London (2nd Edition) Review

I was at the wonderful PAX Unplugged earlier this month, and I was able to share the experience with some friends I hadn’t seen in a while. I’ve been dabbling in Magic The Gathering Arena recently, and I enjoy the occasional draft, but these friends are capital-P MtG Players. They’ve got elaborate commander decks, understand the ins and outs of the secondary market, and attend regular MtG events. They’re even working on becoming judges.

I wanted to play some magic with them at PAX, and we settled on doing a “chaos” draft. So we discussed how one might strategize in a draft deliberately created to cause chaos. During the discussion I realized that when I draft I always tend to end up with a sort of midrange tempo-y deck. I would play the same sorts of decks in Hearthstone, typically (I liked ramping up with the Druid, but it was still about maintaining board control). In Netrunner, while my favorite and most successful corp deck was an aggressive, fast build, on the runner side I preferred slower, efficient decks that tried to slowly build upon small advantages until my opponent was in a position where they couldn’t win.

There’s probably some kind of psychological profiling I could do here adjacent to the Timmy/Johnny/Spike paradigm. I don’t want to defeat my opponents with a flourish–no combos or relentless aggression. I just want them to slowly realize the inevitability of their own defeat.

That sounds a bit psychopathic, now that I write it out loud, but my point is this: I think I have a preference for games that have a similar feeling. Games that don’t necessarily have huge combo potential or dramatic engine building appeal to me. I love the feeling that each play, in a marginal way, matters in and of itself. Not because it’s a key part of an intricate machine, but because I’ve simply identified a good move. I think it’s part of the reason I like Tokaido so much, or The Castles of Burgundy.

The second edition of Martin Wallace’s London embraces this feeling without compromise. The restrained box art makes it look like a package that ought to be holding a cravat rather than a game. It’s an object that seems like it would fit into the decor of a parlour (whatever that is). It’s a sturdy package, with a kind of stereotypical tight-lipped British austerity about it. Whenever I pull London off the shelf I feel underdressed.

The cards have attractive but unflashy sort of watercolor-ish images on them of stately streets and buildings. I actually had to go double-check because I had the impression that all of the outdoor images displayed an overcast sky, but in fact they’re all blue-skied, just in a kind of dreary grey way. So, you know, it fits. I actually quite like the look of London. It’s not flashy, some may call it dreary, but we’ve been in such a race to the bottom with ostentatious game components lately (particularly in the minis/kickstarter front) that I find a deliberately restrained style a fresh break from the norm. My only problem is that the font size of the card text is much too small and difficult to read even when the cards are in the middle of the table.

London’s stiff appearance disguises some genuine twists in what otherwise is a fairly typical tableau-building card game. You’ll play cards in front of you, getting money and victory points and…that’s about it. Forget about a resource system even as simple as one in a game like 7 Wonders. Here you spend money to play cards to get money to play more cards. Somewhere along the line you need to turn that into points, which you get by playing cards.

What makes London interesting isn’t some sort of complicated Euro resource system, but three simple details that morph your decision-making process in curious ways. The first, most obvious wrinkle is the fact that your tableau doesn’t do anything at all until you spend a turn running the city and reaping its rewards. Until you pull the trigger, your tableau is in a state of suspended taxis, doing nothing but teasing you with the promise of reward. It’s like those tests with children and marshmallows, where the longer you wait the bigger the inevitable payoff is. But as you wait your resources drain, forcing your hand. So your run your city and bring in the riches. Most of your cards will flip over upon activating, leaving an empty tableau spot in their wake (what’s the thematic reasoning for this–are you getting use out of the buildings and public squares, only to demolish them?)

Along with the money and VP’s you’ll get from your freshly bulldozed city, you’ll also be rewarded with a handful of evil black poverty cubes. As we all know, there’s nothing more menacing to a proper English entrepreneur than poor people. They get all up in your business, being poor and stuff, and you need to figure out how to get rid of them. Effective ways are prisons, where you can get them out of sight, and streetlamps, because apparently poor people hate light.

In all seriousness, it’s called “poverty” and not “poor people” for a reason, and it’s not difficult to see what kinds of buildings and programs can help alleviate poverty itself by creating a more flourishing micro-economy/polity. But frankly it’s more fun to play London pretending that you’re a Dickensian villain named Cornish Poundcake.

City-running and poverty create this tidal rhythm to the game, where you build up, reap rewards and detriments, then retreat to figure out how to rebuild most effectively. It’s sort of relaxing for a while, though you will quickly realize that you’re running out of time and shouldn’t dally around. You’ll also figure out after your first game that you actually have to figure out how to get victory points, as it’s very easy to go along trying to swat down that pesky poverty and to pay for the next round of cards without ever scoring points along the way.

Poverty and tableau-running are the two most obvious quirks in London, but I think there’s a third element that’s equally compelling, and it has to do with discarding. Typically this is an afterthought–cards go into a singular discard pile, usually never to be seen again. But London has a system by which people can snag discarded cards before they’re unavailable. And since every time you play a card into your city you must discard another card of the same color, they’re coming and going at a rapid pace. All discarded cards enter a holding area where they can be drawn again anytime someone draws a card. If that space fills up, the bottom row is stashed away.

Other than allowing people to claim the cards you don’t value and therefore adapt to different strategies, this discard mechanism allows the players, collectively, to dictate the pace of the game. I love it. It reminds me of the shifting timeline in Through the Ages, but it’s possibly even more important here, as you need to precisely time your last couple of plays to not get stuck with a bunch of poverty. It’s a tightrope balance, and in a game where you are largely doing your own thing without any regard to your opponents for most of the playtime, the endgame comes like a jolt when you realize that you’re suddenly on one side of a multi-party tug-of-war over determining the stopping point.

Unfortunately that’s essentially the only point of player interaction in the game. London feels introverted. You’re your own individual city manager, puzzling out your best construction, and quietly reaping the rewards. There aren’t any extravagant combos or card synergies. In fact, the cards themselves are sort of flat. One might give 5 pounds, another 6. One reduces a poverty, provides 3 pounds, and one victory point. The other reduces a poverty, provides 1 pound, and 2 victory points. I think that dullness is going to drive away some people, but I don’t mind it so much.

While occasionally I will wish that London provided more excitement, it’s really a game that fits me like a well-used glove. London runs at a comfortable pace, where I can sit down for an hour, clear my mind, and sink myself into its simple, humble, calculatory charms.

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Score: 8/10

Summary

+Wonderfully constructed tableau building
+Unique cadence to the game I’ve never seen before
-Cards aren’t particularly exciting

More Info

1-4 Players

Length: 1-2 Hours

Learning Curve: 3/5

Brain Burn: 3/5

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