Welcome To... Your Perfect Filler

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Much like the idealized 1950s that serves as its setting, the suburban-planning Welcome To… feels very much of a time, a throwback to another era that we thought we’d left behind.

Even a year ago, if I sat down to play a game and someone started ripping sheets from a pad of paper and handing out pencils, I would have been extremely skeptical. That soft tearing of player sheets still triggers memories of commonplace, childhood games like Yahtzee and Scattergories. Fine games, both, but hardly compelling in today’s crowded game scene.

And while there have certainly been designer games keeping this anachronistic little component alive in the meantime (Letters from Whitechapel and Roll Through the Ages both feature individual track-as-you-go player sheets, for example), 2018 has brought the player sheet roaring back to life as a key part of the booming roll-and-write mechanic.

Much has already been made of this roll-and-write renaissance, and Welcome To… has quickly taken its place among the best titles in that genre. Deservedly so, as it’s not just one of the best roll-and-writes around, it might just be the best filler game out there, period.

Gameplay

In Welcome To…, you’re an urban planner developing a subdivision in the idyllic ‘50s.

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To start, each player gives their community a name and takes a sheet, depicting three streets filled with blank houses; your job is to populate each of these houses by assigning them street numbers, in ascending order from left to right.

Three decks are placed face-up on the table. Each card features a number from 1 to 15. On the back is one of six symbols. Every turn, players flip the top cards and place them in a “discard” location next to their respective decks. Then, each player chooses one of the new face-up numbers, along with the bonus depicted by the symbol on the card next to it.

Those bonuses include things like building pools, constructing parks, or placing fences to create “estates” made up of a certain number of houses. All affect your final score -- in almost every case, the more you have of a specific bonus, the better off you are. There are also three “city plan” cards in each game, featuring different conditions (such as building specific estates or completing a target number of bonuses) that reward the player who achieves each goal first.

Hard decisions

The real genius of Welcome To… lies in the way players select from the shared pool of cards. Two or more players can choose the same card, but make different decisions about where to place the card’s number and how to use its respective bonus. Some decisions are obvious, but they’re few and far between.

Because players start the game with a literal blank slate, the decision space is huge, but that space gets infinitesimally smaller as the game wears on. This is a necessary evil (and a key source of tension) for many roll-and-writes -- as players’ score sheets start to fill up, they’re forced to make compromises or hope for the perfect roll to fit into their constantly evolving plan. In Welcome To…, one of the end-game triggers is your repeated inability to actually use any of the numbers available to them, a noose tightening around your civil-engineer neck (and losing you points, to boot) as you struggle to place those last few houses in your perfectly appointed subdivisions.

It’s easy to start playing with the intention to move on to something else after a single game, but then you just end up playing more, the player sheets stacking up as you chase that utopian planned community you’ve always dreamed of.

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This actually brings me to my biggest complaint about the game (which, admittedly, is a pretty small one) -- it feels terribly wasteful to burn through those single-sided sheets, and again, the whole premise feels a little antiquated. I plan to laminate a half-dozen or so and get some dry-erase markers to not only cut down on the waste, but hopefully reduce the need to order more sheets at some point.

There’s another concern that comes with such easy replayability, too. While Welcome To… feels very balanced, there’s always a risk with roll-and-writes that they can be “solved” -- that enough repeated plays will reveal an optimal strategy that puts players on rails. Maybe focusing on parks are always better than pools? Maybe the temp agency cards are hardly worth expending moves on?

There will always be an element of randomness, of needing the right card flips to satisfy your master plan, but there’s also a chance that after enough plays, the game will begin to lose some of that sense of uncertainty that comes with placing those first numbers and bonuses. It doesn’t feel that way to me right now, but it’s a nagging question. Anyone who’s played the app version of Kennerspiel des Jahres nominee Ganz Schon Clever to death has seen a certain strategy emerge.

The game already features advanced variants, like city plan cards that mix up the goals, or another variant that lets you bulldoze an empty house and turn it into a roundabout at the cost of some points. At first, I scoffed at some of these things -- “Where’s the benefit in that?” I thought -- but it quickly became apparent there are long-term gains to be had from a little short-term sloppy development. It opens up the more that you play it.

It’s also poised for expansions: I’m personally hoping for a bomb shelter expansion in the near future.

The perfect filler

If you’ve ever attended a meetup, or had an event running multiple tables at once, you know the struggle of filling dead space; maybe a couple of people showed up while you were playing your first game, and the other tables still have a half-hour to go in their games before you can all splinter off into new groups. You need a game that can play a lot of people, but won’t eat up the whole night.

Enter Welcome To….

In addition to the fast setup, easy teach, and a play time that can dip as low as 20 minutes with experienced players, it’s this deceptive depth that helps make Welcome To… such a great filler.

But the player count is where it really shines -- the game can scale up almost infinitely. On the box, it boasts an eye-roll-worthy player count of 1 to 100. Although that feels like hyperbole -- I don’t see people sitting in bingo halls playing this anytime soon -- the simultaneous action selection means that unless one player is really slowing things down, the game can still be played in a half-hour or less regardless of player count.

It also means that the game is great for occupying that game-night dead space. It can accommodate those latecomers, while not committing you to another 2-hour game. It can start a night while you wait for others to show up, or wrap up a night when you’re not quite ready to go home yet.

There’s little fault to be found in Welcome To…. It’s great for new gamers and old, for solo play (which is good if a little limited, coming from someone who rarely plays solo) or for a full table. The theme is quaint and inoffensive, the gameplay quick and painless.

All that being said, it’ll be interesting to see where things go from here. With roll-and-writes trending in 2018, will Welcome To… feel dated in a few years, like wood paneling appointing a den, or paisley wallpaper adorning a kitchen? Will that soft tearing of player sheets from player pads once again trigger that pavlovian response that we could be playing other, newer games?

It’s possible. But though those games will be newer, they may not be better.