Game Review: "Sunrise City" Forges a Strong Foundation

Over 20 years ago, Sim City proved that gaming geeks enjoy playing mayor, and the theme remains a ripe source for future development. There are numerous factors involved in city planning: zoning, construction, management of politicians and local officials, etc., so why not attempt to translate this video game success over to tabletop gaming? After all, it worked out quite well for Sid Meier's Civilization.

The problem is that somebody already did attempt this. That was Mayfair Games, betting big on Sim City: The Card Game during the '90s CCG craze. Unfortunately, the game's reception was so poor that it nearly killed the company, so you can't blame today's designers for shying away from intricate city planning board and card games. Only recently, the theme has cropped back up in releases such as Chad Jensen's Urban Sprawl and the game we'll be reviewing today, Sunrise City from Clever Mojo Games.

Beyond the choice of theme, Sunrise City has very few similarities to Sim City and its infamous card game, so let the comparisons stop there. In fact, Sunrise City has turned out to be one of the more enjoyable games I've played in recent months. Read on for the full review to find out exactly how this Kickstarter success story has won a spot in my game collection.

Just the Facts:

Players: 2-4

Playing Time: 45 minutes

Age: 10 to adult

Publisher: Clever Mojo Games

MSRP: $50.00

Release: May 30th, 2012

The Gameplay:

Sunrise City is a European-style strategy game in the sense that its scoring system favors skill over luck, play time is relatively short, and turns are kept quick to minimize player boredom (you'll make one small decision before passing to the next player, rather than taking several minutes to plot out a complex sequence of actions). The goal is to build valuable buildings, thereby earning the most victory points in the process. But a twist, which we'll get to later, makes earning the highest score a bit trickier than players might initially assume.

Two rounds in, the city is growing out and up.

The game is broken down into three rounds, each consisting of three phases: zoning, bidding, and construction. Before the game rounds begin, though, players will have to do a bit of role selection via a card draft. They'll select from a large set of potential roles, such as the Developer, Architect, or Engineer. There are 16 different roles, and they each grant players a different special ability.

The powers granted by role cards can be quite diverse.

When a round is ready to begin, each player selects one of their three previously-selected role cards to use this turn, and then enters the zoning phase. Here, players each have a hand of four square zoning tiles that represent the five different types of zones (residential, commercial, industrial, parks & recreation, and mixed use) and are colored to denote this (red, blue, yellow, green, and purple, respectively).

The five types of zoning tiles in Sunrise City

One by one, players take turns adding these zoning tiles to the table, forming a grid as they go. There are ways to score points here, such as playing zones next to existing zones of a matching color, but for the most part, players will just be setting themselves up for future success in the building phase.

Moving on to the bidding phase, players take turns claiming zone spaces by placing bidding chips. Players can place their own chips on top of an opponent's to erase their claim, but if any player ever stacks two of their own chips directly on top of each other, they'll earn a permanent claim to that space.

Clever Mojo Games has managed to teach the entire bidding phase rules in one simple image.

Again, the bidding phase is more about setting up future success, but that takes us to the final phase of the turn: construction. Now it's time to explain how the construction of Sunrise City actually works. In addition to their role cards, zone tiles, and bidding chips, players also start each turn with a hand of four rectangular building tiles. Each tile has a point value, which can be scored by placing the building on top of zone tiles.

An example from the Sunrise City rulebook of how building tiles can match colors and stack up to create several stories.

The catch is that the building's colors must match the colors of the zone tiles underneath. If you played your zone tiles right, there will be plenty of matches between the board and the building tiles in your hand. To make things a bit easier, though, the mixed use (purple) zoning type is treated as wild when determining if a building tile can be placed.

The other way to score points is through the zone ownership, which takes us back to the bidding phase. You may have noticed smaller point values in the corners of each building tile. Those bonus corner points are awarded if a building is constructed on top of a player-controlled zone.

There are also a few ways to score bonus points, such as constructing tall structures. Rather than placing a building tile on top of matching zoning tiles, it can stack on top of matching building tiles. For each odd-numbered level a player creates, they'll get one additional point. For instance, constructing a fifth floor awards 2 bonus points, a seventh floor would awards 3 points, and so on.

Now that you understand all of the different ways a player can earn points, its time to reveal the scoring twist. Players track their score on a 10-point track, and are awarded a star token for every 10th point earned. Your total number of star tokens is your final score in Sunrise City, not the sum of points you earn while placing zones and constructing buildings. What really makes things interesting is that if a player can land their scoring track marker directly on the 10th space, they'll earn two star tokens instead of one.

