The legacy game, as a concept, is 10 years old and My City is the first one I’ve seen that’s wholly, unabashedly humble. After Pandemic Legacy blew everyone’s mind, it seemed like everyone started working on their own legacy game, each promising a bigger, more thrilling experience than the last. Leave it to Reiner Knizia to find another way.
My City represents a fundamental shift in how I view the legacy format. Every legacy game I’ve played, from the aforementioned Pandemic, to Charterstone, to Gloomhaven, uses the idea of permanence as a means of creating stakes. If characters could die, or the geography of the world altered, you felt it more intensely than in other games. There are still people joking on twitter about the exaggerated horrors of ripping a card in half. Permanence creates drama.
My City couldn’t be less dramatic if it tried. It’s a simple, innocuous polyomino game that aesthetically fits alongside Kingdomino or Castles of Burgundy. It doesn’t bother with story beyond the broadest possible brush strokes. So why legacy? Is it a gimmick, attempting to snatch up the marginal dollar in an increasingly crowded marketplace? Emphatically not. Where every other legacy game I’ve played has used this peculiar design tool for the purpose of narrative, My City uses legacy elements for the purpose of iteration.
It makes sense in hindsight. Knizia has been doing this his entire career, just usually across multiple titles. Lost Cities lead to Schotten Totten, which lead to Battle Line and Keltis and others. He’s explored auctions every which way with Modern Art, Ra, and High Society. I’m probably missing a bunch of examples, because across his 600+ designs Knizia has never stopped tinkering. He finds a particular mechanism he likes and then fiddles with it until he’s found a half dozen different ways of expressing it, good for a half dozen more games. He’s like a composer writing variations on a theme.
To see this process play out through My City’s 24-game campaign brought a smile to my face. At first the rules are simple: place the polyomino pieces to cover up as much land as possible. Rocks are worth extra negative points and should definitely be covered up. Trees should be left exposed for bonus points. Each round someone flips the top card of the deck and that displays the piece everyone must place. You have to place next to a piece already on the board (or, on turn 1, next to the river that bisects the land).
Soon new rules are added. I’ll be vague here for the sake of spoilers, but we all know the color of the pieces are bound to become significant at some point. There are stickers–lots of them. Those border spaces with the innocent looking blank boxes? You know they’ll get a sticker, though you’ll have to wait a while for it.
My City never gets too comfortable. The moment you think you’ve figured it out–that you’ve got a plan for your space of where you’re going to put your pieces, Knizia gently, but firmly, pulls the rug out from underneath you. Often scoring conditions are in opposition to each other. You could theoretically go for both methods of scoring points, but it might be more prudent to try to specialize, raising your point floor while lowering the ceiling. I frequently tried to do both. I failed a lot. You should probably not follow my advice.
While iterative, My City is also quite safe, never venturing out too far beyond what you might expect with this sort of game. This is both an asset and something of a missed opportunity. On one hand you’ll never feel the sort of frustration that can plague legacy games where elements out of your control spring out from nowhere to ruin your long term plans. On the other hand the meta-elements are limp. Your goal is to get the most points, and you do that mostly by winning individual games. The story of My City might be called progressive or utopian if it wasn’t so slight. It doesn’t earn the right to such strong adjectives.
But really, who cares when the individual games are so interesting? I mean, I did, a bit. I shouldn’t have. But after taking a small lead in the first ⅓ of the campaign I progressively deteriorated in my ability to do well. A few times I might have raised my voice at the game, which is a ridiculous thing to do to something so innocent, much like shouting at a puppy.
I can see people getting too invested in My City, however, and dragging it down to a sluggish pace. If you play well on any individual game and get down to the bottom of the deck, you’ll be able to pre-plan where the rest of the pieces are going, making the last few cards a tidy clean-up. But if you can plan to that degree, you can plan further back.
You’re given a lot of information in My City; the only thing you don’t know is in which order the cards will come out. So you begin to make conditional plans. “If this piece comes before that one I’ll take this strategic path”, you mutter under your breath. One layer of conditional programming is manageable. Attempt two or more and you might find yourself frequently saying, “just give me a minute” to an increasingly irritated group of friends.
I wonder what it would be like to play through My City with a group where the expectation is intense, meticulous planning. The game certainly leaves room for it.
Playing through My City’s 24 stages has been the gaming highlight of the pandemic for me, however, because of how chill it is. Sure I got frustrated with my own play, but as I yelled at my meager point totals I couldn’t help but smile. What a ridiculous thing to get mad about. Maybe I needed something truly ridiculous to get mad about. When the world outside appears immense and uncertain, the simple, strict parameters of a game board can be a comfort.