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[This review originally appeared in Counter Magazine]
POPULATION (Urban Systems, 1971)
One of the aspects about German games that non-Germans often comment on is their emphasis on the environment. Such "green" games as "Dicke Kartoffeln" (Doris & Frank), "Waldesfrust" (Valentin Herman), and "Das Letzte Paradies" (Knizia) display the European commitment to environmental issues that, for better or for worse, is simply not found in American pastimes. It isn't that there are no environmentalists in the U.S.--there are quite a few. However, the movement isn't sufficiently ingrained in the American psyche to have it spill over into such a family-oriented area as games.
But of course, all the rules were broken during the turbulent sixties. Among the many protests that buffeted a once complacent American society were those that railed against the treatment of our planet by her occupants. This nudge to our social awareness, along with an increased tolerance to liberal causes that the decade as a whole instilled, meant that it was now possible for some small companies to introduce socially relevant and environmentally focused games without totally turning off (sixties phrase) the average consumer.
Probably the most successful of these companies was Urban Systems. They weren't much bigger than their competitors, but since their games were professionally produced and featured quality, and often innovative designs, they met with more mainstream acceptance. In fact, by the early seventies, most American game stores featured a significant portion of the Urban Systems catalog on their shelves.
The company's initial offerings dealt with environmental issues, including such titles as "Dirty Water" (The Water Pollution Game) and "Ecology". They then ventured into the riskier area of sociology, with games such as "Women's Lib" and a game that dealt with inner city race relations that I believe was called "Black and White". The former group of games was more successful, however; they were less preachy, probably better designed, and undoubtedly less contentious.
One of their most fascinating games was called "Smog", and I'm sure all alert readers and natives of Los Angeles (which are mutually exclusive groups) will guess that this was a game that dealt with air pollution. Each player constructed buildings (both residential and industrial) in their portion of a city. Buildings were constructed by placing a peg in a pegboard. Industries, however, produced pollution, which was represented by a smoke flume which was actually placed on top of the industry peg. Unabated buildings produced longer plumes. As wind conditions changed during the game, the plumes would swing around. Players would receive penalties for residential buildings covered by a plume. (Of course, you could try to build industries near the border of your area and hope that they would pollute your opponent's structures--as long as the wind cooperated.) The premise was a wonderful one, and the game was an intriguing precursor to the popular city development games of today. "Smog", however, simply didn't work as a game; its legacy was that of an ambitious, but disappointing failure.
Far more successful was "Population", Urban Systems' best and most popular game. Taking as its theme the threat of a world-wide population explosion, it dealt with its subject in a straightforward fashion which made its point without excessive preaching. It also included some unique mechanics that make the game playable and enjoyable even today.
("Population" represents the flip side of David Coutts' "6 Billion", which also posits an uncontrolled population, but blithely assumes that they can be shuttled off to the rest of the solar system, where their reproductive enthusiasm becomes a virtue. The older game clearly treats its subject matter more seriously, so one shouldn't take the Australian game's theme too much to heart, but the contrast between the games created at two different times and in very different societies is still intriguing.)
In "Population", 2 to 6 players each represent a country in an imaginary world. Their goal is to gather resource units of agriculture, industry, education, and medicine while keeping their population to manageable levels. During the game, the players must pass through three different Zones of Development. Each Zone has requirements for the different resources, as well as a maximum population. This is illustrated in very nice graphical fashion on each player's Population Pyramid. The Pyramid shows the player's beginning units as well as the requirements for each Zone. For example, to complete Zone I, a player must accumulate nine agriculture units, two industry units, and eighteen population units. Education and medical requirements begin in Zone II. A player must completely meet all the requirements in a Zone before proceeding to the next Zone. If a player has met the requirements for one type of resource in a Zone (for example, if she had nine agriculture units while in Zone I), then the only restriction is that she cannot obtain any more of that resource until she advances to the next Zone. However, if a player obtains extra population units, that represents a population explosion, with devastating results. The first player who can meet all his resource requirements in Zone III, along with at least one population unit in that Zone, wins the game.
