Board in the Stacks: London Second Edition

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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Running a City: Player earned 15 pounds, 2 prestige points, and used the Hospital card to keep the Covent Garden active for another run. They additionally generated 4 poverty for the 4 stacks of cards in their city and 2 poverty for the 2 cards still in their hand.

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.

Review:

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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

Board in the Stacks: Hatsuden

In Hatsuden, the new two-player game from Japanese games publisher Itten, you are competing energy companies jockeying for control of five renewable resources: Solar, Geothermal, Wind, Hydro, and Biomass. While competing you maintain your cities’ optimum amount of power. Too much power and you may control a specific resource but won’t provide the optimal amount of power to your cities. Too little power you lose control of a resource and may under-power your cities .

At the end of the game, players earn one point for each renewable energy they control and one point for each of the cities they supply with 10 units of power (after subtracting one point for any city receiving 8 or less units of power). The player with the most points wins. 

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Competing on the deck for control over hydopower.

Each player starts their turn with a hand of five cards (each card is suited to one of the five resources, and numbered 1-4 with two of each card) and can do one of the following options:

  1. Construct a power plant by placing a card on any open space of the card’s corresponding renewable resource.  
  2. Upgrade a power plant by placing a corresponding power plant card over an already existing plant of a previous generation (lower number). When you upgrade a plant to a generation of 4, you get to draw a special technology card.
  3. Construct a pylon by placing a card face down on any empty space.
  4. Place nothing and trash one card face-up to the discard pile.

After a card is played, they choose a card either from the draw or discard pile and play moves to the opponent. This continues until one player is able to fill all ten of the spaces in their tableau.

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Hold those heavy cards until the end of the game. I see pylons happening here.

After one play of the game it will be obvious that Hatsuden has taken inspiration from a pair of very successful 2-player Knizia designs – Lost Cities and Battleline (cf. Schotten Toten). Hatsuden removes the instant win conditions from Battleline, replacing them with a traditional point system. Gaining control of the each of the power sources is based upon the sum of the cards placed in the column rather than poker hands. This simplifies the game game-play significantly. I mean, sure, sums are easier than poker hands but I mean it really makes a difference.

As a result, Hatsuden almost seems too straightforward: you play a card and draw a card. However, the snappy gameplay does not negate that there is an enjoyable depth of play for a 30 minute simple tableau building game. There is also an added complication of a two tiered scoring system that balances out the gameplay. It isn’t simply a matter of going higher than your opponent. You need to balance between a head to head battle to gain control over each renewable energy source with providing the optimum amount of power to your two cities. Battleline was always a bit to confrontational for me and Hatsuden rounds those edges just enough for me. Be gentle with me, I’m sensitive.

I also enjoyed the ability to place pylons (basically placeholders) which negates the ability to count cards and mitigates the analysis paralysis that is so often an issue in Battleline. I can stare at a hand of Battleline for whole *minutes* trying to do the mental calculus to gauge my best move while in Hatsuden 2-4 placed pylons pretty much knocks the math right out of my head. This leads to a more subtle game of finesse and bluffing where the stronger cards are held back and players slowly inch forward in gaining control. The Special Technology Cards are similar to the Tactics Cards in Battleline. They add some small amount of flexibility but are much simpler.

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The Special Technology Cards

Bottom Line: If you love Oink Games, Battleline, and prefer stark, minimalist iconography and artwork, then Hatsuden a great fit. The point system is layered providing some depth but is still extremely easy to teach. It is tiny and takes up very little space making it a perfect pub game.