Osprey Games (Samurai Gardener, The Ravens of Thris Sahashri, Escape from the Aliens from Outer Space, The Lost Expedition) has published a second edition of Martin Wallace’s seminal tableau builder, London, and it is absolutely gorgeous. Just to start off on a high note this game is elegant in presentation from the book box (it opens from the spine just like a book) to the card’s delightful and surprisingly bright color palette. In London, players take the role of architects attempting to rebuild London in the decades following the devastating Great Fire of 1666. Each player will develop and run their city, purchase land, and manage poverty efficiently while earning prestige to win.
To stumble into the vernacular, London is a card-driven city building game with an appeal and look but not the persistence of an engine builder. If you enjoy the card-play in games like San Juan or Imperial Settlers but desire just a bit more depth, London will satisfy. Players will spend most of their time playing cards into a personal tableau in order to generate money, mitigate poverty, and generate prestige for the architects of London. It’s a simple game to explain with a quick teach and a moderate amount of depth to explore.
Players are dealt 6 city cards at the start of the game — each with a variety of costs, abilities, and benefits. City cards come in three colors (blue, pink, or brown) and represent different businesses, improvements, buildings, and artisans that will make your city run smoothly. Brown cards represent economic activity. Blue cards represent science and culture. Pink cards relate to politics. However, in order to play a card into your tableau, you will have to discard a card of the same color into the development board. Since cards can be drawn from the deck or the development board, this will provide the card to other players during future turns. Pauper cards are also floating around which can only be discarded through other card actions or when forced to discard down to the hand limit.
On a player’s turn, they draw one card from the development board or the city card deck and then do one of the following:
1) Develop their city, 2) Buy land, 3) Run their city, or 4) Draw three cards.
When a player develops their city they are playing cards in front of them. In order to do so, they need to discard a card of the same color and potentially pay any additional costs. In the picture below, the Hospital card could be played when another blue card was discarded and 2 pounds payed to the supply. Players can play as many cards as they are able on their turn but can’t stack cards on top of each other on the same turn. They will need to wait until another turn to do that.
Buying land is simple. Players have a market of three borough cards on display each with a monetary cost and a list of benefits for purchasing the land (extra cards, prestige points, and removing poverty cubes). Some borough cards also provide an additional ongoing ability for players. Each borough card has icons representing the location of the borough (North or South) and whether it is adjacent to the Thames River.
If you already have a borough purchased, the newly purchased borough card will cover any abilities of the previous borough, leaving only the name and the location uncovered. Thus, only the ability of the most recently purchased borough can be activated while still keeping track of the locations.
When a player decides to run their city, they can activate any (or all) the cards in their tableau. Some cards require an additional activation cost (discarding a card or paying a fee) while others have no cost. If you don’t have enough money at any point in the game, are unable to pay a penalty or just wish to push ahead, you can get a loan token and 10 pounds. At start of any future turn you have the ability to pay off the loan and return the token for 15 pounds. Most cards can only be activated once and then flipped over. After the desired cards are activated and benefits are collected, the player gains one poverty for each stack of cards in his tableau, one for each card remaining in his hand, and one poverty for each loan token in front of him.
Play continues until all the cards in the city deck are drawn. Players then count all the prestige points in their tableau (it doesn’t matter if the cards are flipped over or not), points for left over money, and take penalties for any outstanding loans and poverty.
Osprey did a wonderful job of updating and reprinting this 7 year old classic. Yes, I know … “classic” doesn’t really apply here but in hobby board game years are like dog years. Every human year equals 5 board game years so this game is *actually* 35 years old. While the core mechanisms are the same, there are some significant differences from the first edition that greatly affect gameplay if you are familiar with the first edition.
Most apparent, the first edition map is removed and replaced with the market of borough cards. Additionally, some card actions that related to the map were modified and included on the borough cards. Boroughs no longer persistently reduce the poverty except for the initial purchase. Any unpaid loans will also further generate poverty after you run your city.
Poverty has a much more significant factor in the second edition of the game. This is not particularly surprising in a Martin Wallace game. His games can be punishing and seems to take great joy in dashing my hopes and dreams against the jagged edge of a black cube, outstanding loans, or plague rats. Poverty can generates quickly after running a city, and can only really be significantly reduced by purchasing borough cards and some C Deck cards that come late in the game. Poverty is a wonderful balancing act that provides a nice amount of tension between the desire to keep your city neat and tidy or wide and sprawling. In reality, poverty seems more punishing than it actually is. Players are completely fine accumulating poverty as long as all the players are closely grouped together. If one player can actively reduce poverty dramatically, that dynamic will change abruptly though so keep some cards at the ready just in case.
The new artwork is gorgeous. The packaging is beautiful. Osprey really made this game look elegant enough for an actual bookshelf. Iconography and graphic design are intuitive and simple and a ready reference on back cover of the rules book helps out new players.
This game is accessible, tense, not overly punishing, and cards don’t really combo to devastating effects — it is less of an engine builder and more a tactical tableau builder. You can certainly optimize but that feature of really being able to bury an opponent just doesn’t exist. This is a game of balance rather than offense. You can grow your city to a sprawling size if you think you can handle the poverty or you can keep it neat and tidy and hope it is just enough to beat some of your more daring opponents.
London has a firm footing in my cadre of games to use when I plan on introducing new players to more strategic games at the library. It has a nice ratio of decision space to complexity. It is easy to teach the basics but will take at least 3-4 games to get an optimal strategy. It plays a bit longer than most gateway games but doesn’t overstay its welcome. It isn’t forgiving to new players and experience certainly will prevail. However, the gameplay isn’t too combative and there is a certain satisfaction in developing a good city and keeping poverty at a minimum.
As a circulating “deeper” strategy game, London is a great fit. It is mostly cards with some small, easily replaced bits and tokens so checking in and out is simple enough. The theme is easily understood and accessible. The teach is simple enough to provide a quick overview at the circulation desk but the depth of strategy is wider than most gateway games. It plays well for the entire player count (2-4). I’ve enjoyed watching this game played by emerging gamers. By the first running of the a city, they will have the basics of the game well under control and by the second play will have a handle on the strategy. If there is such as thing as a gateway Wallace, this is is. London is a must have for any library. Buy it.