Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Sunrise Serenade

So, now that I've taken a breath from four consecutive blog posts on my two-day experience at UnPub two weeks ago, I can settle into the pleasant task of cracking open a new game and exploring a published, finished product.  At Dan Yarrington's recommendation (or was it prodding? goading?), I bought Sunrise City (designer Isaias Vallejo, artists Sarah "Chip" Nixon and Chris Kirkman, publisher Clever Mojo via GameSalute) from Our Game Table.

I'd first heard of Sunrise City on Chris's Dice Hate Me blog, perhaps August 2011, when it was still in its prototype stage.  I was fascinated by both the art and the game concept when I saw it on Kickstarter, but didn't pull the trigger to back it at the time.  It's been on my wishlist ever since, though, which is why it didn't take much encouragement for me to pick it up when the opportunity presented itself.

First, the art of this game is just gorgeous.  This game has such a unique look to it.  I don't know how many times I admired the cover art before I realized that the skyline pictured is actually assymetrical.  Chris K. told me that the shapes in the skyline are patterned after the architecture of specific buildings in major cities around the world.  This cover really is a work of art.

And the game is substantial.  I've admitted previously that even though it's all about the gameplay, I find myself judging a game by the quality of art on the cover and the heft of the box when I first pick it up.  SC has both of those qualities in spades.  Opening the box reveals just why it's so heavy.  The game consists primarily of tiles.  The eye-opening components are the 60 huge 6mm-thick chipboard building tiles that are like giant dominoes.

The art deco influence is strongly evident in every detail of the building tiles - a fact unappreciated by the protest meeple standing his ground on an undeveloped lot
One confusing aspect of the tiles, though, is the ambiguity of color.  A blue zone tile by itself can be confused for a purple zone tile, at least until they are compared side-by-side.  Yellow building tiles are chartreuse and were occasionally confused for green in our first game.  We found it important to remember, too, that it is the color of the sky that classifies the building tile, and not any other color on the tile (such as the green grass).  For all of those minor quibbles, though, the art deco style architecture tiles make for a beautiful game as it unfolds.

Our first game is always a learning experience, so Kathy and I were getting the hang of the significance of each of the four phases in the turn.  The Preparation Phase involves selecting a "role," such as "developer" or "realtor," which gives some special benefit for the upcoming turn and also determines play order.  Interestingly, going first is not always the best option, particularly in the bidding phase, as we learned.  The Zoning Phase involves laying out zone tiles in anticipation of where you want to be able to construct buildings later in the turn, so the building tiles that you hold are an important consideration in approaching the Zoning Phase.

At the end of our first game, Kathy was three points shy of
hitting a benchmark and snatching victory from me.
Game box autographed by Chris Kirkman
The Bidding Phase has the players select which zones they want "control" (I prefer to think of it as "building permits") to allow them to build on.  Here the bidding mechanic reminded us of Robber Knights, in which the player who last plays a marker on a tile controls that tile.  Somewhat similar to Robber Knights, a player can commit multiple bidding chips to one tile to "lock in" control, or can spread the chips around to maximize options for building.  Finally, in the Building Phase, players construct buildings on sites where they gained control.  Building tiles cover two adjacent zoning tiles and so have two halves that may or may not be the same color.  Building types must match the color of the zoning tile they cover unless either the zone or the corresponding half of the building tile is purple - "multi-purpose," or "wild," as we called it.  Buildings may also be built up floor by floor, but the same color restriction applies going up from one floor to the next (but again allowing for "multi-purpose" transitions that allow introducing a different color).

Points can be scored in the Zoning Phase by placing a zone tile adjacent to another of the same color.  Scoring in the Building Phase is based on the "Primary points" value of each building tile placed.  On the first floor, controlling an underlying zone allows scoring a half-tile "Bonus points" as well.  Buildings can not be placed on zone tiles that are Community Tiles, which instead yield bonus points for building a matching half-tile color on a surrounding tile.  Bonus points are also awarded for placing the third, fifth, seventh, etc. floors of an existing building.

The real brilliance of the scoring system, however, is that more points are not always better.  In project management, it is important to hit milestones on schedule and on budget.  Running over budget and behind schedule are obviously bad, but less obvious is that a project should also not run too far under budget or ahead of schedule.  That sounds counter-intuitive, but in fact these cases can mean project planning is inefficient or incomplete.  So project managers are motivated to hit their milestones on target.

Scoring track and Benchmark tokens:
Pass the star, get one - hit the star, get two.
Photo: David MacKenzie, Clever Mojo
And the scoring system of SC reflects this project planning motivation.  A player receives a benchmark token every time the score passes a multiple of ten but receives two benchmark tokens every time a scoring action hits a multiple of ten exactly.  So, on a given scoring action, getting to 21 points is not as good as getting to 20 points.  This means that bonus point situations might actually undermine your efforts to hit your benchmark the way you'd planned.  That's what really makes SC unique in scoring optimization.

I'm a bit prone to analysis paralysis sometimes, so I wonder whether I'm going to overthink this game as we play it more and learn more about it.  What I expect will happen, though, is that certain strategies will emerge that define the decision space a little more crisply, and I won't feel the need to think through every possible combination of tile play.  Also, my wife keeps me guessing, so sometimes too much planning is counterproductive.

My bottom line is that I really like SC for both its art deco aesthetics and for its unique gameplay and scoring method.  I'm really looking forward to the next time Kathy and I can play this, as well as the potential for playing with three or four people at some future date.

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