Essen Preview #6: Interview with Ted Alspach, Designer of Suburbia (Bezier/Lookout)

Today, we have another Essen Preview interview – this one continues our format of a concise 16 question interview.  Today, we’re trying a not-so-subtle attempt to flood the airwaves with news about Suburbia, the new city-building game coming out from Bezier Games (English) and Lookout Games (German).  Interestingly enough, and let this serve as the obligatory disclaimer, both the interviewer and interviewee in today’s column are intimately involved with the game.  Ted Alspach, one of the OG writers as well as only “comic” author, is the designer of the game, and I have served as the developer of the game over the past year.

Today, I have a Developer Diary running on BoardGameGeek – where I talk about some of the changes that I helped make to Suburbia over the past year.

The final cover art for Suburbia. It is actually inspired by a movie – can you guess which one?

Dale Yu #1: Ted, thanks for taking the time to talk with me about your new game and whatever else crosses my mind…  So, Ted, Suburbia is coming out at Essen 2012.  How long (total) have you been working on this game?

Ted Alspach: I’ve been working on it since March of 2009. So 3.5 years. But the actual time spent on the game has been about 1.5 years. For a lot of that 3.5 years, suburbia sat in rather plain looking envelope with a bunch of other “in progress” prototypes. Ones with names like “Legislation Nation” and “Popularity: Teenage Malibu Princess of the Future.” And no, I’m not kidding about the latter one. It’s an abstract area-majority game where you are trying to infiltrate all the cool cliques in school with your clones.

Yes, Ted actually has box art for the Popularity game…

DY #2: What games served as the inspiration for Suburbia?

TA: Well, there’s Sim City. That was a pretty big influencer. Another game would have been Sim City 2000. Also, Sim City 3000. And I can’t deny that I was inspired by Sim City 4, too. In terms of boardgames, not too much. In a very abstract way, Dominion would probably be on the list. The focus of dominion is of course entirely on the cards…the game *is* the cards with a bit of structure thrown in to prevent it from being Fluxx. Suburbia is all about the tiles; initially it too had less of a structure than it does now. But Suburbia is still mostly about the tiles, each of them helping in some way, often indirectly but sometimes directly, to move you to get more victory points so that you can prevail over your opponents.

DY #3: Can you give an elevator pitch summary of the game?

TA: Build a city using hex-shaped building tiles that interact with each other. Each tile affects your income, reputation or population in some way; the right combinations of tiles will increase all three. The player with the largest population at the end of the game wins!

If the elevator stops at several floors before we have to get off, I’d add the following: Each player is trying to accomplish private and public goals during the game to receive bonus population at the end of the game, but the only way to win these is if you’re the only player to achieve the goal criteria. There are a bunch of goals in the game, which means that every game will have a slightly different feel to it.

If the elevator breaks down between floors, I’d continue: The building tiles work the way you would expect them to in the real world. For instance, while you’ll get a nice boost in income from opening up a fancy restaurant, your income will drop if someone opens up another restaurant after yours. Having schools adds to your reputation, but adding a university adds to your income *and* reputation! Even if you decided to forgo your reputation in the early game by building lots of factories and landfills to make a quick buck, you can redeem yourself by building a state of the art recycling center later in the game.
If the elevator had broken down as the result of a EMP attack by hostile space aliens, with little or no hope for our survival, I would also mention: The game has that really fun “one more time” quality to it, where you know that you’ll do better (or at least differently) on your next play. And then I would probably curl up in a little ball in the corner and cry.

DY #4: Ha! Awesome. You mention that Dominion was one of your possible boardgame inspirations for Suburbia.  Strangely enough, the developer of Dominion also happens to be on board with Suburbia as well.  Is that a coincidence?  Or were you just mesmerized by my witty banter and handsome good looks?

TA:  It was mostly pity. Aside from that, though, I know all the work that went into Dominion being balanced, and because of the similar nature of having to balance dozens and dozens of cards/tiles that impacted gameplay in many different ways, I figured that you were the right guy for the job. Even though for Dominion you didn’t push Jay to make the coins different colors in Dominion, or to make the description text legible when the cards were lying in the middle of the table (both things which I lamented as a Dominion playtester to no avail). You’ll notice that despite your involvement in Suburbia, the coins are three different colors (and sizes), and the text on the tiles is legible *without* players having to pick up the tiles to read them. But I totally get it that you didn’t have Klemens Franz (Agricola, Ora, Suburbia) doing the graphic design work for Dominion, so it was unlikely that you would ever solve those problems.

A crop section of the punchboards showing the different colored coins. For the record, I was strongly for the coins in Dominion to all be the same color. In Suburbia, I was strongly for different colored coins.

But the important thing, the balance of the tiles for Suburbia, you knocked out of the park. And a bunch of other things too, like the goals, end game structure, start tile sets, etc. I just happen to know your limitations better than Jay or Donald X.

