Artist: Mike Atkinson, Natalia Borek, Peter Dennis, Simon Jannerland, Przemysław Sobiecki
London is the 4th Martin Wallace game we have played in back-to-back game nights as I attempt to replay all his designs I own and re-rank them. Previously, we have replayed Railroad Tycoon, Automobile and Liberte. Obviously, Wallace has many games to his credit, but these five games haven’t yet left my collection because each of these games bring something different to the table. Since I haven’t touched some of these games in years, they are all long overdue for a replay. I think each game is unique in its own way and all the five games I have are likely in the top half of the rankings on Board Game Geek. So, on to London.
London is a card game that takes place sometime after the Great London Fire in 1666. Players are architects of the city, trying to rebuild London from the ruins. Of course, there is a fair amount of poverty in the city, and like many other Wallace designs where players are penalized for “inefficiencies”, poverty is the main mechanism for which players can get a hefty penalty during end-game scoring if they are not being efficient. I have already professed my love for the historically themed games by Wallace, or by any other designer for that matter. London is no different. The theme centers around rebuilding the city with individual cards representing different facets of life including architecture, science, art, culture and politics. The artwork itself feels sombre and the palette a little dull, but that’s perfectly reasonable given the context of the game where London is struggling to rebuild from the ashes and life is harsh. Even the dull grey color of the main board felt as if the city is choking from the fumes and smog spewing from factories. It would be rather off putting if the game came in garish colors. I always felt the original games from Treefrog does a good job in balancing theme with artwork. I appreciate simple lines and appropriate color schemes that do not overpower the game by sacrificing function for aesthetics. Something which many modern reprints do. Anyhow, another excellent design choice by the publishers.
Back to the game. Players get to perform 4 actions each round. Before that though, players get to pick a card from the common display to replenish their hand. After that, players can perform the action. The first and most common action is to play cards, usually to your own personal tableau. There are cards with one-time powers which get discarded upon use. Player start with a hand of 6 cards and will play them to their personal space. To pay for the card, players must discard a card of the same color and also pay any additional card costs indicated on the card, usually in the form of money. Once the card is paid for, players must decide where to place the new card in the tableau. One can place the card on either a new location or previously played stack. If there are any cards on a preexisting stack, they are now eclipsed by the new card placed on top. Controlling the number of stacks in your personal tableau is an important part of the game. The more stacks you own, the more poverty cubes you will earn. More on that later. In this way, players can play as many cards as they want during their turn and at the end of their turn, they must have 9 cards or fewer on their hand.
A relatively unique mechanism of London revolves around paying cards in your hand to build in your tableau. Instead of discarding the card used as payment, one must put that card back in the display for other people to draft. In fact, except for cards with instantaneous powers that are removed from the game, any discarded card usually goes back to the draft display for other players to pick. This creates an extra layer of decisions because cards used as payment usually gets recycle into other players hands. This is particularly troublesome for a handful of take-that cards (hello Fire Brigade!). While you may not want it, you also don’t want other to play it. So card usage is all factored into the decision space each turn.
At some point, after playing cards into stacks, you will find yourself needing income. The only way to get money, and also score instant victory points is to choose the second action which is to “Run the City”. This action allows you to activate the cards in your tableau. You can choose which cards to activate. You can activate some, or all the cards. Some powerful cards also require payment for activation. Payment usually comes in the form of sacrificing another card in your hand or money. Mostly, cards will give you income, victory points or discarding poverty cubes. A handful of cards will gain you poverty cube as well. Once cards are activated, they are usually flipped over and never to be used again. Some cards with end-game victory points will still count during end game scoring, but most of the cards are useful only once. Running the city does come at a cost. While you get the benefits and points, the city poverty rates will continue to increase as the number of stacks you have plus the cards in your hand will earn you a poverty cube each. This is somewhat alleviated by owning boroughs as you get to subtract one poverty cube from the total for each piece of land you own.
