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London

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Treefrog Games/Mayfair Games, 2-4 players, ages 13 and up, 90 minutes; $55)

 

londonboxFrom the fires that decimated the city in the 17th century, London has risen from those ashes to become one of the great cities of the world. From this phoenix-like background, Martin Wallace has found the inspiration for his latest game – London – in which players attempt to rebuild ravaged London into a bustling metropolis.

London comes bookshelf boxed with a mounted board depicting the boroughs (areas) of the city as well as coins (for money), counters (in four colors) for buildings, loan and Victory Point markers, black discs and cubes representing “poverty points” and, most importantly, a deck of 110 cards, which power the action. The deck is divided into three smaller decks (25 A, 50 B and 35 C).

The A, B and C decks are shuffled separately and then stacked in alphabetical order with the A cards on top. All players begin with 5£ and five poverty points. Six cards are dealt from the top of the deck to each player. A start player is randomly chosen and the game begins.

Turns follow a specific procedure. First, the active player draws a card. It may be from the top of the draw deck OR from the two-tiered Card Display on the board. Then, that player may perform ONE of four possible actions: play cards, run his city, buy land or take three cards.

Cards come in four suits: brown (representing economics), pink (politics), blue (science and culture) and grey (aka Paupers, which have limited gameplay value). Most cards have a “stone base” on the bottom divided into three segments. The leftmost part shows what needs to be expended (a card perhaps or money) to activate that particular card, the middle shows what you will reap once the card is activated, and the right part shows whether the card will be turned face down once activated (and of no further use) or kept face up and in play. If choosing the play cards option, a player may play as many cards as he wants (or can) from his hand onto his Building Display in front of him but only those with a stone base may be placed in a display.

To add a card to his Building Display, a player must “expend” (to the board’s Card Display) a card of the same suit. (Spaces in the top row are filled first and then discards are placed in the bottom row. When the bottom row fills, all cards in the top row are removed and are out of play. Cards in the bottom row then shift to the top creating a new row to be filled.) Some cards require an additional outlay of funds to play. Buckingham Palace, for example, requires an expenditure of 10£ to be placed. (Need more money? You are always allowed to take out one or more 10£ loans immediately). Some cards (such as the aforementioned Buckingham Palace) have a Victory Point value (a significant 7 VPs for the Palace) which will add to a player’s score at the end of the game; some cards have a power that goes into effect immediately when played. When placing cards, players have a choice: a card may be played on its own (forming a new stack) OR placed on top of a stack already there. (If adding to a stack, it doesn’t matter whether the card being covered is face up or down but only cards on top of a stack may be activated.) Once you have “enough” stacks (and each player is the best judge of just how much “enough” is), you can “run your city”.

Running a city allows you to activate some or all of the cards in your display. As noted, some cards, to be activated, require an outlay of money or a card. (This is a possible use for those Pauper cards as you can use them to activate a useful card without sacrificing a quality card from your hand.) Cards used for activation are placed on the board’s Card Display. Depending on the card, activated cards generate money, Victory Points and can sometimes remove poverty points accumulated by a player. (They can GIVE a player extra poverty points too!) After activation, some cards will flip over (as shown on the card itself) and will not be eligible for another use. Among the more interesting cards are the five Underground cards which come up in the latter stages of the game. These cards are expensive to play (costing 7£ to place) but are significant. Not only do these cards award 4 VPs when activated but each one compels you to place TWO underground counters in two adjacent boroughs. (The first one must be placed in one of the three city boroughs. After that, the underground can extend to adjacent boroughs.) An underground counter adds 2 VPs to the value of a borough. This means an upswing of 8 VPs for one single activation. With winning scores generally running anywhere from the mid 40s to the mid 60s, this is a significant slice. Not enough of a slice to be unbalanced but enough to make it an action well worth taking.

london2But there is a cost to running a city and that cost is poverty points. After running a city, the player adds the number of stacks he has with the number of cards left in his hand. He then subtracts the number of boroughs on the board he has claimed. The resulting number is the poverty points he receives. (If calculations result in a negative number, that number of poverty points is LOST!)

