Table Top Urban Panic board game box cover

Published on June 11th, 2015 | by Hazel Southwell

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Urban Panic Review

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Urban Panic is a city-building game, where players compete on separate boards to maximise their score across five benchmarks of metropolitan success; population, jobs, ecology, revenue and happiness. 120 construction tiles (residential, offices, factories, parks, power stations and… funfairs) give you the materials to create your conurbation, while trying to reach specific goals and strategically manipulate tiles to prevent the success of other players.

Designed by Krzysztof Matusik, it was popular enough in Polish to make a crossover into several other languages; it’s got a slightly steampunk vibe and enough effort has gone into the artwork and box design to make it a genuinely attractive item to have lying around, as well as spread out over a table. Which is just as well, since spread it definitely does

(Anyone new to tabletop gaming may be wondering why on earth ‘box design’ would matter, having never seen the cavernous, piece-jumbling nightmare of far too many boxes; believe me, once you have 120 tiles, 40 wooden pieces and some cards to deal with you are grateful if the box appears to have considered the idea you might want to preserve these items; Urban Panic’s has a pretty simple indentation but with the boards folding on top it feels like a sensible array for the fairly hardy pieces, without risk of the tiny wooden score tokens escaping if you carry it anywhere.)

Charlie and I usually like strategic, competitive gains gaming- the Risk-ish genre where you’re moving a bunch of little counters into someone else’s little counters and hoping yours have spent more time in the little counter gym lately. The type of thing where you’re building resources to lob them at each other and ceaselessly and mercilessly grab each others’ territories whilst executing some secret agenda like ‘own all of space.’ Ideally, cooperatively to prevent me throwing a wobbly when someone kills my War Sun- know your own personality flaws.

Urban Panic’s dynamic is somewhere in the middle, in that it’s an isolatedly competitive game. Play takes place on individual boards but potential resource cards are shared and scoring is public.

Urban Panic boards and tiles

The largest board in the box, by a long way, is the scoreboard- this completely baffled us at first as it seemed like an unnecessarily elaborate set up that took up an incredible amount of space-

Urban Panic scoreboard with counters at 0

After all, complicated games like Arkham Horror, Pandemic and even Imperial Twiglets itself all manage to feature scoring as small metrics, rather than a board twice the size of anything else in the box. I initially assumed it was purely an affectation to include some more of the steampunk illustrations, rather than what turned out to be a genuine necessity.

The idea of Urban Panic is to build your own, ideal, perfectly balanced city. Which might sound like a rather sedate civil planning pursuit rather than anything meriting the word ‘panic’ but that bit comes in later. Each player is given their own city board, to build their plan as a sort of labyrinthine jigsaw-

Urban Panic player board early in game

There are a variety of different urban elements you can create- fun fairs, factories, housing, offices, power stations and parks, all of which come on randomly shuffled tiles that each player has the option to pick from three of. Each new development you create has an impact on the life of your city- so a park won’t generate revenue but will improve the environment, whereas a factory creates jobs but reduces happiness, etc.

This is where the enormous scoreboard comes in- the huge sliding scales are necessary to be able to keep track of the changes without your head exploding and so it’s possible to roughly see what other players are on, in order to potentially block or disrupt their plans by manipulating the available cards.

Urban Panic board game being played

A sixty-second egg timer that comes in the box is designed to prevent long deliberation time for players (we didn’t use it, as we’re both generally fairly prompt to make a play but I can definitely see how it would be useful) and the variations on moves that can be made give the game far more complexity than simple tile-placing and counter-pushing. As the god-player for a board, you have a range of urban planning experts at your disposal who can use various different functions to help you build. In reality, it’s just a differing set of options for actions- placing tiles, reshuffling the tiles, etc. but it adds a sense of genuine, erm, council-play to the game.

Which is sort of where the flaws in this game show up; it’s a good concept, with multiple levels of complexity. You have to balance your city planning scoring needs with the basic mechanic of making sure everything links up, whilst trying to distantly influence other players’ abilities to do so and also completing a secret goal, as an optional addition to play. In theory, it should be a fast-paced, easy-to-pick-up and also easy-to-fuck-up game that has a lot of re-playability and, since it’s very non-reliant on literacy, could be played by children and grown ups alike.

The problem is that scoreboard. Charlie and I are people who work on data for our jobs- the idea of keeping track of metrics is nothing new at all, so when we achieved this set up at the end, it seemed obvious he (red) had won-

Urban Panic scoreboard and end of playq

At which point, we commenced the end-game maths. Alongside the rebalancing of scores that takes place during play, cities are scored at the end for how balanced they actually are. If you have more factories than residences for the workers, you lose points, if you have more factories than trees to support a good environment, you lose points. If you have insufficient job generating buildings for all your residents, you lose points. And if any of the tiles on your board can’t link back to the centre, you’ll lose all the points associated with them.

It’s very likely that if we played the game a few more times, we’d eventually get the hang of this but four or five rounds of recalibration later, we were not only about 15 minutes into end of game scoring but increasingly baffled about how our play had actually influenced the scores, as increasing layers seemed to abstract it. As it happens, it turns out that from the array above, I (red) had actually won by quite a distance, despite neither of us thinking this at all during play. A great plot twist but also somewhat confusing and prone to argument-creation in the scoring segment, if you decided to run this as fun for all the family.

There’s a really obvious answer to this, in 2015- some board games translate well to apps (neat space battler Quantum seems an obvious candidate, for instance) and some always have them built in – XCOM’s supporting app is necessary to play it and is the bit of it that made its transition to full-blown computer game so straightforward. Urban Panic’s individual boards and complex scoring mechanics mean it could be an incredible pleasure to play collaboratively on tablets, whether locally or over the internet. At the very least, a scoring app would help enormously in explaining the complex mechanics of working out who’s won.

As it stands, if you’re a scoring buff then this is an excellent little game. Having sat through enough Bridge as a young child to know it is indeed possible to get through these things without everyone having to know how the scoring works, provided you had someone willing to do the mental legwork it’d be absolutely fine. On the other hand, this is at its heart a little jigsaw game with appealing artwork that belies the (not inaccurate) amount of admin work building your city actually requires.

GOOD FOR: medium-length, easy-to-grasp, hard-to-master social gaming, with a low enough competitive element to pacify all but the most extreme egos

BAD FOR: anything smaller than a dining table, groups bigger than four, anyone without a fairly robust grasp of mental arithmatic

Hazel Southwell

Hazel Southwell

Bringing trendy hair cuts to the parts of town they're not cool in since the mid 90s.
Hazel Southwell
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