So, how do you own land? Well, you do that by taking the third action of “Buying land”. This action allows you to purchase and place one of your tokens on the main board. By buying a borough, one gains VPs and also drawing additional cards from the tableau or draw deck. Of course, each borough have different costs and provide different number of victory points and cards. So, selecting which to purchase can be important. There are some geographical and spatial considerations as well for choosing which boroughs to purchase because some cards are activated based on where your tokens are situated. For example, some cards earn money based on whether you own land north or south of Thames. Others allow you build underground stations that are beneficial for you if they are in adjacent boroughs. So you may want to consider chaining your properties to facilitate building the underground. However, the spatial element of the game is relatively weak. Buying land is important for winning, but I think where they are located on the board is not nearly as critical.
The fourth and final action allows you to just draw three cards. I haven’t seen many people taking this action as buying land is almost always the preferred way to draw more cards. Nonetheless, it maybe a way to pick up more cards if you don’t have the money to buy land.
Players continue to carry out actions as the game goes around the table until the draw deck is depleted. The game then ends after one more round. Points are tabulated and the critical end game scoring here is figuring out the poverty points. Here, once again, I love how Wallace deals with inefficiencies. The player with the least amount of poverty cubes gets to throw out all their cubes and have no negative points. Each player then discard the same number of cubes as the lowest player and then calculate negative points based on a poverty table. The penalties can be hefty because with 10 cubes, you get -15 points with each additional cube after that, scoring a further -3 VPs. If you have 15 cubes, that is likely a game losing -30 points to your final score. Clearly, it is important to balance earning poverty cubes and making forward progress. Your score is only as good as the player with the fewest cubes. This is the emergent part of the game I love. If someone is conservative, then the tone of the game shifts and you can’t be the loose cannon, else you will lose. If everyone is going to town with poverty, then being too conservative may impede your progress. Although, I one strategy would be to hold back and do just enough while other rack up the penalties. The dynamics of the poverty cube elevates London from just another been-there-done-that. Again, just like the inefficiency cubes in Automobile, I think the poverty cubes makes London shine.
There are many things to like about London. It is a pretty straightforward card game that is not really engine building, since cards are mostly single use. Rather, it is a card game where you decide over the span of several rounds of activation, how the cards in your tableau can synergize and earn you maximum benefits. Each time you run the city, you need income and perhaps score some VPs. Removing poverty cubes can also be part of the priority if you want to force the game to be more conservative. It is the type of game where you decide how to best manage and optimize card play with what you are given. The main challenge of the game is to figure out which set of cards to play and also when to trigger activation since doing it too often is inefficient and draws a penalty of poverty cubes while waiting too long will choke you of income. Additionally, you want to make sure that during activation, your hand size is depleted as each card in your hand is worth one poverty cube. So, as they say, timing is everything.
There are also enough conflict oriented “take-that” cards, to make the game more interactive and interesting, but not enough to annoy folks who dislike conflict. I think the conflict cards are pretty mild overall and it shouldn’t be a huge negative factor. Additional layers of strategy come from deciding which cards to discard to the display, but I found that to be only a minor consideration. It is likely more of an impact for high value cards like the Omnibus or take-that cards. I did find that the game dragged some what with 4 players as there is not much to do between turns. The planning isn’t always that complicated and layered and I think most players will already have a decent idea of the next action they want to take. So, I think this game is probably fine with 3, perhaps even 2, but with 4, it does go a little slow between turns.
I do find that buying boroughs to be an important aspect of the game that cannot be ignored. Each borough will earn you points, get you cards, reduce poverty not to mention other spatial benefits with card play. There are just too many benefits from that one action to ignore. Plus, the cost of purchasing land is not that expensive. So, a land rush is almost always inevitable and I do think it is a minus given that the game is said to have multiple avenues for victory, but likely not without being a land owner. I wouldn’t be surprised if a runaway victory is possible if newcomers aren’t privy to this critical insight before playing.
I enjoy playing London every time it is pulled out from the cabinet. It is a decent card game with some intriguing mechanics. It is also thus far, the easiest to learn among all the Wallace designs I own. It is less novel in some ways, but also less mind-bending like Automobile where the entire game feels like a metagaming brain burner. I like that London is simple and intuitive, but perhaps not as fast as I would like it at higher player counts. I have other games of this type, but I do think the game remains on the keeper list.
Final word: Good