Sprawlopolis – Review

I was sent Sprawlopolis by Button Shy Games in return for a fair and honest review.

If you were outside of the current hobby board game culture, what would it look like? Your news feeds and advertising would no doubt be full of lavish Kickstarters, extravagant accessories, and miniatures that are anything but. 

As critics it is easy to despair at these colossal games whose complete packages stand taller than the averaged sized 12 year old. Instead of falling into ennui, let us take a moment to highlight the games that pack a lot into a small package. Some of these games, like Sprawlopolis from Button Shy Games can fit into the pocket of an average sized 12 year old.

Button Shy games have been on my radar for a while. Their focus is on small games. Very small games. 18 cards in a small wallet with rules. That small. I was fortunate enough to receive a few games for review and Sprawlopolis is the first of those I’ve played enough to talk about. 

Sprawlopolis was designed by Steven Aramini, Danny Devine, and Paul Kluka. It features art from Loic Billaun, Dalton Cara, and Danny Devine. It is a co-operative game that sees 2-4 players working together to build some very weirdly shaped cities. 

A card is placed in a game of Sprawlopolis. Central Perks, Sprawlopolis, and Block Party goals can be seen to the left.
Looks neat and tidy at the moment

Now you may be thinking that you surely can’t get a compelling co-operative game out of so few cards. I was sceptical myself but Sprawlopolis won me over with its varied and comparing puzzle.

The cards in Sprawlopolis are double sided. One side there is a section of your future city filled with roads, parks, and buildings. On the other lies a way to score and a number from 1-18.

Each game you’ll always score for two things. The first is points for the largest contiguous area of each type of city block: parks, residential, industry, and commercial. You also lose 1 point for each separate road in your city. That means if you build carefully we could have 1 continuous road throughout the city for a whole -1 point. This hasn’t happened in any game I’ve played, but should give you the idea. 

You’ll deal 3 of the cards as additional ways to score and lose points. The total of the numbers on them gives you the target score your group wants to reach over the course of the game. More than that though, these conditions give you a fiendish set of requirements to balance as you attempt to reach your goal. 

Each of these objectives feels finely balanced to give you multiple opportunities and problems to contend with as you build. As an example lets look at the two cards at the opposite ends of the run of cards: number one, and number 18.

The objective cards 1, The Outskirts, and 18, The Sprawlopolis.
Two objectives at the opposite ends of the spectrum

Now keep in mind that we are getting -1 for each road in our final city regardless. Card number 1, The Outskirts, gives us more reasons to fret about roads, making each one that cuts off at the edge of the city and additional -1. If we can make the roads loop within the city however, we get some bonuses to maybe offset the number of roads we have. Now this card only gives us 1 additional point to aim for in our total, but it has made our task much harder in response. 

Number 18, Sprawlopolis, gives us no additional negatives to deal with but lands us with a much larger total to reach. It also gives us a way to score lots of points by making our city really stretch horizontally and vertically. It wants us to score high and gives us an additional ability to do so. 

Imagine having both of these amongst the three goals you pull at the start of the game. We will ignore the third one for a moment. These two objectives alone see our needs being pulled in different direction. Outskirts, 1, wants us to loop roads internally to avoid the extra negative. Sprawlopolis, 18, wants us to stretch the city horizontally and vertically to get the huge target. With only 15 cards, remember 3 are goals for this game, fulfilling both of these perfectly is impossible. We have to make compromises. Compromises give rise to negotiation and out of that comes our co-operative elements. 

This is where the puzzle of the game comes from. How do you balance these goals while building your city. As you move around the table you choose one card from 3 to play without consultation. You choose your card and it’s revealed, all you inner city planners can emerge and wonder how to best place this new card. 

We can use the card to cover previous mistakes, link sections together, grow areas ripe for point scoring, reduce the number of roads, and try to decide which of the 3 goals are going to be fulfilled with this individual placement. In doing this the game removes some quarterbacking from the equation by making the choice of which card to play private but making the choice of where and how to play public.

A game towards the end of play. Master Planner, The Ouskirts, and Block Party objectives can be seen.
This is towards the end of a game

I’d consider there to even be a drafting element to the game. After you’ve chosen 1 card out of the 3 you pass the other two along to the next player and draw 1 card from the remaining. This way each player is always choosing and passing. In this way you can plan ahead a little and hope that the next player sees the plan you have. 

I had a concern when I first received this game for review. I did a bit of research into the game: when it was released etc. What I found was a load of expansions and I wondered if this was a bigger game that had been chopped into smaller pieces to fit the Button Shy model. I no longer have that concern. 

Sprawlopolis is a lot of co-operative game in a beautifully presented package for a budget price, around £10 or so. Like the best small box games it is a confident design that knows what it wants to be and doesn’t apologise for it. If you get the chance to play it I urge you to do so and see just how much game can be squeezed into 18 cards. 

Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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1 Response

  1. 13 Jul 2023

    […] I can’t see it having the longevity, and definitely not the replayability, of something like Sprawlopolis. It’s a fine game that I would play with you if you asked, but for the most part I think it will […]

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