DY #5:  So, your two projects at this Essen are Suburbia and Mutant Meeples.  No Werewolf and no Age of Steam in sight?!  Have you given up on those two games?

Mutant Meeples box cover – Preorder yours today!

TA:  Well, everyone who preorders or buys Suburbia or Mutant Meeples at Essen gets a copy of Enter the Passage, a werewolf-like game based on the best-selling “The Passage” trilogy by Justin Cronin (Book 2, “The Twelve” comes out the week of Essen)! Age of Steam and Steam expansion sales have plummeted in the last year or so, and while there are certainly some people out there who would love new maps (and I still have a bunch of unfinished/finished ones that could be published), there isn’t enough of a market to do another printing right now. Maybe when Martin Wallace revisits the franchise in a few years there will be a rekindling of interest, but I think the AoS/Steam Expansion map bubble has popped for now.

Yet another Bezier box cover.

DY #6:  Hmm, so have you given up on Age of Steam?  I have only played it twice this year so far, and only with the base Rust Belt map.  I just don’t get the expansion maps to the table.  Have you played all the expansions you have? Heck, have you even played all the expansion maps you’ve created and sold?  Cuz, I’ve played that Korean cube factory one, and I have doubts you’ve played it ;)

TA: I have 237 recorded plays of Age of Steam on BGG. That doesn’t count about 1/2 the play test games, and any of the self test games (I played them all several times before subjecting other players to them). I figure I have close to 1000 plays of AoS, and several hundred of Steam. I haven’t played Steam in more than a year, and I’ve only played AoS about 5 times in the last year. When I first started publishing expansions, I would play a “real” game of AoS/Steam with the printed, final maps. I’ve never played with actual mounted versions of the last two years worth of expansion maps, which is sad, since they’re mounted and look really really good. :(

The Taiwan Factory one (it’s not Korean!) is one of the best strategic maps out there. It benefits from multiple plays. It’s more about knowing what cubes you can deliver at the end game by seeing what you’ll deliver in the mid game. Good stuff. :)

DY #7: Well if there’s no more AoS expansion maps coming from Bezier, that leaves more time for expansions for Suburbia?  The Twilight-themed Werewolf game I know you want to make?  The all meat remake of Beer and Pretzels called Wurst and Schnitzel?  But seriously, do you already have other things you’re working on?

TA: Suburbia expansion(s) are well underway. There are lots of Ultimate Werewolf-related things, including a new stand-alone game (by someone who isn’t me, but I’m publishing it anyway), and a pretty awesome expansion or two. And a bazillion other games.

DY #8: Well, I know it may be too early to tell – but have you noticed any difference working with a bigger company such as Lookout and self publishing a game the traditional way and self publishing via KickStarter? Have you been OK relinquishing some of the decision making process to someone else?

TA: I’ve had a bunch of things published by other publishers now, and it totally depends on the company. But Lookout and Hanno are great to work with. The only odd thing was the naming of the game (Hanno came up with a farfetched story about some imaginary train or something), but I’m attached to Suburbia now and I like it. One thing about Kickstarter (where I did Mutant Meeples initially) is that it sucks having hundreds of people breathing down your neck waiting for a game, especially when there are matters that are out of your control at work. Had I not done the kickstarter campaign, publishing Mutant Meeples would have been 10 times less stressful.

The Cambridge Game Factory guys are dealing with that in spades right now (see the B2P Sept. 6th comic for more on that), and it sucks to be in that position. There are expectations from a Kickstarter project that are almost never realized. I know I’m pretty much always disappointed on some level with everything I get from Kickstarter, ’cause I had way too high expectations.

DY #9: Boxers or briefs?

TA: Both (but not at the same time). It totally depends on the situation.

Before he was a game designer, Ted was a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Orioles and a model as well. Ted also has somewhat better photoshop skills than I do. However, his spray tan ability is poor, he seemed to miss his entire neck. Click thru for the picture. This has been shrunk down in case you are reading this at work. Oh, and to spare the children.

Before he was a game designer, Ted was a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Orioles and a model as well. Ted also has somewhat better photoshop skills than I do. However, his spray tan ability is poor, he seemed to miss his entire neck. Click thru for the picture. This has been shrunk down in case you are reading this at work. Oh, and to spare the children.

DY #10:  Going back to the Kickstarter thing – it’s obvious that you’re a supporter of the concept both as a publisher as well as a user.  How many projects have you been involved with.  Have you been happy with Kickstarter, and do you think it’s a positive thing for gaming?

