titles like Ultra Tiny Epic Galaxies but Button Shy, developers of Sprawlopolis, took the challenge in a different direction, creating a class that they call “Wallet Games” that are even more compact while remaining interesting through smart and rigorous design.

The entire game is comprised of 18 standard size playing cards. That’s it. 18 cards. On the front of each card is a four-territory grid representing an urban environment, while the obverse is a scoring condition and challenge. Check out the below image to see examples of both sides:

button shy sprawlopolis game review - basic card design

On the left is the scoring condition Block Party. As you develop your city, you’ll want to maximize the number of adjacent areas of the same type. Orange = residential, blue = commercial, green = parks and grey = industrial. On the right is a typical card and in addition to the four regions it includes two roadway segments.

Part of the challenge of Sprawlopolis is to minimize the number of roads you create (long roads are always a smart urban planning goal!) even as you place each and every one of the 15 cards that will comprise your city. 18 cards, but the first three you flip upside down and they become your scoring conditions, adding up to also being your scoring goal too. That means there are over 800 different scoring conditions just from the cards, but it turns out there’s more you add up – and subtract! – to get a final score. But I’ll get to that momentarily…

Here’s how one of my games looked as I contemplated my first move:

button shy sprawlopolis game review - starting setup

My scoring goals are Park Hopping, giving points for every road that begins and ends in a park, Block Party, pushing me to create blocks of four like properties, and Go Green which rewards parks while penalizing industrial zones. Remember, you have to try and maximize all three of these simultaneously. Sometimes that can be easy, but other times it can be beastly hard. In this case Park Hopping and Go Green are pretty compatible (both focused on parks) so this isn’t too onerous.

The card in the center is my starting space and you can see it has one road going from upper left to lower right. Along the bottom are the three cards in my hand. Each can be rotated 180-degrees and can be placed adjacent to an existing card or can overlap any existing card by one or two spaces. Play a card, pull another from the deck. Run out of cards and you’re done.

As a perpetual goal, you’ll try to line up your roads, maximize beneficial score configurations and minimize negative score configurations (like that ominous -3 points for each industrial park on Go Green). At the very end of the game, you’ll also get points for the biggest expanse of each of the four zone types, but you’ll also subtract 1 point for each road!

Simple, straightforward, and remarkably engrossing and interesting. Here’s one end game scenario with the three scoring conditions shown:

button shy sprawlopolis game review - end game 1

This one went really well and you can see I really focused on creating really long roads. The orange zone (residential) in the middle of the board is particularly beneficial, offering me 6 points for the Master Planned condition (biggest orange zone – biggest grey zone) plus another 8 points for the biggest orange sector.

Counting up points can be a bit complicated, so there’s a simple smartphone app called, ingeniously enough, Sprawlopolis Score Tracker, that lets you enter all your scoring factors and tallies everything up so you can see if you won or lost. Free for Android or iPhone. For the above:

button shy sprawlopolis game review - app score 1

Here’s what’s so cool: The number of each scoring condition card is also your goal for that particular card. In this case, 10+6+2 = my goal of 18 points. Compare what I tallied up in the app against the endgame photo above. I managed to end with 20 points, meaning I won!

Note: Re-examining the score app’s screen I realize I should have scored eight points for Largest Residential, not seven. So I actually got 21 points!

It all works well together, the game takes maybe 5-10 minutes to play – if you don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis – and just another few minutes to score, thanks to the app.

It’s definitely not always so easy, however. Here’s a much more challenging scenario that I failed at pretty abysmally:

button shy sprawlopolis game review - scenario 2

This is a pretty brutal score combination if you look at it: 16+15+18 = 49 points. I got the “make it take up a lot of table space” idea of the Sprawlopolis scoring card, but none of my three came close to their par or quota: Morning Commute I should have attained 16 points but got 8. Of the 18 points required to beat Sprawlopolis I got 11. And Skid Row should have yielded 15 points, but I got 6. A pretty sad showing, really:

button shy sprawlopolis game review - game 2 results score

That’s what makes this such an interesting little game, however; it’s not always the same winning condition you seek and while sometimes you can squeak by with a low score, other scenarios require a dramatically higher score, which means you really need to be factoring in quite a lot on each and every move. In the last game, above, I did really well only having five roads total (you lose 1 point for each road, remember) but those big zones of each type? Terrible. And let’s not even talk about how poorly I did with the core condition cards. Which means it’s time to try and beat the game yet again!

Sprawlopolis is a really splendid game, highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a thinky puzzler. The rules offer a play approach for multiple players where you’re taking turns adding property to the city, but this is really a solitaire game and plays best with just one person. A second person kibitzing as an informal social co-op over beers or wine, maybe, but as a four player? Not its strength.

It’s small and elegant. 18 cards. It comes with a small folio holder (like a business card holder) and is a game you can definitely have in your backpack, bag or purse for spontaneous gaming challenges. Better yet, it’s quite affordable too, a nice throwback to an era when games didn’t require a second mortgage to acquire. 🙂

Sprawlopolis, from Button Shy Games, $12.00 for the base game, $20 with all expansion cards. learn more at buttonshygames.com

2 comments on “Game Review: Sprawlopolis

  1. Great write-up! On that last example, you should’ve given yourself 22 points for the “Sprawlopolis” scoring card, not 11, so you did better than you thought you did!

    • Thanks for that clarification. I was counting card x card for the Sprawlopolis scoring condition, but it’s block x block so a full card represents 2 points, not one. Ergo 22, not 11. Still didn’t win, but didn’t fail as abysmally! 🙂

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