There are some themes that seem a very natural and obvious fit for a board game. It can surely be no surprise that there are legions of games recreating or simulating battles and military campaigns. There was always going to be room for board games based around space exploration and interplanetary conflict. If I had a pound for every game that had been devised to simulate roving around and trading in the Mediterranean, I’d almost have enough to fund my board game addiction.
By contrast, some topics sound on the face of it to be far too drab to replicate in cardboard. Town planning seems a particularly unlikely theme for a board game. In the popular eye, Monopoly is reckoned as the mother of all board games and, sure, that was notionally themed around property development, but what with Monopoly’s bad rep among gamers, you’d have thought that would be the final nail in the coffin for such a theme.
But no, we’ve seen a slew of games themed around city development and town planning. Ted Alspach and Bezier Games gave us Suburbia. Francois Gandon and Days of Wonder brought us Quadropolis. Stonemaier Games gave us Between Two Cities. All have proved popular but they were all building on a brown field site because Chad Jensen and GMT Games got in ahead of them in 2011 with Urban Sprawl.
Welcome to Centerville: a remake of Urban Sprawl?
GMT mostly publish games at the heavy end of the spectrum. Urban Sprawl was lower in complexity than most of their other titles but it was still considerably less accessible than the tile laying town planning games that followed it. Urban Sprawl used action points to buy building permits and other cards were used to set out buildings and score points. The biggest criticism of Urban Sprawl was that it was chaotic, with randomly drawn cards generating quite wild point swings. It was not unusual for players to emerge from a three hour game to find victory or defeat had been delivered by the turn of a single card appearing late in the game.
So what has all this got to do with Welcome to Centerville? Well Welcome to Centerville is Chad Jensen’s return to the town planning theme. It plays quite differently to his earlier game but it has enough in common with Urban Sprawl that anyone familiar with that game will immediately appreciate the links. Both games utilise recognisably similar iconography and there are several elements common to both; for example, the ‘elected’ offices.
Chad Jensen acknowledged that Urban Sprawl suffered from an excess of randomness so it may come as a surprise to discover that his solution has been to introduce dice! In Welcome to Centerville, players roll several customised six-diced coloured dice to determine the actions they can take. On the face of it, this sounds even more random than drawing cards but the options to re-roll add in the opportunity for players to push their luck in the hope of yielding a more favourable result. The game positively encourages players to push their luck with a reroll because it rewards with valuable bonuses anyone whose rolls end up with four of a kind.
It’s also worth noting that there is quite a bit of flexibility and there are a lot of attractive options for how a player can ‘spend’ their dice. That means that occasions when you are completely scuppered by an unfortunate dice roll will be relatively rare. Hourglass symbols cannot be rerolled, and it is these symbols that advance a marker along a track that will determine when a round ends and is scored (the game is completed over three scoring rounds).
Lots to do in Welcome to Centerville
Through their various actions in Welcome to Centerville, players are scoring prestige and wealth but they need to ensure these end up closely balanced. You can’t just go all in for money or prestige because it will only be the lower of these two scores that is counted to decide the winner at the end of the game. In games with varied routes to victory, I have a reputation for usually playing a ‘money strategy’. In this game, that simply won’t work.
The playing board for Welcome to Centerville is more colourful than the muddy brown of its predecessor game. The main part is divided into four districts or zones delineated by a colour that corresponds to four of the dice colours. Two of the districts score you wealth, the other two score prestige. To build (place out a cube to score) in one of the districts, you need to have a contract of that colour (you have a one in six chance on each of the corresponding coloured dice). The town you are developing may be called Centerville but you get greater rewards building in the parts of each district that are further out from the centre. Curiously, upgrading a building involves physically moving it into a higher scoring location on the board. Given that players inevitably view the board as an aerial view of the town, I should warn you that moving previously built buildings does feel like a serious thematic disconnect!
Aside from putting out buildings, players will be increasing their status by placing park benches in the park at the centre of the board and they will be utilising tree icons on the dice to allow them to develop and build on greenbelt land. A voting symbol on the dice allows players to take various political offices, each with their own built-in perk. For example, ‘disaster’ tiles are drawn periodically from a bag inflicting one of several random calamities on all the players. However, the holder of the Police & Fire Chief office has immunity from disaster. Cynics will think it thematically sound, but it seems a pity that the various political offices are merely bought with voting icons. In a game with the full complement of four players, we thought there was a missed opportunity to allow for a genuine election mechanic where players negotiated and horse traded the offices with each other.
As I’ve flagged, there’s a lot going on in this game, and I haven’t even touched upon vocation tiles (set collection) and ‘legacy’ tiles (targets that are only revealed at the end of the game). Both these fundamentally affect scoring. Players will also be hoping to nab ‘master’ tiles that allow them to select a dice face instead of rolling that die. It can actually be quite a forgiving game because it mostly compensates players when they take a loss. For example, when they roll an hourglass symbol which cannot be rerolled, or when they lose first position on the status track. This adds to players’ feel good factor when playing the game. If you get some small recompense, you somehow don’t feel quite so bad about the other loss you may be taking. Of course, that will come as cold comfort when you get to the end round scoring and find you are punished for having the lowest value of buildings in a district.
Downtime and AP in Welcome to Centerville
Welcome to Centerville is actually not a difficult game to learn or play – certainly it is easier to grasp than most of GMT’s war games – but it is several steps up in complexity from Suburbia or Quadropolis. That’s not to say that players will struggle to understand each of the options, just that some players may be put off by the sheer array of possibilities that they have to take in. As you might expect, with choices comes the risk of AP (analysis paralysis). In this game, AP is made worse by the fact that actions are driven by what you roll on the dice. The upshot is that this makes it all but impossible to plan your turn in advance; so more delay… The box suggests a game length of 20 minutes per player but you may well find games taking easily twice that length, especially once you’ve factored in the somewhat involved scoring. The game comes with rules and a characteristic GMT ‘bot’ (rules for an ‘automated’ player) enabling two-player and solo play, but, even though there is not a huge amount of player interaction, Welcome to Centerville is best played with four players. However, with that number you will have to allow for a considerable amount of downtime while you are waiting for your turn to come around. And as you can’t meaningfully plan your own next turn before you have rolled the dice, the downtime in this game really is dead time where you could almost be keeping yourself occupied by setting up and playing another separate game on the side!
So Welcome to Centerville is very much a curate’s egg of a game. If you were a fan of Urban Sprawl, then you’ll definitely want to check this one out. For those coming to it completely fresh, Welcome to Centerville is a game where you can admire the carefully weighed balances in the design but it may not be one that gets a lot of repeat plays. I like the game but, with the caveats over downtime, I can’t rate it more than 5/10.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.