TA: I like Kickstarter as a designer/publisher in that (1) you can tell if there’s interest in a game before you plunk down $$$ to print it, (2) you get enough $$$ up front for the print run, and (3) You get more $$ per unit than going through traditional distribution. As a user, I like the idea of KS, but I’m rarely happy with what I’ve purchased. My favorite KS purchases have been gaming poker chips and a very cool LED clock that’s hanging in the Media Room at home. Many KS games are just abysmal, and even the ones that seem good often have a ton of flaws. I like the idea of supporting publishers directly for good games, especially smaller ones like Indie Boards and Cards. I think it’s odd that Queen Games is doing KS games. I’d be okay with Rio Grande or Z-Man doing one for a special edition of a game (it would have been perfect for the first English version of Agricola, which is kind of what Zev did with preorders for that game, which was a pretty big risk for him). I’m sure there will be a great game from a first-time self publisher, and I hope I back it, but until then there’s more chaff than wheat.

DY #11: Obviously, I’m running out of questions about Suburbia that haven’t already been covered in the excellent Designer’s Diary (here on BGG) and the even more excellent Developer’s Diary (today! on BGG) – so I want to spend the rest of this interview trying to somehow humanize you.  You know, so people can see you as more than the guy who draws that comic…  What else do you do with your free time other than boardgaming?

TA: I’m sorry, I don’t understand your question. First of all, what is this “free time” you speak of? I have a “real” job which is pretty awesome, and then I come home and play games or make games. But sometimes I work on Board 2 Pieces instead to keep things interesting. Fortunately my wife and kids also play games.

DY #12: If anyone has met your beautiful wife, it’s clear that you married WAY out of your league.  Is there some romantic and/or embarassing story of how you met?

TA: I used to attend a Monday night gaming group at Yahoo! In the cafeteria. They haven’t been able to afford any security there for years, so pretty much anyone who wants to play there can. One of those nights, I was setting up a game of Ultimate Werewolf where I was playtesting a whole new set of characters. This hot girl showed up after the first game, and was standing just outside of the group of players. I asked if she wanted to join, and she said yes so confidently that I figured she knew how to play werewolf. She didn’t. Anyway, she got the Seer, it was pretty clear to everyone that she was the Seer, and she was eaten by wolves right away. This happened two games in a row, after which time I wised up and apologized for not explaining the game. Shockingly enough, she didn’t seem all that upset at being torn limb from limb by werewolves, and when we went to go play another game, I asked if she’d like to join us. That game was Tichu (which she didn’t know either), and we played on opposite teams, and I’m pretty sure her team got crushed mercilessly.

I cleverly stalked her following that evening until she eventually just married me because it was easier than the paperwork to get a restraining order. :)

DY #13: Well, you know what they say: “nothing says she cares about how I am, where I am and what I’m doing as much as the restraining order”.  Since you bring up Werewolf again… Do you really enjoy playing it? Don’t you get killed often and early because people are afraid of you since you’re the “designer” of some of the Werewolf games?

TA: I moderate about 75% of the time, which saves me from being killed. When I do play, I actually do just fine. At this past year’s Gathering of Friends, I won for the 2nd time as part of a werewolf/villager combo (thanks to the evil Cupid), which is pretty much a werewolf Grand Slam. It’s true that occasionally someone will have it in for me and there’s nothing I can say to save myself. But since odds are I’m a villager when that happens, it makes the accuser feel silly and then I can skate through future sessions with the same group. :)

DY #14: If people only knew you from this interview, they’d know that you play (crappy) party games like Werewolf and chewy games like Age of Steam and Suburbia.  Do you play any “family” games? What would be your favorites in that genre?

TA: Family as in TtR? Or Family as in “traditional” party? I like lighter stuff, particularly card games. Wizard, Tichu, Sticheln, Mu, Hornochsen, all sorts of card goodness. For traditional party games, Time’s Up, Smarty Party. And I’ve published a few card games: Perpetual-Motion Machine and Rapscallion. And I’ve published a few party games: Beer & Pretzels and Ticked Off.

DY #15: Where will your booth be in Essen?  What games will you have for sale? Prices?  Can I preorder them for Essen pickup?

TA: Suburbia and Mutant Meeples (and their respective “free” expansions) will be available at booth 5-100 at Essen. You can preorder them for Essen pickup via (and I would encourage you to do so, as I will only have a limited number of both games there). You can also preorder them if you aren’t going to Essen…shipping in the US is free!

DY #16:  Finally, do you really think that your designer diary on BGG will end up with more thumbs than mine (just published today) will?

The original Meeptropolis Logo – this is what it looked like when I started working on it

TA: It seems unlikely, as you don’t have the deft prose that I do.
Readers should go here: to thumb my designer diary if they haven’t already. Besides, as a BGG Admin you can just allocate thumbs to yourself whenever you want. I have to work for them.

Meeptropolis later became known as Metropolitan. But that didn’t last long. Suburbia sounds much better.

DY: Well, actually I can’t give myself thumbs. But I can offer a nice GG raffle to help my count.  If I end up with more thumbs than you by the end of the week, I’ll give one of my thumb donors a cool 100 GG.  That sounds fair :)

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2012, Interviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply