Five Points: Gangs of New York

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Mayfair Games, 3-5 players, ages 12 and up, 75-100 minutes; $35)

fivepointsboxIn the mid 19th Century era of power politics in New York City, the Five Points area of Manhattan was known for crime, gangs and political corruption. Against this background, Andreas Steding has designed a game placing players into the heart of the struggle, competing to control neighborhoods and install Bosses by flexing political muscle – like it was done in real life – in the area that lends its name to the game: Five Points: Gangs of New York.

The bones of contention in the game are the neighborhoods, represented by tiles in four colors. (There are five of each in red, yellow, blue and green.) To one of each tile, 7 to 13 more tiles (depending on the number of players) are randomly added to create the game board. Tiles may be arranged in any pattern with the stipulation that each tile must touch at least one other tile (no diagonals, no “holes” and no “islands”). Two of the nine building tiles are randomly drawn and placed on two different (non-adjacent) neighborhoods. Control Markers (in the four tile colors) are placed in stacks around the board.

Each player begins with a Headquarters tile (and a play aid card), a supply of nine cubes (“rabble” in game terms) and five meeples (“Bosses”) which are placed in Headquarters Each player takes three rabble and these rabble are randomly placed, one at a time, on the tiles without a building. Now, every tile has either a building or a cube on it. The “manipulation markers” are mixed with four randomly chosen markers placed alongside the tiles.

From the first player (chosen in any manner you like), play goes in a clockwise order with a turn basically consisting of either placing a cube (or cubes) or passing.

A player may place ONE cube from his Headquarters onto ANY neighborhood tile. In addition, after placing a cube, that player MAY bid on any of the four manipulation markers in play by placing one or more cubes next to the tile wanted. (Only ONE tile may be bid upon on a turn. Next turn, after placing a cube on the board, that player may up his bid on the tile already bid upon if so desired or bid on another tile of his choice.) If someone else has already made a bid on one of these, your bid must exceed the bid previously placed. No ties allowed.

If you decide to pass, you are “rewarded” by gaining cubes from your reserve (called the “Boroughs”), the number of which, from as many as 7 down to 2, depending on how early in the round you pass. (The earlier you pass, the more cubes you get.) When everyone but one player has passed, the remaining player may make ONE more placement before finally passing. (That player will get 2 cubes from his Boroughs.) Now, ownership of the manipulation markers is resolved.

fivepoints2The person who has bid the most cubes on a marker wins that manipulation marker. Winning bidders lose their cubes to the Boroughs; losing bidders have their cubes returned to their respective Headquarters. Manipulation markers offer benefits (some actual, some potential) including granting you a Control Marker of your choice, additional voting benefits in upcoming elections, Victory Points for controlling certain color neighborhoods and more. Buildings also can grant benefits to the player who controls the neighborhood in which the building is located (and control means having more rabble there then any other player). Depending on the buildings in the game, you might be able to recruit more rabble from the Boroughs to your HQ, gain some extra VPs or gain additional votes in upcoming elections. With all the manipulation markers and building effects resolved, elections, a key feature of Five Points, take place.

Neighborhoods that have the most rabble (cubes) in them become the sites for elections that round. (In the first round of play, ALL tied neighborhoods hold elections; in subsequent rounds, only two neighborhoods at most will have elections. If more than two are tied for most cubes, then the player who passed LAST decides which two and in which order elections will be held.)

An election will install a Boss in that neighborhood and the rabble will decide who gets the honor. Each rabble (cube) is worth 1 vote. Bosses do not carry any weight in elections although some manipulation markers grant voting rights to the Bosses. As mentioned, manipulation markers can also award players extra votes while some buildings bestow election advantages as well. The player with the most votes in the contested neighborhood wins the election and places one of his Bosses there. (If there is a tie in votes, then ALL tied players place a Boss there.) All rabble (winning or not) are returned to the Boroughs of the respective players (not their Headquarters). In addition, there is a “ripple” effect.

Neighborhoods to the North, East, West and South of the election site feel its impact. Players who control those neighborhoods receive a Control Marker in that tile’s color. (Control Markers are worth 2 Victory Points – and possibly more – at the end of the game.) If there is a tie for control, tied players do not get a Control Marker but instead get a 1 VP tile. At the end of the round, players may move 1 additional cube from their Boroughs to their Headquarters for each Boss they have on the board. (No Boss? Then no reinforcement bonus!) Manipulation markers displayed in this round are collected, shuffled back in with the rest of them and four more drawn for the next round. (It will often happen that manipulation tiles that have appeared in the game will appear again.) Play now continues with the player to the left of the player who passed last in the round, going first this next round.

The game ends in several ways. If you have managed to place your fifth Boss on the board, it’s over. You have an automatic victory! Barring that, the end comes when every neighborhood tile has a Boss on it OR all Control Markers of a single color have been taken. In these two cases, scoring occurs.

Each Boss on the board is worth 5 Victory Points. VP tokens earned through elections and/or manipulation markers are added to your score. Each Control Marker is worth 2 VPs. If you have a set of all four colors of Control Markers, that will give you a bonus of 5 VPs so a set is worth 13 VPs (2 x 4 plus a bonus of 5). Highest combined score wins! (Tie? Then the player who has placed the most Bosses is victorious!)

Euro strategy games tend to run towards the abstract. Often, that foundation can be enhanced through theme. Certainly, the theme of gangs, politics and elections in mid 19th Century New York is compelling. In this case, however, there is only a breath of theme; Five Points: Gangs of New York is very much an abstract and could be set in many different contexts. This isn’t a criticism as this happens to be an excellent abstract; rather, it is a “heads up” to anyone being misled by the artwork and text on the box into thinking the game is something it is not. The artwork is, actually, quite good, particularly the art used on the building and manipulation markers. It’s a shame that the building tiles and manipulation markers are so small that the artwork (and the icons) cannot be properly appreciated. (If it was my call, I would have doubled the size of everything.)

While the rules are fairly straightforward, there are a few situations that need to be addressed. The rules in the rulebook and the rules summary on the side of the box concerning how many elections are to be held are completely contradictory! (The rules in the rulebook – and in this review – are correct.) Also, one of the Buildings (Zone Commission) allows you to relocate a neighborhood (thus underscoring the abstract nature of the game; try doing that in real life!) but this can create confusion as to what is or isn’t allowed. So let’s clear up any confusion. You must still abide by the rules that no diagonals, no holes and no islands are allowed in tile placement. Finally, the rules state that, at the end of the game, if Control Markers are to be awarded but no more remain of that particular color, each player entitled to one gets 2 VPs instead. That’s fine as Control Markers are worth 2 VPs. But what if the Control Marker missing is the color needed by a player to earn that 5 VP bonus? The rules don’t say so I contacted Andreas Steding himself. As he explained to me, Control Markers are a finite resource; if they run out, you get no other advantage other than the 2VP. If more than one person is to receive a Control Marker and can’t, the markers are awarded starting with the last player passing and moving backward through the passing order.

The strength of Five Points as a game lies in several areas. First off, it offers a lot of freshness each play. Neighborhood configuration changes each time you play. Two buildings (of the 9) appear in each game so there are always new challenges depending on which buildings appear. (There is also a variant that enables you to cycle through more buildings during a game.) Manipulation markers that appear will change from round to round too. Most importantly, the game provides a lot of interaction.

Virtually every move you make in Five Points significantly affects other players. Because you can only place one cube at a time on the board, overwhelming the opposition is difficult (although, admittedly, not impossible if you plan carefully). But strongarm tactics are not the only or even the advisable way to go. Finesse is important. Getting Bosses onto the board is critical, of course, as they are worth 5 VPs each and help you to get more cubes from your Boroughs to your Headquarters and onto the board. But Bosses are not invincible. Rabble of ALL players can still enter areas controlled by Bosses. If enough rabble show up, another election can happen there with an opposing player getting to place a Boss, replacing the Boss that was there and exiling the former Boss back to that player’s Headquarters. But elections need not be an all or nothing proposition. Yielding influence in a neighborhood where you cannot win to position yourself to capture Control Markers in bordering areas can be a viable winning strategy too. Manipulation markers, all beneficial to some extent, also present tough decisions. You can only get them by using your very limited supply of rabble and if you use rabble there, you cannot use them on the board itself. Judging the relative merits of those tiles with your neighborhood designs is another challenging consideration.

Five Points: Gangs of New York is a finely crafted game of planning, tough choices and high interaction. If Andreas Steding wanted to make a game to capture those qualities, then it is safe to say that he has made his points.

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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