There are a few other minor points to Sunrise City, such as exceptions on how first floor tiles are allowed to be constructed, and rules for point-boosting community tiles,  but for the most part, this is a comprehensive slice of the game. If you're curious to know more about the specifics, I recommend checking out the Sunrise City rulebook posted to BoardGameGeek.com.

The Components:

  • 16 Role cards
  • 1 City Hall tile
  • 60 Zone tiles
  • 60 Building tiles
  • 5 Community tiles
  • 20 Floor markers
  • 24 Bidding chips
  • 70 Benchmark tokens
  • 1 Scoreboard
  • 4 Scoring pawns
  • 1 Protester meeple
  • 1 Rulebook

That's a whole box full of stuff, but I'll cut right to the chase: This game is all about the cardboard. The quality on the cards and the wooden pieces meets all expectations for a well-produced game, but the cardboard tiles are the eye-catching component.

Honestly, I didn't even know you could make tiles this thick. I'm afraid that if I spill a glass of water on one, it may expand to fill up the entire room, suffocating everyone inside.

If you're wondering why I'm making such a big deal over thick cardboard, allow me a detour to discuss competition versus theme. While the following two traits are not mutually exclusive, it often seems that games are forced to choose between balanced competition and theme.

Before I go too far, allow me to establish that Sunrise City is not dripping with theme. Sunrise City is most definitely a test of skill rather than a series of thematic decisions, but the game fights tooth and nail to establish the feel of city construction.

The massive building tiles play a huge part, in that Clever Mojo Games could have very easily used a flimsy tile here and called it a day. Instead, they thought outside the box and chose to spring for the premium tiles, making it feel as though you are actually building something when you place one on the table. In addition, the heavy tiles also prevent towers from toppling once they start to reach 9+ stories. Whenever a non-obvious component choice can boost both the theme and functionality of a game, that is where publishers earn huge kudos!

Final Thoughts:

With a simple turn structure and uncomplicated actions, Sunrise City is not a difficult game to understand, but the scoring twist has a very large effect on how the game is actually played. Because it is twice as powerful to land directly on the "10" space, players assume it will take a carefully plotted strategy to execute this maneuver time and time again, but they are wrong.

The surprise is that Sunrise City is a game all about tactics rather than strategy. The best-laid plans to construct a buildings of specific point values will almost always be foiled, whether due to another player using the space you were eyeing up, or unexpected bonus points causing you to overshoot the "10" spot when you execute your original plan.

Often, these bonus points will be triggered by the actions of other players. For instance, your role card may grant you a bonus point every time a player builds a certain type of tile. This creates a tide of luck that will slowly push your score marker up the track. With an ever-changing board and set of bonus point conditions, Sunrise City is all about finding the best possible move at the very moment your turn starts. It's all about maneuvering yourself high up that track and letting the luck of the bonus points push you over the top.

I sang the praises of Sunrise City in the intro to this post because it happens to hit the sweet spot of what I look for in a game: it offers a little bit of everything. While there is a big heap of luck factored into your play, Sunrise City is still primarily a test of skill, which is crucial for a game earning top marks. It also offers ways to interact with other players in minor ways, while stopping short of full-on conflict. You can jockey with other plays in the bidding round, or wipe out another player's claimed zone by constructing a zero-point building on top of it.

Use this building tile for maximum screwage. Place the purple section over an opponent's chip and they'll score zero points!

There is the potential here for a big-tent game, at least among hobby gamers (I wouldn't place this in the "gateway game" category). With rules that are easy to teach and a brisk 45-minute playtime, Sunrise City is not alienating anyone right out of the box.

Sunrise City also provides a bit of intangible fun. There is just something cool about watching this massive city grow over the course of three turns. The joy I get in placing a 9th-story tile in Sunrise City taps into the same primal gamer instinct that got me excited to build the last piece of the mousetrap as a kid.

If this sounds like your type of game, take it from me that it will be one of your favorites. If not, I still contend that you'll enjoy it if you give it a shot.

The only audience that Sunrise City might fall flat for is one that really needs a juicy thematic adventure. For my tastes, I'm just fine with a lightly-themed experience. For the latter, it typically comes down to the graphic design, and Sunrise City delivers in that area as well.

MTV Geek was provided a complimentary review sample of this game.