Sunday, 9 September 2012

Town Center

Plays: 4Px1, 1Px3.

The Game

Town Centre is a city-building game. Every player has a personal board with 21 squares on which they can build their cities. The game has 10 rounds, and every round you will add at least two cubes to your city. You may buy one extra cube per round. Sometimes when the circumstances are right, some buildings will grow by themselves (called Development), i.e. you will be allowed to add extra cubes to your city.

The cubes represent different building units. Purple and red are offices. Blue is shops. Green is apartments. Black is car parks or elevators. Yellow is generators. They all serve different purposes. Offices trigger Development of apartments. Shops and car parks make money. Elevators allow building upwards (up to the 5th floor). Generators power elevators, shops and apartments, which need electricity to work. Apartments are the most important. They are usually the biggest source of victory points at game end. They also trigger the Development of shops.

At the start of a round, a number of cubes equal to twice the number of players are drawn from a bag, and the start player of that round arranges them into stacks of two. Players take turns picking one cube (naturally, those cubes beneath other cubes cannot be taken) in player order, and then pick a second cube but in reverse player order. After this is done, everyone adds the two new cubes to his city.

The biggest twist in the game is that during this stage, apartments and shops cubes cannot be placed adjacent (left, right, front, back, up or down) to existing cubes of the same type. This is a challenge because apartment and shop groups are more effective if they are big (i.e. many cubes linked up to became one big residential area or one big shopping centre). The trick is Development. During the Development phase, if a residential area contains fewer apartment cubes than the number of adjacent office cubes, it grows for free, and the new growth (i.e. new apartment cube or cubes) must be placed adjacent to existing apartment cubes. This is how residential areas grow, and this is also how two previously separate residential areas can merge to become a much bigger residential area. The Development of shops work in about the same way.

This is a home-made copy. I think the first edition of Town Center has already sold out. The designer is preparing a second edition using Lego blocks which will be available at the Essen game fair this October.

After ten rounds, money is converted to victory points $5 to 1VP. There is a 1VP penalty for each suburb space used (the spaces along the edges of the player board). The residential areas (apartments) score points in two ways - number of cubes, and height. The first cube is worth 1VP, the second cube 2VP, and so on. So the total points grow very quickly when you have a big residential area. As for height, you score 1/3/6/10VP for reaching the 2nd/3rd/4th/5th floor. Whoever has the most points wins.

The Play

Learning the game for the first time was confusing, and I at least partially blame Allen (sorry bro). After the first play I read the rules myself, and found them a little disorganised. The game being 3D and very spatial also complicates matters. You need to be able to imagine and plan in 3D. Seeing the impacts of each move is not straight-forward when you are new to the game.

In that first game, all four of us struggled and were quite clueless. Only halfway through the game it started to click for me. I hadn't planned my city very well and was forced to use many of my suburb spaces (1VP penalty per use, and also in the suburbs you can never build beyond the ground floor). However in the late game I was able to use Development to link up many of my small residential areas. That scored an obscene amount of points and won me the game.

I found the cube arrangement (by the start player) and cube selection at the start of every round quite interesting. You need to pay attention to what your opponents need.

Later on I tried the solo variant. The rules are mostly the same, but you know exactly what cubes you will get, just that you won't know the order they will come out. It is easier to plan for, but it is also more like puzzle-solving. However the random order of drawing cubes from the bag still provides much variability. It seems quite impossible to go in with a blueprint in mind and execute based on that blueprint. So far I have not figured out any sure-fire way of building a big residential area. In the solo variant you will only ever have 4 offices (including the city hall) to help trigger the Development of residential areas. I still need to work out what's the best way to place these offices. Based on the game rules, it should be possible to achieve 100pts in the solo variant. I've only managed 61pts, and the biggest residential area I could make was of size 10. Looks like I have much room for improvement.

This was the city I built when I first tried the solo variant. Now that I had some experience, I was able to completely avoid building in the suburbs, i.e. the spaces along the edges. However after the game I realised it is not really that necessary to avoid such spaces. The 1VP penalty is very much worthwhile if you make good use of the space.

A 3D game with a strong spatial element.

The Thoughts

Town Center was a pleasant surprise. Definitely something a little different. I tend to think of the words "filler" and "puzzle" negatively in the context of boardgames, but I think it is fair to say that Town Center is a thinky filler with a puzzle-like feel. The game really is not that complex, just that initially it can be hard to grasp. I'm not sure yet how much replayability there is, given the succinctness. At the moment I don't think I have found very solid techniques or tactics yet, although I understand the importance of making use of Development. However I think (and I hope) even after mastering the tactics, the random cube draw from the bag will still keep the game fresh and challenging. When playing non-solo versions, the need to react to your opponents' moves should ensure plenty of variations.

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