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Designer Diary: Suburbia 5★

Ted Alspach
United States
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Board Game: Suburbia 5★
While designing/developing Suburbia Inc, the first expansion to Suburbia, I was dead set on providing a five-player version of the game as it was something that several people asked for when Suburbia was released. Suburbia Inc was initially tested with five players, and during that time one of the critical discoveries was that the Market board — the big triangle that has the tiles priced below it — needed at least one extra slot for five players.

Five players worked, but it tended to be slower than I was comfortable with. Given that, the production cost of adding wood bits to a non-boxed expansion, and Lookout (the German publisher of Suburbia) questioning the concept of five players — it seems that this isn't so much an issue in Germany; I'll have to look into the cultural reasons at some point — the five-player portion was scrapped from the expansion.

Suburbia Inc was released, people seemed pretty happy with the new borders, bonuses, and challenges, as well as the new set of tiles, but I kept hearing requests for two things: (1) the ability to add a fifth player and (2) even more tiles to keep cities more interesting and unique — and that's what Suburbia 5★ ended up delivering, in a way that combined the two features but allows them to exist separately if players want to. The five-player part was kinda done, but there was this nagging feeling that it could be better. However, I put that aside and focused on the other aspect of the expansion: new tiles.

Tourism Tiles

In this particular case, the theme of the expansion (tourism) was at the forefront. I thought it would make cities much more interesting, if, as in real life, they had a few notable destinations that were unique to each of them, actual reasons you'd want to visit those cities, and as a result, might end up settling there. With that in mind, I set out to create fifty new, unique building tiles that would keep gameplay fresh and even more fun than the base game. For reference, both the base game and Suburbia Inc have at least two copies of each tile, so having unique tiles is indeed something quite different.

From gallery of toulouse

I started by listing all of the interesting kinds of tourist traps and landmarks that would be fun to have in your cities. Most of them were real world locations, and a few were amalgamations of some, while others were simply made up because they sounded interesting. As I looked at the list, I realized that having real world buildings next to fake ones just wasn't working, and there's always the possibility that some government bureaucrat would see their local landmark in the game and demand a licensing fee (since we all know they are busy web surfing at work anyway). So the decision was made to rename everything to new names, some of which are puns.

From gallery of toulouse

When figuring out the attributes of the tiles, the first thing to do was to assign them a color. (In Suburbia, each color represents a major "kind" of building: Blue for Commercial, Green for Residential, Yellow for Industrial, and Gray for Civic.) I had to be a little bit flexible in doing this eventually as tourist destinations are likely to be commercial more than not.

After that, it was time to assign benefits to the tiles. Most tiles have two benefits: an instant benefit and a conditional benefit. (Occasionally they don't have one or the other.) Because these tiles would be replacing existing base game (or Inc) tiles, some of the standard benefits had to be available, such as adding income and reputation. However, about one-third of the tiles have new functionality, such as the Dollar Arcade's instant ability that gives the player who builds it $1 for each population they currently have. It's in the B stack, so the player's population is typically between 15 and 30 when it's initially purchased...but if they invest in it towards the end of the game, it can be worth $70, $80, even $100!

From gallery of toulouse

At this point I had a lot more than fifty ideas for tiles, and decided that some of them would actually work better as Borders (which were introduced in Inc). I started with an additional twelve borders (same as Inc), but by the time the game was completed, that number was whittled down to six.


I liked the idea of rating all of the tiles from 1 to 5 tourist stars, with the 5-star tiles being the best ones, and the 1 star ones being just slightly more interesting than a standard building. I arbitrarily assigned star values to each tile, just to give me a place to start from, and realized that nothing quite reached 5-star status — partially because people have different tastes, and if I were using stars as the overall attractiveness of these destinations, even the traditional 5-star resort isn't really 5 stars for everyone because some people just aren't that interested in those resorts.

Now that I had the stars on the tiles, what would they do? Initially, I thought it could just be a collection thing where there would be a new Star goal, or maybe even a permanent Star goal that was worth double which everyone was vying for. On the subject of goals, one of the nagging criticisms of Suburbia is that if you have a fewest/lowest kind of goal, it can be difficult to win if an opponent just doesn't purchase a certain tile for no other reason than they don't need any of them, resulting in you missing out on your goal because you're tied, so the second use of stars could be for breaking ties in goals. Still, neither of those sounded all that compelling, and since stars were sort of the focal point of an expansion around tourism, they had to have more meaning. That's when I came up with the Star track.