A player may also buy land. Twenty boroughs are outlined on the board. Each borough has a price. Pay the cost and you immediately receive the specified number of cards listed on the borough (from the draw deck or the display – your choice). You will also receive the noted number of Victory Points for the borough at game’s end. Once bought, a borough remains yours throughout the game but only one borough may be bought per turn. (The first borough purchase must be one of the three “city” boroughs in London’s center. After that, a player may claim ANY borough adjacent to one that has a building counter – ANYONE’S building counter – in it.)

Finally, if nothing else appeals, a player may simply draw three cards. (There is a hand limit of nine at the end of a turn so if you end up with more, you must discard down with the discards placed on the board’s card display.)

The game continues until the final card of the draw deck is taken. At that point, the active player finishes his actions and every other player gets one more turn. With that last cycle done, final payments and Victory Point calculations are made.

First of all, all loans must be repaid at the rate of 15£ for each 10£ loan taken. Loans that cannot be repaid cost a player a hefty 7 Victory Points each. Players also receive 1 more poverty point for each card left in their hands. On the plus side of the ledger, money on hand converts into 1 VP for each 3£. Players now add VPs earned for each claimed borough (adding 2 VPs if an underground token is there) and add all VPs from building cards in their stacks (face up OR face down). Finally, for the last and potentially pivotal calculation, poverty points are compared.

The player with the FEWEST poverty points LOSES all of them. All other players lose the same number of poverty points too. Remaining poverty points a player has is now referenced to the board’s poverty point chart determining how many VPs are LOST because of this. (For example, a player left with 3 poverty points will lose 2 VPs; a player with 10 pps will lose 15 VPs!) Once the poverty points differential is calculated and applied, the player with the most VPs is the winner!

While the game is ostensibly about rebuilding and developing London, the game is less heavily themed than theme “flavored” as the play could really be about almost anything. This, however, does not detract from the soundness of design. London, at its core, is a card game (with a board where you claim various boroughs of the city) where you build an “engine” of cards to “run your city” which, by activating them, generate (mostly) money and Victory Points. That’s all to the good. However, there is a downside to building an engine. Many of the cards (sometimes ALL of the cards) in your engine are ONE TIME USE so you have to constantly rebuild. This results in players generally concentrating on their own immediate needs resulting in limited interaction. Admittedly, some cards impact on other players such as “Fire Brigade” which forces your opponents to pay 1£ to the bank for each borough they occupy, “Fleet Street” which gives you the power to gave another player 2 poverty points and “Lloyd’s of London” which allows you to take 2£ from each player. But these are relatively minor ripples in the flow of the game.

The more cards you have in your engine and presumably, the more VPs and money you earn, the more poverty points (in essence, negative VPs) are generated too. London, in these respects, has a very tactical feel. However, there is room for strategy. For example, in claiming boroughs, you strive to claim ADJACENT positions so you will be able to place underground counters on boroughs you own should the opportunity arise. Conversely, you can also claim boroughs to keep your opponents from racking up adjacent positions thereby discouraging an opponent from placing underground tokens. If an opponent decides to use an Underground card anyway (to get those 4 VPs for activation), he may be forced to place underground counters in such a way as to benefit YOU!

Poverty points counterbalance the idea that you can run your city with impunity. There SHOULD be a cost of “doing business” and that’s where those poverty points come in. If you’re going to win, you have to avoid a poverty points pounding. (As mentioned, some cards, when activated, will REMOVE poverty cubes to minimize the accumulation of those negative points. It also should be noted that good card/hand management will also minimize the number of poverty points generated.) In the games we’ve played, there have been varied approaches to this with some players opting to run their city with fewer stacks (to minimize poverty points) while others have gone for larger numbers of stacks, figuring to use cards to counterbalance pp generation. The latter approach seems to be both more daring and more effective.

While it helps to know what cards are available (and a full listing is available in the rules), the cards themselves are very straightforward (all you need to know is right there on the card) eliminating the intricacies with which many other deck-building games are afflicted. Claiming boroughs early is a good idea as it not only provides VPs later on but are also great sources for gathering bunches of cards useful in constructing your “run the city” engine.

Martin Wallace has carved out an enviable reputation as the master of railroad games but, with London, he has gone in a different direction. Except for the underground, there are no trains to be found. Instead, what we have is a totally engaging game of medium complexity where hard core gamers and more casual players can meet and compete in the great city – and game – of London.

 


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