Tuesday, 23 November 2010

London

Martin Wallace doing a complex card game? Count me interested. I like Race for the Galaxy, Innovation and Dominion, so I'm always interested when I hear about card games with some depth. Allen pre-ordered the game direct from Treefrog Games, and we played it soon after he received it.

The Game

The game is about rebuilding and developing London after the Great Fire in 1666. The story arc goes up to the start of the 20th century. The game is mostly in the cards. There is a board, but it plays a lesser part in the game. During the game, you play cards into your play area in front of you. You can play cards on top of other cards already in your play area, creating stacks. The number of stacks is an important consideration, and once you create a new stack (by playing one card by itself), it cannot be removed. Cards represent various buildings. You always need to discard a card of the same colour when you play a card, which forces you to make a choice of what to build and what to abandon. Some cards require a payment before you can play them. Some cards come with victory points (VP). Most cards provide some benefit when activated, mostly along the lines of earning money, earning VP's, and reducing poverty. The tricky part is how to activate your cards.

On your turn, one of the things you can choose to do is to "run your city". What this means is you can activate any or all of your cards in your play area, in any order. Since cards give benefits, it seems to be best to run your city as often as possible. The tricky part is poverty points. Every time you run your city, you need to check whether you gain or lose poverty points. This is determined by the number of stacks of cards in your play area, plus the number of cards in your hand, minus the number of boroughs you have bought on the gameboard. In London, it is easy to gain lots of poverty points, and poverty is something you need to manage carefully throughout the game. At game end, you are penalised based on the relative positions of every player in managing poverty.

Many cards are flipped over once you activate them. They are still your cards, i.e. any VP's on them are still yours, but you can't activate them anymore. This is another reason you don't run your city so often. You will normally want to make every run count, by having many cards that you can activate.

I had run my city, and some of the cards had been flipped. These round wooden coins come with the pre-order copies only. Normal copies have plastic coins.

Now, the board. You can buy boroughs on the board. That costs you a turn (and money). When buying a borough, you gain cards and VP's. Boroughs help to reduce the number of poverty points you gain every time you run your city, but I suspect usually you will need other means of controlling poverty. You can only buy boroughs next to those that have already been bought. There can be a bit of a race among players to buy different boroughs. Some may want to go for the cheaper ones. Some may want to go for the ones worth more VP's. Some may want to get the ones next to the River Thames, because one of their cards' benefit is linked to number of boroughs on the waterfront.

These wooden building pieces only come with pre-order copies of the game. The normal game only has thick cardboard tiles. The three numbers below the borough names are cost, number of cards awarded, and victory points.

The board is also where you discard cards to. Cards discarded become available to other players. That's another consideration. Only when the spaces on the board are full, half the cards there are permanently removed from the game.

Overview of the gameboard. The spaces at the bottom are for cards discarded by players. The number of spaces to be used depends on the number of players.

In summary, you will be carefully building your little city in front of you, planning when and how frequently to run your city. You need to make money to allow you to buy boroughs, play cards (that cost money), and in some cases even to activate some cards. You need to control poverty and watch how your opponents are managing, because in the end it's the relative positions that matter, not the absolute value. Cards often get flipped over after activation, so you rebuild over them. That's how you gradually evolve your little (or maybe not so little, depending on your strategy) city through the centuries.

The Play

Han, Allen and I played a 3-player game, all of us being new to the game. I was the overly brave one to start running my city without worrying too much about poverty points. Bad move. Both Han and Allen were more conservative about poverty, which meant I was eventually penalised for not taking good care of my poor people. To help dig myself out of that hole that I had dug for myself in the early game, I tried to buy as many boroughs as I could. Eventually I bought 8, while Allen and Han bought 6 each. I didn't run my city much. Most of my money was spent on boroughs, so I didn't play many cards with VP's. I spent a lot of effort on making money, and I was richest at game end. I tended to prefer cards that don't get flipped after activation, and took time to build a "perfect" city before I ran it. That was probably not such a good idea. I was getting too attached. I should accept the fact that most buildings do get flipped over and I should keep advancing by playing more new buildings.

My city in the late game. I had two Omnibus and two Street Lights. Omnibus gives money depending on number of boroughs owned, which was good for me. Street Lights help reduce poverty, but even two of them was not enough to save me.

I felt the game moved very quickly. It might be because I had been buying boroughs a lot, so I drew cards often, and discarded often too because my hand size kept being exceeded. We went through the deck quickly, and suddenly when we realised the deck was going to run out soon, we found that we had not been running out cities often enough. OK, at least I felt that way. Han and Allen probably did better in this regard. So the last few rounds were spent trying to get the most out of our cities before time ran out.

At game end, Han won with a distant 74, while Allen had 60, and I had 53. Han did better than us in playing cards worth VP's. I did worst. He also managed to catch up to Allen, who did best at controlling poverty throughout the game. I had a lot of cash even after repaying my loans. Every 3 Pounds is worth 1VP, and I had 30 Pounds. However, it was poverty that killed me. I had 8 poverty points more than Han and Allen, which cost me -11VP's.

The Thoughts

I'm not sure whether I'll like London yet. That may be a good sign, as I had a similar reaction to Innovation after my first game. London certainly has some depth, and it is quite distinct from other card-games-with-depth that I have played. Han and Allen didn't feel like they had been developing a city, but I think the city-building feeling is there, albeit a little abstracted. Han explained his analysis of the game. He looked at it as a typical Eurogame - gain some money, then use it to gain VP's as efficiently as possible. Indeed he had been walking a tightrope with his finances. He took some loans, and had barely enough money to repay them all at game end. He tried to play cards with VP's as much as possible, and probably ran his city the most. His strategy was getting all or most of the cards in his hands played onto his play area, and then running his city; get more cards, play most of them, then run city again; and so on. It worked out well for him.

Close-up of the board.

All of us had about 7 or 8 stacks in our play areas. I'm interested to find out how a city can be run with many more, or fewer, stacks. I think both are possible. There's more to explore and one game is not enough to see all the possibilities in the game. Other than the number of stacks, the frequency of running your city is also an important consideration. How to build your city (types of cards and combinations of cards) is key to your strategy. There are cards that flip and cards that don't. There are cards that give money and cards that give VP's. There are some cards with special abilities, e.g. allowing you to flip it instead of another card which should be flipped.

The game is very much about the timing of your city development, and also about watching what cards are available on the board. Cards discarded by your opponents always go to the board before they are removed from the game, so you need to pay attention to what they make available to you, as well as what you make available to them.

Another important timing aspect is the pace of the game - how quickly you are going through the deck of cards. Do you have enough time to reap the most benefits from your city? Do you have enough time to build an elaborate city or do you go for the quick wins?

I need to visit London again.

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