I've never played the physical Suburbia boardgame, but having played the app I'm struck by how dry and fiddly it must be.
The aim is to construct a city from hexagonal tiles - because all real cities are built in hexagons, naturally - and attract the largest possible population.
To achieve this you have to balance a host of factors. You'll need businesses to generate income to pay for tiles, and civic works like schools and parks to build your reputation, which attracts more people to your burgeoning metropolis.
But as your population grows, the city gets crowded and inefficient and your income and reputation drops. And there are a series of randomly drawn bonuses on offer for things like most residential tiles or lowest residual cash. It's a classic balancing act, very typical of modern boardgame design.
One of the defining features of the game is the way that tiles you add can have knock-on effects based on things you built many turns before.
Municipal Airports, for instance, reduce your reputation by one for each adjacent residential tile, whenever you build it, and add one to your income for every airport tile in the city whenever and wherever you place it.Chip Fabrication Plant
This means every turn there's a colossal number of different factors at play when you make your choice about which tile to buy, and try to figure out how it'll affect your position.
I can only imagine this being a tedious nightmare in face to face play. But in this app version, it's all smugly rolled up into a helpful little tooltip.
Unfortunately, this lovely usability gain compounds a poor tutorial, which may leave you completely puzzled as to the reasons why those little numbers show the values they do. You might be expecting a reputation gain, only to see a nasty red penalty when you try the tile in place.
Thankfully, the app includes a comprehensive rulebook, and the game is easily learned. But the whole thing is plagued with other usability niggles. Why do I start AI games under "pass and play"? Why do I have to confirm that I'm ready to start my turn when playing against the AI?
It's possibly because the AI is so poor that no one bothered testing it. And in a game based heavily around number-crunching strategy, there are few excuses for delivering such tepid digital opponents.Convenience Store
However, the app compensates by including an alternative solo mode where you're challenged to beat a series of increasingly difficult goals from a variety of pre-set starting tiles, loosely mimicking the make-up of existing US cities.
Success in this mode unlocks extra tiles that you can use in the main game. But this little inducement is hardly necessary: the solo campaign was the most fun I had with Suburbia.
Some of the later levels are tough, but without the distraction of having to watch what other players are up to you can concentrate on getting the numbers right, making wins supremely satisfying.
Suburbia is not a game I'd normally play against other humans. While there's a pleasing satisfaction to be gained from slowly building up your metropolis and balancing the books, it's a little quiet and mechanically soulless to bother with around the table.
But in the lonely silence of online play, that doesn't matter, and I found the asynchronous play mode included in this version to be functional and surprisingly engaging.Skyscraper
There are many aspects of the app that feel a little rushed. There's no music past the title screen, for instance. And while I found the version I played perfectly stable on my iPad 4, there are lots of users reporting bugs out there in the wild (a patch is reportedly in the works).
Suburbia isn't the sort of boardgame I'd normally play - it would be tedious in physical form. But through the miracle of digitalisation it's become an accessible and interesting game, and we recommend it for budding strategists and architects alike.