20th Century is a game I have been keen to try, because it is by Vladimir Suchy, and the theme interested me. I have played another game by Vladimir Suchy, Shipyard, and it was a pleasant surprise. John Choong, whom I got to know via Jeff's boardgamecafe.net network, had a copy, and brought it to (the new) OTK.
The game is played over a fixed number rounds, in which players bid for various tiles to expand and improve their countries. Land tiles have cities which can produce money, produce science, produce victory points and/or remove garbage. Technology tiles have various abilities, e.g. improving money / science / victory point output, and providing trains which let you shift your workers to different cities. Players also bid to avoid disasters, which come in the form of extra garbage and overall pollution to your country.
Scoring is done after the second and fourth rounds, and at game end. The scoring methods in mid-game vary from game to game, depending on cards drawn, but the game-end scoring stays the same. At game-end, players are rewarded for having accumulated more money or science than others, for overall cleanliness, and for tiles without garbage. Players are also penalised for too much garbage and for pollution to the environment.
There are two currencies in the game. Money is for bidding for land tiles, while science is for buying technology tiles as well as bidding to avoid disasters. It is tricky to balance between producing these two. Should you focus on one or the other, or take a balanced approach? Expanding your country is a fun puzzle. Matching up railroads is not mandatory but it is preferable, because it gives you flexibility to move workers around (if you have trains), and also lets your recycling plants remove garbage from connected adjacent tiles. You want to position your recycling plants so that they can clean up as much garbage as possible. You also want to place institution tiles (which boost money / science / victory points production) such that they are fully utilised. Some tiles come with two cities producing different combinations of money / science / victory points, but you only get one worker with a new tile, so you have to decide which city to use.
One interesting aspect of the game is how the order and price for buying technology tiles is determined. The first person to drop out of the land tiles auction gets to buy a technology tile first, so there is pressure in quickly winning a land tile you want and then dropping out to get the technology tile you want. The tricky thing is the technology tiles drop in cost every time a land tile is won, and may even become free. So there is incentive to wait too.
The whole game revolves around the auctions. There is a feedback loop where as you earn more money, you can afford to buy more and/or better tiles which can earn you even more money. However you cannot neglect science, as it is crucial to help you manage garbage and control pollution.
I did a four player game with Ainul, Allen and Dennis, all of us being new to the game. We struggled a little with the rules at first, but once we got over the initial hump, the gameplay was smooth and the rules were easy to remember. I took advantage of the Round 2 storing, which gave points for tiles with no garbage. I cleaned up two tiles completely and scored 12pts by Round 2, giving myself a lead over the others. I guess I had an advantage because I had read the rules before, and the rest were still digesting the rules in the early game and hadn't planned ahead much.
As the game progressed, we took quite different approaches in developing our countries. Dennis was the money guy. Allen was the lead scientist. Ainul was Mr Clean. I was neither here nor there, with a little emphasis on gaining some victory points early (cities that generate VPs). Needless to say, being the lead scientist meant Allen rarely had to suffer disasters. Dennis and I were scientifically behind the times, and took most of the punishment. Dennis had a lot of money, and could buy more tiles, however additional tiles came with more garbage, which was a challenge.
Allen won the game with me and Dennis not far behind. It was interesting how very different approaches (science king Allen and money and garbage king Dennis) did almost equally well. What surprised and puzzled me was Ainul the Spotless was quite far behind. I have no idea why. Maybe he did not tweak his country enough to do well in the various scoring categories. Or did he missed a scoring round?
In 20th Century, how you develop your country is a fun puzzle to work out, a bit like jigsaw puzzles, like Galaxy Trucker, Vikings andCarcassonne (but in Carcassonne it's a shared puzzle). The theme of balancing development and pollution is implemented well. Player interaction is limited to the auctions. I have a feeling that most of the time you'll just spend most or all of your money or science in the auctions, because you'll earn more at the end of the round anyway. Only towards game end you may think of saving a little, to fight for the most-money-on-hand and most-science-on-hand awards. This makes the auctions less interesting, because it seems they are largely decided by your money / science production in the previous round. There is little incentive to save up from round to round. I wonder whether this is just groupthink in the game that I played.
This game didn't click with me as much as Shipyard did. Somehow it doesn't feel filling enough. It's not simplistic, but when I played I didn't feel I had enough options. Maybe it's because the tiles, technologies and disasters available for the three stages of the game (Rounds 1+2, 3+4, and 5) come from fixed sets. So the game has a scripted feel to it.