Surburbia and Organic Storytelling in a world of tiles

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Last night, as I’m wont to do, I gathered around a coffee table with an assortment of ne’er-do-wells that I call friends and engaged in what, on the face of it, should have been the epitome of dull.

Suburbia is a board game about, yes, building a suburb. Generally regarded as the most boring places on the planet, a suburb is usually a haven of chain stores, manicured lawns, and evening walks well away from the “buzz” of city life. Suburbia, by contrast, is a compelling argument for why I, nor my friends, should ever be allowed near a civil engineering office.

Tiles are placed one after another, chosen by each player to add to their own “borough”. Theoretically, your little collection of tiles would network nicely with one another to create some semblance of a balanced town full of people, businesses, and parks. In reality, my brother had at least four airports by the end. My most profitable structure was a parking lot. Another player built so many housing communities with little else such that they were continually going broke.

One of the brilliant parts of board games is that they encourage organic stories. Whether we wanted to or not, our choices began to create worlds for our imagined citizens. As we placed our tiles, we argued about the benefits such things had to our citizens. Surely my choice to have two high schools with no elementary or middle grade education was a brilliant move – colleges only look at high school transcripts anyway!

Suburbia is an analytical game – the scoring and general turn-by-turn choices are driven by numbers. How much money you have, how many people you need, and what tile will do the best to boost your gains. Strip the name and setting from the game and you could just have a bunch of cardboard cutouts with values on them and have, at the core, the same game. Only you wouldn’t have the stories. You wouldn’t be able to visualize the messed up place you built. Your maze of freeways circling around a mobile home park and a factory. A series of museums trapped between airports and landfills.

And that’s where board games like Suburbia bring out their best parts. These are stories you’ll talk about later. These are tales that could be spun into actual fiction (if you want), but even in the moment, serve to draw people into the room with each other. We put down our phones, keep the TV shut off, and for an hour get lost in the gleeful creation of magical places.