One of the best moments in gaming is when, after a heated game, you look around at your friends and catch the thought on their face that’s also on yours: let’s play this again. When I introduced The City to my weekly game night we played five times in a row. I suppose I could stop the review there, but that wouldn’t be telling the whole story. It’s not that The City is a perfect game; it contains too much randomness to be truly great. Instead, The City is precisely the kind of game you want to play repeatedly. It gets a hook in you, tempting you that maybe the next play will be the one where you dominate (or in my case merely win).
I’d never heard of this Tom Lehmann design before, but that’s probably because it was never printed in English. Now there’s a new Eagle-Gryphon production with some pleasant artwork to bring it to us English-speaking folks. Not we necessarily needed it for this almost entirely icon-based game, but I’m glad it has an opportunity to get more attention.
Like Lehmann’s hit Race For The Galaxy, The City uses cards as currency, something I’m warming up to. There’s a weird feeling associated with throwing away so many of your cards. It’s cruel. Usually a hand of cards is a bundle of hope full of possibility. I want to allow each card to reach its fullest potential! But in a Lehmann game I get to pick one or two and then toss the others aside as sacrifices to my progress. I used to find this annoying, but The City has seemingly cured me of my card affections. I’ll snuff out those underperforming cards without a second thought.
This snappy tableau game could hardly be a more simple engine builder without succumbing to thematic doldrums. Your only resource is your hand of cards. When you play them to your tableau they’ll give you points. Some cards work together in a synergistic fashion. You’ve seen everything here before, probably multiple times, but I doubt you’ve seen it so compact. After the first couple exploratory games you’ll be blitzing through The City in 10-15 minutes. Most games are 7-8 turns and everyone plays simultaneously.
The synergies are intuitive and soon you’ll start to strategize from what you see in your opening hand. “This is a safe move, but if I play this other card and get the right draw I’m in a much better place.” Softer synergies seem to work better–cards that get a small bonus when paired with another card or each other. There’s this “upscale” building combo that requires a string of prerequisite cards that I haven’t quite gotten to work yet. But everything is so clearly presented that I’ve already got a decent grasp of the different strategies from a handful of games.
It’s that strategic hope that drives my enjoyment of The City. If the game lasted even 10 minutes longer than it does I suspect it would become frustrating. Unless you get supremely lucky in your opening hand you’re going to be playing cards with the hope that you’ll draw into the right pieces later on. Either way there’s a lot of luck present. However, there are more and less risky strategies you can pursue, adding that push-your-luck spice.
Given the strategic-over-tactical nature of the game (not that there aren’t tactical decisions!) and the short playtime, The City is precisely the kind of game you want to play repeatedly. It’s almost got that trick-taking feel, where each game is merely a hand, one with good breaks or bad, but only part of the whole. That mentality gives you freedom to push the more variable strategies in hope of a big payout. Either way the game is short enough to house that thrill without any spare space for boredom or frustration.
The City works precisely because it’s so simple. Both visually and mechanically it reminds me of the brilliant Suburbia, but it takes that experience and smashes it into a bite size nugget–not as tasty as the original, but delicious in its own way.
Review copy provided by publisher