Generic looking Euro-American people are shown on the box of Friedemann Friese’s Futuropia, they dance awkwardly at an almost empty discoteque, relax on beaches and enjoy open fires with their friends. This is because they have achieved nirvana — they live in automated condominiums with all the mod cons, including dark, dirty secrets in their basements.
You see, Futuropia is, mechanically speaking, a classic Friese efficiency simulator, but in contrast to the entirely relatable Power Grid, this 2018 game is less about present day realism and more about future Orwellian dystopia — at least in the way I interpret it. The players are tasked with scoring points, mostly as the result of ensuring that their meeples remain above ground, free to enjoy their frankfurters.
To achieve this goal, however, a swarm of robots must toil below the ground in order to generate power and food. Yes, in Futuropia, food is generated in basements by robots. The tokens that represent this food look like emerald clouds and they remind me of only one thing, the infamous Soylent Green. Make up your own conclusions as to what that is, or Google it, but those of a certain age will know what I mean.
If you are able to put aside your concern about what the theme of Futuropia actually is in order to focus on what you’ll be doing from turn to turn, things improve a fair bit. Like other Friedemann Friese games, Futuropia is remarkably simple to learn and play, but it has a fair bit of emergent depth and complexity waiting for those who invest their time. It is, also, oddly programmable in a way that feels thematic, but this might mean you like it less or more.
Now that I’ve said all that I think I will need to about the theme, let’s start by walking through the setup and turn structure of Futuropia. The setup is fiddly and expansive, with a fair number of tiles to sort depending on the player count. Food and energy generators will need to be sorted in stacks by their value, with some placed either side of a market board that I’ll explain a little later.
A load of condominium cards will also be sorted and placed, whilst various piles of shared resources — cash, food, energy, loans, meeples and robots will be put… well, wherever you can fit them. The players will then each receive two food generators and one energy generator, and depending on whether you play the base game or the “choose your own fate” variant, you’ll take a condo and three meeples to put in it.
Or rather more accurately, they’ll go into the basement slots to generate resources in your basement, dreaming of a future when robots will do the work for them whilst they dance several feet away from the only other occupant of a disco that everyone wishes they hadn’t gone to. Cash is dished out based on starting position and in the variant setup, players will need to invest that cash into whichever starting condo they want — in turn-taking the benefit that comes with it.
With all of this, and a little bit more, done the game can begin. Each turn is driven by five action tokens held by each player. As the active player takes the action shown on a token, they flip it over to show that it has been used. Actions include things like purchasing “zero to one” generators (there’s an action token for each kind) and then generating that resource, or investing in a new condo tile to expand your home, which also allows you to take up to five meeples — assuming that you can feed them.
Now, it is possible to flip your action tiles back over at any time to begin reusing them, but only if you can pay one resource (cash, food or energy) for each of the tiles that hasn’t been used so far. This is where the programming aspect of the game begins to show itself, because frankly there is very little randomisation in the setup of Futuropia, which means that there simply is an optimal series of moves available for each player count — if you can be bothered to work it out.
There’s a side note here that players are free to take out a loan (by picking up a token) at any time, and in turn it can be repaid at any time. The thing to note is that whenever the action tiles are refreshed, interest (also worth one of any resource) must be paid for each loan taken. Again, at an efficiency level, you’ll want to balance your desire to expand your food and energy engines rapidly with the need to balance the books.
So, to reiterate, what we’re looking at here is classic Friedemann Friese — the theme is light and focused on ‘production line’ type behaviours, whilst the actual gameplay is almost entirely based on optimisation from turn to turn. I first became aware of the fact that Futuropia might be somewhat programmable by Paul Grogan (of Gaming Rules!) and he is most certainly right — only the starting number of coins, the preferred starting condo and the number of players changes from one game to the next.
But so what, right? I mean chess and draughts are two of the most enduring board games ever made and they, arguably as a result of their predictability (and lack of reliance on randomisation) have stood the test of time. Having played about ten games of Futuropia,I think I have my first few turns down to a tee, but the more other players spoil the optimal path by taking generators, generating income and so on, the less reliable the programming idea becomes.
However you choose to play it, Futuropia is mechanically satisfying and fairly generous. I wouldn’t say that money or resources are abundant, but you’ll generally have enough of them to do something that feels as though it advances your position. Sometimes you’ll have more cash and will be able to purchase a more efficient generator (which also raises the price of all generators) whilst on other turns, you’ll settle for a less efficient one that might require you to keep a meeples in it at all times.
Bearing in mind that your objective is to get as many of your meeples into relaxing, post-apocalyptic pastimes as possible, this is a bigger deal than it might seem. The game comes to an end either when the last generators enter the market, or when one player reaches twenty five meeples on their tableau. If say four or five of those meeples aren’t going to score points, that can be a big issue. It might also be worth it though, if it helps you accelerate far enough ahead that it makes no difference.
Futuropia is actually very basic in many ways. The five actions never change, never get more powerful and can never be swapped out for others. This is both the strength and weakness of Futuropia, making it a very clean, interesting puzzle (that withstands the ability to map out the most efficient moves as you play more of it) and a game that can get boring after a number of plays. The theme, to say one last thing about it, doesn’t help at all.
Personally, I may have joked about the Soylent Green link, but actually have I got it so far wrong? What other jade coloured mush can be produced in your basement with no input, and since when did humans only need to produce energy and food in order to feel fulfilled enough to sit in condos looking at those weird egg shaped chairs.
The components, whilst physically chunky and well made, side with the weak theme. The washed out, watercolour art lacks personality and even though it looks similar to Power Grid in many ways, Futuropia’s art has none of the distinctive purpose that Friese’s classic efficiency puzzle has. I don’t want to sound too harsh here though — Futuropia looks unremarkable, but it isn’t offensive in any way.
Overall then, I find myself pondering how much more life I will get from Futuropia and coming to the conclusion is that the answer is somewhere between some and none. I don’t hate it, and if someone asked me to play the game right now, I’d probably agree, even though I’d also suggest a couple of similar games that I think are better — Power Grid, for one.
Fans of very clean, almost minimalist designs that require no theme will likely enjoy it more, and it’s by no means a bad game. Unfortunately, it is very physically large, and as such, I don’t think it will retain its place on my shelf for much longer.