Urban Systems' politics were a little more radical than their gaming philosophy, so a player's turn in "Population" consists of rolling the dice and moving his marker. The game is played on a 36 space circular board. Every sixth space is the home country for one of the players. About half of the spaces show one of the four resources, and a player landing on that space has the option of buying as many of that resource as they wish (as long as they don't exceed the requirements of their present Zone). Agriculture units cost $100, industry $200, and both education and medicine $300 apiece. (Players begin the game with $800, receive money from the bank when they pass their home country, and must pay money to another player if they land on their country's space.) There are also spaces where you pick an Event card, spaces where you pick a decision card (the player can choose between two options), and Free Port spaces, where players can buy whatever resources they like, as long as the total bill is $1200 or less.
All of this would make for a pretty tame, conventional game were it not for the method of acquiring population. Players must keep track of their population growth rate. This is a positive or negative number usually fairly close to zero. When a player passes his home country, he adjusts his population by his growth rate. For example, if his growth rate is +3, he adds three population units to his pyramid; if his growth rate is -2, he removes two population units from his total.
Players also add population whenever they roll doubles (they roll one die and add that many units), but the principal way to affect population is through the population growth rate. "Population" works as a game because the players have a reasonable amount of control of their country's growth rate.
First, when a player passes her home country, and before she adjusts her population total, she must draw either a "+" card or a "–" card. The deck of "+" cards has values of +1, +2, or +3; similarly, the "–" cards have values of –1, –2, or –3. The player first changes her population growth rate by the amount on the card and then uses the subsequent rate to adjust her population. There are also "±" squares on the board; when a player lands on one, he must choose to draw either a "+" card or a "–" card and adjust his growth rate.
The final two ways of affecting your growth rate involve resource units. Whenever a player adds a medicine resource unit, he must pick a "+" card and alter his growth rate accordingly. (This illustrates the fact that medical advances decrease a nation's death rate, thereby increasing the net population growth rate.) Similarly, whenever a player adds a education resource unit, she must pick a "–" card and reduce her growth rate by the amount shown (since education tends to reduce a country's birth rate). When these resource units are lost, the reverse effect occurs: the loss of medicine and education units means that "–" and "+" cards, respectively, must be picked. This is a particularly nice design touch, as it can give players some difficult choices. You might need medicine units to advance, but the resulting gain in population might trigger a population explosion. Because of this, managing your population growth rate becomes a somewhat delicate exercise in the later Zones and requires some forethought. This is also a good example of how the game disseminates lessons on population control without sacrificing gameplay.
The reason all this is so important is that excessive population is very bad news. If a player's population units spill over into the next Zone before he has completed all the resource requirements of that Zone, he experiences a population explosion. The penalty is that he loses all the spillover population and *all* the resource and population units he has acquired in his current Zone. In other words, if a player's population spills over into Zone 3 before he finishes Zone 2, he loses all his Zone 2 units and is left only with a completely filled Zone 1. Obviously, this is a catastrophic loss, tempered only by the fact that one's opponents might very well suffer the same fate over the course of the game.
Population explosions can also occur if a player has completed a Zone, has added population to the new Zone, and then loses sufficient amounts of one type of resource unit that the loss has to be taken from the completed Zone. Since the end result is an uncompleted Zone with population in the next Zone, it's still an explosion. So players have to be careful how they manage *all* their units, particularly when moving to a new Zone.
Another problem occurs if a player has placed resource units in a Zone and, due to a negative growth rate, loses enough population so that the loss must be taken from the previous Zone. In this case, the player loses all the resources that were placed in the new Zone. This isn't as severe as a population explosion, but can still be a sizable loss. The lesson is that players really have to focus on their population growth rate; at times, a negative rate can be as much of a problem as a positive one.
The ultimate penalty occurs if a player's population spills over from the last Zone, Zone III. This represents the Final Explosion and the player must drop out of the game. As the game rules explain, the reason for this is THERE IS NO REMEDY FOR THE FINAL POPULATION EXPLOSION! No one likes games with player eliminations, but surely this rule has a higher moral justification than merely landing on Boardwalk in Monopoly.
