This week’s case study is about what may be the most minimalist co-op that I’ve met: 18 cards, and less than 15 minutes play. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable and intriguing game.
Sprawlopolis by Steven Aramini, Danny Devine, and Paul Kulka
Publisher: Button Shy (2018)
Cooperative Style: True Co-op
Play Style: Card Management, Tile Laying
It’s city-building time! Players are given three goals for building their city, then must do so by playing 15 cards, one at a time. In the end their city will be scored based on adherence to those goals, the minimization of roads, and the alignment of matched city districts.
The challenge system of Sprawlopolis is largely dependent on the time limitation implicit in the fifteen-card deck. To be precise, it has a point-based timer: players must achieve a certain number of points before the timer runs out. This methodology has appeared in a few recent co-ops that have minimal challenge systems, with another example being the co-op version of Lone Shark Games’ The Ninth World (2018).
However, there’s also a more standard card activation that goes off on each player’s turn — at least in minimal form. Each turn (until late in the game), a player is given a hand of three cards, and he must play one. This introduces previewing and choice not found in most co-ops, but in the end a player is effectively activating a challenge system when he chooses what to play.
The thing that makes this card selection a challenge system is that some of the cards have positive aspects (because they can extend current districts and because they can fulfill positive goals) and some have negative aspects (because they add roads and because they achieve negative goals). A challenge system is all about weathering negative surprises while trying to advance on positive goals — and it’s all there in Sprawlopolis, albeit in a simple form. It’s a nice alternative way to look at challenge system mechanics.
Challenge System Elements: Round Activation; Arbitrary Trigger (with Preview); Scoring Timer
Sprawlopolis is about players taking coordinated action toward a shared goal: they’re working together to build a city meeting certain criteria. However, there’s just a single mechanic that supports this cooperation: a player makes a choice to play a single card from a hand of three, then he passes the rest on to the next player.
A similar mechanic is used to good effect in Between Two Cities (2015). That city-building game depends on card-drafting, where a player is constantly choosing a pair of tiles from a larger set, then passing the rest on to one of his partners in urban construction. There, the mechanic allows silent signaling between players, as one player tells another what to do through the tiles he places; it also creates the opportunity for strong collaboration, as a player can play tiles that set up his partner.
Sadly, the same doesn’t occur in Sprawlopolis despite the very similar mechanic. The main reason is the complexity of its cards (which are an equivalent component to the tiles of Between Two Cities). Each city card shows four quadrants, each of which belongs to a different district, and three of which contain road segments. This is a high level of information, especially when multiplied across three cards. Simply deciding which card to play and where to play it on an ever-growing board can cause a lot of Analysis Paralysis for a player; trying to be clever and playing a card while setting up a play for a partner will be impossible for all but spatial geniuses.
In fact, Sprawlopolis feels a lot more like cooperative solitaire than a true collaboration, and that largely comes down to the spatial complexity of the potential plays. It requires sufficient concentration that the other players are likely to fade into the background unless a player gets really stuck and calls out for help. It’s an interesting lesson in co-op design: no matter how good the cooperative systems, a game can step back from cooperation if players have to think too much on their own.
The other interesting aspect of Sprawlopolis’ cooperation is its free discussion: players can openly talk about all of their cards. However, much as in T.I.M.E. Stories (2015), that open communication is meaningfully restricted because the players can’t reveal the cards they’re discussing. There’s enough complexity in Sprawlopolis’ cards that there’s just no way for a player to convey all of the possibilities of all of the cards in his hand — and even if he painstakingly describes each one, panel by panel, the other players are unlikely to fully understand.
Sprawlopolis is a very minimal co-op, with almost no cooperative systems and almost no challenge systems. However, it’s also a very minimal game that plays out over the course of just 15 turns, in 15 minutes or less. Though the co-op mechanics of the game might not be that notable, they’re exactly what’s needed for a simple game of this sort.
Button Shy Games
Jason Tagmire is the founder of Button Shy Game, a producer of small, wallet-sized microgames created by his family and friends. Steven Aramini, Danny Devine, and Paul Kulka have also designed a few other games for Button Shy: Circle the Wagons (2017) and The X-Files: Circle of Truth (2018). They used a similar card-drafting mechanism, but this was the first to use that card drafting in a cooperative context.