As soon as I finished playing Expancity for the first time, the review was already halfway done in my head. SimCity meets Suburbia, only less fun. No real substantive. As we decamped from the table, the chatter was that it was fun but not that interesting, a cardboard and plastic version of a pet rock. But we want to play it again.
I was wrong on all counts – except the last one.
Expancity is a city-building game where you lay down tiles and then construct towers out of plastic cubes to score points. Taller buildings get more points and you can modify the point total by putting them next to things like stadiums or hospitals You also get points for completing crazy contracts such as Fake I.D.1 or School Supplies2. At the end of the game, you compete for special bonus points by having the most residential buildings or completing the most contracts.
SimCity meets Suburbia, right?
Wrong. If boardgames had a 23andme.com, the test results would come back with Carcassonne leading the way. Hold that in your pre-frontal cortex as I lay out the game mechanics.
Setting up the game is as easy as unpacking it. A single tile representing City Hall is placed in the middle. Each player takes a stack of 56 building blocks in their favorite shade, setting all but six aside as a reserve, and draws two zoning tiles out of the common bag.[FOOTNOTE]There are 3 types of tiles – residential, commercial, and modifier tiles as alluded to early that modify your score. You build on residential or commercial tiles.[/footnote] Then three shared objective cards are dealt out for end of game scoring. Replayability doesn’t greatly suffer but the game only has 6 total objectives and none of them are exceptionally interesting.3I would have expected more in the neighborhood of ten to twelve objectives.
Players take turns in order, completing three steps. First, they place a single tile down adjacent to an existing tile. Next they can choose to do three actions of place building blocks down to construct a building or to take more building blocks from their reserve. If they build, the players can start a new building or place the block on top of an existing building in a Lego-like fashion ( but only one new block per building per turn). But there’s a few basic rules, the most egregious of which – meaning it’s the one I kept forgetting – is that you can only ever be building on three tiles at a time. Also important is that residential building can only grow to three blocks tall and commercial building need to be at least four blocks high.
After all three actions, builders can choose to4 complete their towers by placing a nifty roof on their masterpiece. They then score points by multiplying the number of floors by (One + any adjacent modifiers5-how many adjacent empty tiles no one is building on yet.). Yes, that’s a lot of math. But that’s it. Unlike Suburbia where you are challenged to continuously go back and recalculate your score for a tile when a new one is placed, completing a building basically finalizes all scoring for the building. Completing a building also let you draw two contracts and keep one. These are private goals that score any time you want during the game.
The game continues until all tiles are played. At that point, the objectives tiles are evaluated and the bonus points are awarded and the player with the most points wins.
Expancity is a tight game once our mindsets shifted around. At first, we focused on how to make our towers Trumpian (tall) and how to complete the end of game scoring without much attention paid to where to place the tiles. Our bad.
There are two interlocking mechanics in play. First, where do you place the tiles? Because you’re constrained to only three construction projects at a time, there’s a lot of times you can’t take advantage of a residential or commercial zone immediately. Do you place it in an unattractive spot to your enemy? Do you drop that empty tile right next to one of their unfinished projects to hand them a nice -1 modifier when they complete the building? Or drop a stadium with a -2 modifier for residential in between two condos going up to drive their overall points value into a negative number?
The second mechanic is managing your building projects. Like Carcassonne with the limited meeples, you have to measure which building projects are likely to give you the biggest bang. There’s an opportunity cost in building huge towers. Yes, it can net you big points. But your competition has finished three two-story residential complexes in less time and has three new contracts that can garner extra points.
These two trade-offs – placing tiles you can’t take advantage of and your limited number of building projects at any given time – are what build the necessary tension. And also what show the direct influence of Carcassonne. It’s not a cutthroat as Carcassonne – you won’t see nearly as much hate placement of tiles – but you need to be aware. As is our nature, we were exceptionally nice to each other the first runthrough as we’re learning the game. The second time showed slightly bared knives. And the game was better for it.
The private contract objectives add a swinginess to the game. Once a contract is completed, you reveal it and claim the extra bonus points. This can result in massive turns where you complete three or more building and add 40 bonus points – catapulting from worst to first.
One of the joys is, of course, the building blocks. Unlike a lot of the miniatures in Kickstarter games that are amazing but essentially representations of cardboard counters, the tactile snapping of more blocks onto your towers as you build your real estate empire is heaven. It is the beauty of form as discovered by CMON and so many Kickstarters married to the essential function of the game – build towers.
Less impressive is the draw bag for the tiles. It is simply too small and prompted questions such as “Are these tiles really mixed?” It is a small place to cut cost but made a large difference in enjoyment. We changed out the bag and saw enjoyment increase in an outsized manner.
Even with a draw bag designed exclusively for people with small hands, Expancity is still a great game. It is in no ways revolutionary. In fact, it does a lot of simple things that you’ve already seen. It just takes those parts and adds them all up to a slightly new experience. If you are happy with your existing building games – Carcassonne, Suburbia, Quadropolis, Lords of Vegas6 – you can save your money by asking your friend to buy it for you. But if you desire, nay, yearn to become the biggest developer in the world, then grab your hardhat and head on over to Expancity.