Bucolic Like You See It: NATUROPOLIS review

A friend moved to New Orleans about ten years ago. He’s lived in a couple different areas of the city, but finally settled on a typical Crescent City style shotgun home in the Touro neighborhood, nestled among ancient trees and just a block from the neutral ground. I got up before the crack of dawn during a recent visit for an eerie early morning jog.

As the pavement crackled underneath my ASICS, I marveled at how each block seemed to be different than the last. First, the two-story wooden homes with the inviting porches tempting beyond wrought iron fences clustered neighborly around the basilicas and churches that mark the highest point of each community. Next were the shoppes on Magazine Street, full of artwork and jewelry or a po’boy storefront, silently waiting on a shipment of Leidenhemer french bread to make the day’s fried oyster sandwiches.

And then here was the river, with its docks and longshoreman already at work, the stomping of steel-toes and the clanging of metal on metal already mixing in with the sounds of children excitedly grabbing the morning bus. Juxtapose the bustle of Tchoup with the poverty stricken clusters of homes in desperate need of TLC, where hope seems a flickering candle in a dark room.

The Big Easy is jumbled like that. The richest of the rich live two blocks from government housing, the glamour of Champions Plaza sits just a few turns from homeless tents underneath the overpass. Sprawling connections creating an unruly maze of like and the unlike.

And then I received Naturopolis, a standalone Sprawlopolis game from Button Shy Games. Coincidence? I think not.

Naturopolis is a cooperative game for one to four players, designed by Steven Aramini (who I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing on Gumbo Live in connection with Animal Kingdoms), Danny Devine (maker of one of my favorite family randowriters, Harvest Dice) and Paul Kluka (who partnered with these two to design Circle the Wagons, a game I had a blast playing with Andrew Bucholtz at Southern Board Game Fest 2022).

I hear you, dear reader, what the heck does a sweaty jog through the humid and disparate neighborhoods in Orleans Parish have anything to do with Naturopolis? That’s a great question, and you will probably find my answer lacking. But I will start with the goal of the game and see if I can make the connection for you.

You know the Button Shy drill. There’s 18 cards in a tiny wallet, perfect for stuffing in your front pocket. In Naturopolis, the goal is to place fifteen of those cards in such a way that they make contiguous patterns of land, while building as few roads as possible so as not to spoil the open countryside. At its most basic, this is a game about getting points for your largest clusters of each land type while minizing negative points for those unsightly roads (even if the artist made them cutesy, with little cars traveling along like James and Siegried through the Dales.

It was the way that my poor planning plotted the pieces of pied that drew me back to that early morning run. Each of the eighteen cards are double-sided. One side has four brightly colored quadrants made up of forest (dark green), lakes (dark blue), meadows (pink — yes, pink meadows!), and mountains (light grey). Snaking their way across the cards are roads and rivers, and the back of each card has one of 18 unique end game scoring objectives.

These double-sided cards are a brilliant stroke. In the Button Shy games I have tried, the mark seems to be making as choice-conscious a game as your typical One Hour Wonder. That’s a neat trick if you can pull it off. By putting all of the land plots on one side, and having 18 different scoring conditions on the other side, only three of which will be used for any game, the trio has injected replayabilty and tense choices into very small packaging.

The rules for a solo game are well written and easy to understand. I shuffled up the deck as instructed, put out three cards scoring objective face up, and studied them. Each one told me to look for a different set of conditions to score points at the end of the game.

For instance, Sniff or Swim promised bonus points for the largest Meadow group and Lake group that we built, but subtracted points if those groups were built next to a Meadow (in the case of a lake) or Lake (in the case of a meadow group). In Drivin’ Daisies, players got points for building their longest road right through the meadows, but lost points if they placed meadows and didn’t connect to that highway.

These are fun, easy to understand goals. But holy cow, try working to complete three unique end game scoring conditions that are different every game and still work on points for the large clusters while not building too many roads. Needless to say, it took a half-dozen games just to train my brain into processing the information on the cards and translate it to strategies to score points. But once it clicked, it really clicked.

Just like there’s a visceral feeling of wonder as you explore the backstreets of a city, popping up on a cool little handcrafted arts store for the first time or finding a deli with a gumbo lunch special that looks like it could have been made in Mamou, I love the way that Naturopolis handles the mechanics of building your paradise way out in the fafons (our Cajun word for “countryside”.

To start the game, I dealt one random card from the deck, face up to show the blocks of land, as a starting spot. I grabbed three cards in hand, and then chose one of those to connect to the plat card on the tableau orienting the card with its long edges on the bottom and top. All I had to remember was that I couldn’t touch the cards corner-to-corner, or tuck the card under the other cards. I could place it next to another card or even place it where one of the blocks was covered by another. That little tweak came in handy many times if I needed to close off a road or eliminate a problem that was going to score me negative points at the end one of the scoring cards.

Once all fifteen cards are on the table, it’s time to score. And here’s the last cool little surprise for you. Each of the 18 scoring cards has a “score” on it, a number highlighted in bold in the upper left hand side. So long as you score more points (between the largest contiguous blocks of each land type, minus the road penalties, plus the total scoring on each objective cards) then the total points of the three scoring cards (i.e. counting up the three bold symbols in that left hand corner), you win. But really, the game only takes fifteen minutes or so, so you will be a real winner if you just set it up and play it again. For keepers, this time.

So after playing Naturopolis a half-dozen times now, did it stick the “land”ing? I couldn’t help but compare it to Ugly Gryphyon Inn, a game I enjoyed and even played live on stream but that wore off pretty quickly for me because I found it more stressful than fun. Naturopolis is the opposite, it seems less stressful and more fun, and everytime I see it, I think to myself “I’ve got time for a game or two.” I wonder if that’s the pastoral, bucolic theme kicking in? Or an intentional design choice by the three designers? No matter, this one goes right into my backpack. On those nights when SneauxBunny is busy grading papers and the Gumbo guys are off playing some dice-chucking four hour adventure, I’ll just pull out Naturopolis, imagine I’m back on the neutral ground, looking left and right as I jog, searching for another new neighborhood to discover.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ from Board Game Gumbo

A complimentary copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

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