In order to win the game, a player must meet the following three conditions simultaneously:
1. Complete the resource requirements for all three Zones;
2. Place at least one population unit in Zone III;
3. Have a population growth rate of zero.
In some respects, "Population" was an ideal 1970s American family game: it had the familiar "roll the dice and move around the board" mechanic for the less adventurous, while the more serious gamer could appreciate the sizable number of choices the game presented. For one thing, money is usually very tight. You can't just buy your Zone's entire resource requirement when you land on the appropriate space--you don't have enough cash. Even if you did, this probably wouldn't leave you enough money to take advantage when you land on some of the rarer resource spaces. It's always a good idea to have some money on hand. One of the rules I didn't mention says that if you don't buy anything when you land on a resource space, the option to buy passes to the player on your left. So if you can't buy a resource because of poverty or a full cupboard, you're essentially giving another player an extra turn. In addition, Free Port spaces tend to be very important, so you always want to have cash on hand to take advantage of a fortuitous roll. The end result is that when purchasing, you must consider your cash on hand, the amount of the resource needed, the probability of landing on similar spaces, your needs in other resources, and, for that matter, the status of your population (don't want to go on a shopping spree if you're liable to have a population explosion). There's a wide variety of strategies that can work, but the decisions are interesting nonetheless.
The other major area for player decision-making is maintaining your population. You want to keep your population growth low (or even negative, since you'll gain population on doubles) to avoid explosions. The idea is to get all the resources required for a Zone, then gain the population necessary to advance to the next Zone. But if you can get the timing right, you can maintain a relatively high population growth and meet the Zone requirements more quickly, by meeting the population requirements *just after* you meet the resource requirements. This is riskier, and you must be prepared to quickly reduce your growth rate if things don't go as planned, but it *is* possible and definitely gives you a leg up on your opponents when it succeeds. Between these two extremes lie a spectrum of possible strategies, and much of the skill of the game lies in how you play your growth rate. The fact that both cautious and risky stratagems can work in this game is one of its more appealing aspects.
"Population" plays well with a wide variety of gamers--both serious and casual players can enjoy it simultaneously. The skill to luck ratio is about even, with player choices coming up frequently enough to satisfy the more calculating participants. Game length is about two hours, possibly more if most of the players suffer an explosion. The game is usually tense up to the end, since the prospect of a catastrophic explosion for the leader is almost always a possibility. Like so many games that state they are for 2 to 6 players, it plays much better with 3 to 5, but plays equally well for any of those numbers. An innovative game that can be enjoyed by players of all ages and gaming philosophies, "Population" stands as one of the more interesting game creations of the early seventies.
The game's components, with one exception, are quite nice. The box shows a muted illustration of masses of people, a nicely understated image which nonetheless makes its point. The board is a very solid affair (it weighs a ton) that displays the movement track, a track for showing each player's population growth rate, and room for six decks of cards. The movement track is a circle instead of the usual rectangle, which is a nice touch. Outside of this is the population growth track (also a circle) and the spaces for the card decks are formed out of segments of the inner circle. The whole display is very appropriate for an Age of Aquarius game. The game money and the cards are nothing special, but serviceable. The population pyramids, however, are very attractive and functional. These come as sheets in a thick paper pad, with the resource and population requirements for each Zone laid out graphically, one square per unit. When you acquire a unit, you cross out the appropriate square. The requirements for the three Zones are stacked on top of each other in such a way that the squares of each resource type are contiguous. The overall effect is rather like a fountain, with a central core and surrounding layers. It's a very pleasing look and the graphical record-keeping turns a potentially fiddly process into a pleasurable one. The one downer among the components are the player markers, which are differently colored half-inch rings. This represented blatant cost-cutting by Urban Systems, as these were the re-used abatement rings from their game of "Smog"! (No doubt the company would have referred to this as recycling.) The markers are functional, but are quite underwhelming and lend no atmosphere whatsoever.
Urban Systems' games must be considered limited successes. Their impact was not tremendous, but they did achieve a reasonable level of popularity (quite notable for any small game company). Besides, what more can a game designer ask than for their creations to be remembered thirty years after their release? But the most impressive aspect of Urban Systems was not their games but what those games tried to say. Unfortunately, many of the problems addressed in these games are still with us today. Most of these stem from the fact that a planet with undeniably limited resources houses a race that seems to possess unlimited means of depleting them. Technological and social changes in the intervening years may have shifted the time frame and location of these problems, but they appear to be as inevitable today as they did back then. Clearly, education is the best way to affect change. And maybe we could do worse than to gently inform with games like "Population".