Board Game: Suburbia 5★

There was some internal debate on the Star track about having it be an additional row on the players' borough boards, but because the actual number of Stars you have is irrelevant compared to how many more or fewer stars you have than your opponents, a new community track was put in place. And that's when the Star Track started to fall very nicely into place, doing the following:

1) Setting the turn order based on your position on the Star Track, with stacking order breaking ties. This, combined with the tie-breaking of goals for the leader, works amazingly well. In Suburbia, going last towards the end of the game is a distinct advantage because it allows you to move on goals without anyone being able to affect you. However, since ties are broken by the most stars, it presents an interesting decision point when you're close to other players with various goals.

2) Providing an extra population for the players who are furthest along the track, and removing a population from the players who have gone the least far on the track. This simulates the popularity of a town over time as people move into the places that are more interesting and have more to do than in less interesting towns.

3) Breaking ties for goals based on your position on the Star track at the end of the game. The last few spaces on the Star track limit the number of tokens that can be placed there to encourage a bit of a race towards the end of the game.

4) A little bump in income early in the track and a +1 bump in reputation later give players mini-goals to reach.

One of the things that naturally worked out was the use of Investment markers on tiles with stars; as with other benefits, Investment Markers double the number of stars on a tile, so if you want to jump ahead on the star track and no star tiles are available, you can simply invest in one you already have.

The goals for stars remained, but they are for the number of star tiles, not your position on the Star track. Black stars are used to indicate Star tiles, while Gold Stars are used for moving on the Star Track.

Several of the new tiles have star tile interactions, such as the Starry Sidewalk, which provides $2 for every star tile in play.

From gallery of toulouse

Five Players

Flexible turn order with the Star track is what really makes five players work in Suburbia. It potentially reduces the downtime between turns and keeps all players engaged at the end of each round (once all five players have gone) because that's when turn order switches and when some players gain or lose population.

From previous testing with five players in Suburbia Inc, I knew we'd need an additional spot on the Market board, which meant that 5★ would have to include a new Market board. That's okay because the new Star track needed a home, and that was a perfect place for it. To accommodate the needs for five versus two/three/four players, the board is double-sided (something I stole from Castles of Mad King Ludwig).

Five players also required a new borough board and set of wood tokens, which by popular demand are green. In addition, two copies of the base tiles — Suburbs, Heavy Factories, and Community Parks — were needed. Why two? Because in addition to the fifth player needing a set, the supply of extra base tiles was increased from four to five.

Tile Tweaking

As the game was in development, benefits and prices of tiles were constantly in flux, but the longest and probably most tedious portion of the development process was getting the prices right. The stars add value to tiles, but how much? How much more is a player willing to pay for a Star tile with the exact same benefits as a non-star tile? This part is that 20% of the work that takes 80% of the time.

Then there's the testing of the tiles with all of the base game tiles and figuring out what the correct mix of tiles is. With any Suburbia expansion, there's the risk of dilution for some of the tile icons, like Airports and Schools; adding in too many new tiles results in less interaction for the remaining tiles with those icons. There are ways to get around this, but they're really cumbersome and require super long set-up times. In the end, it was decided that a simple random mix of tiles was fine, and if players want to customize their stacks to avoid dilution, they may do so.


Most purchasers of Suburbia Inc were very happy that it didn't come in a box since they would be storing the expansion in the original box anyway. I didn't know if that would be possible with the new expansion due to the wood pieces, but I was able to do it with some clever packaging.

Using the rules and the "back of the box" info sheet as the top and bottom of the expansion, I created a hole in every punchboard where the wood pieces sit. Manufacturing inserts a baggie with the wood pieces into the holes, covers the punchboards with rules, shrinkwraps it, and voilà! A boxless expansion that has wood pieces in it.

From gallery of toulouse

The resulting expansion adds just enough of a twist to Suburbia to be fun for all players, regardless of player count, and if you have five in your game group, you'll all be able to play!

Ted Alspach
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