Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Roman Kucharski
Publisher: Rebel Studio
As a long time fan of Reiner Knizia games, I approached San Francisco with slight trepidation. Many high profile designers can hang their hats on developing a brand new mechanism or help to popularize it. Knizia is no different. But few if any have continue to evolve like Knizia by incorporating current ideas and elements into their latest games while holding true to their core design principles. It may be easy to duplicate or extend a mechanism, but much harder to tear it apart and take aspects of it to create a brand new experience.
Is San Francisco Reiner Knizia’s version of take-and-make?
Take-and-make games commonly feature tiles or cards that are drafted by players to assemble their individual point scoring engines. Typically, these games are low interaction, low conflict with the focus being on the individual effort. They are very popular these days and it is not hard to understand its appeal. During play, your eyeballs are mostly trained on your personal space as you try to optimize scoring either by reorganizing your pieces, or to hunt for synergy in scoring. In the most extreme of cases, you rarely acknowledge your opponents and have no clue what everyone else is doing. There is some comfort in developing your own strategy without having to fight others for it. After a brief glance of San Francisco rules, I was under the impression that San Francisco was Knizia’s take on a take-and-make.
On paper at least, the game is all about placing cards in rows and then picking them up to place in personal boards – all hallmarks of takes and makes. True, there are some variations and restrictions to placement and pickups of cards, but then, most takes and makes also feature tweaks and novelty to the selection process. Ultimately, regardless of how tiles or cards are selected, every player ends up assembling their pieces in their personal tableau to score points in multiple categories of scoring. Again, I was thrown off by San Francisco’s central board that show an array of scoring options. Points are awarded for first to complete each district, then area majorities, then Catan-style struggle to build the
longest road tallest skyscrapers, then the largest network of connected train car tracks, etc. In all, the first reading of the rules rang some alarm bells.
In reality, San Francisco plays nothing like a take-and-make because the central feature of that genre of scoring individual tableau is absent here. Players don’t really tabulate points from their boards but rather must compete for all the points up for grabs. There is really no reason to stare at your own board for long, but it is imperative that you look at other boards to help guide your decision for project card placement. In fact, the individual boards can be dispensed with and serve only as a visual reminder for the order of the colored districts from top to bottom, with regards to project card placement. In the strictest of sense, most of the components can be thrown out and all you need is the deck of project cards and a scoring sheet to jot down in game scoring. In short, the game is far from a take-and-make and I was misled by the game components and the turn structure of game play.
Simple rules, limited options but with wide ranging implications
The entire exercise of placing and picking up cards from each column is to score points. While there are several scoring categories, they largely fall into two parts – in game and end of game scoring. For in game scoring, there is a racing aspect to it. Everyone is rushing to complete each of the 5 colored districts by filling up the five slots with project cards. Five points, one for each district, is awarded to the first player to complete each of the districts. There is also a race to complete skyscrapers as well. Here, the player with the most skyscrapers is awarded the master builder worth 1 point at the end of the game. To take that medal away means building one more skyscraper than the front runner. The other type of scoring is the area majority scoring at the end of the game for each district and also the player with the most developed train network. Overall, points are hard to come by in this game, and the winner might be someone who scores in the low to mid teens.
As far as Knizia-designed games go, San Francisco has one of the simplest of rule set: each round, you either draw a card from the deck and place them in one of three designated columns, or you can choose to pick up all the cards in the column and place them in their respective districts on your board. That’s it. Each time you choose to pick up cards, you must take a certificate which restrict future pickups. You can only choose a column where the number of cards are more than the number of certificates you own. In other words, if you have one certificate, you can only take cards from columns with two more cards. This locks you out from certain columns and allows your opponents to catch up. It also prevents you from gobbling up all the good options every round. Once all players have at least one certificate, the baseline is reset as everyone discards one certificate back to the central pool. This is a pretty neat system, and one that clearly differentiates itself from a take and make because you have to peer at all the individual boards at play to figure out optimal card placement. This consideration also varies between different player counts. With 2 players being a zero sum game, the need to play defensively increases.
Would I rather be playing Coloretto instead?
San Francisco’s “draw vs. take” round structure has been compared to Michael Schacht’s Coloretto’s. It is true that strictly speaking, the actions are similar, but the decision tree is a lot more complex in San Francisco just based on the more diverse scoring opportunities. In Coloretto, there is a cap for the number of cards that can be placed in each row. There is none in San Francisco which initially got me all excited about metaplay and group dynamics and how that may induce some groups to collectively increase the length of cards in each column before claiming them. In practice, I am not sure this will play out. For one thing, most cards are valuable one way or another, unless you have completed an entire district. So, players tend to place a pretty high valuation for most cards during early stages of the game. This means I have yet to see anything beyond three cards in a column before they get claimed. Because bonus points are awarded for a race to complete districts, if you want to be competitive for these points, you cannot hold back for too long. This was a little disappointing for me. As far playing Coloretto instead of San Francisco because it is a stripped down version of the game, the mechanisms and the choices between both games are too different to be lumped together for comparison. In short, I do not think of Coloretto when playing San Francisco in the same way that I think of Coloretto when playing Zoloretto. These two games share only a passing similarity in the way cards are handled. The decision space is entirely different between these two games.
The decision space each turn is not complicated, and honestly, quite limited in some ways. Yet, even with the barebone selections, San Francisco still manages to make your head hurt each turn, considering the variables. As with his other games, Knizia does not obfuscate the opportunity costs for each action as the options are clearly laid out, transparent for all to see: by going for cards in column A to expand your orange district, you forgo the high value blue district cards that give you a skyscraper discount; by choosing to extend your train car network, you miss out on the city square that would complete your skyscraper in the grey district and also allow your opponent a chance to pick up that same card to complete theirs…… and on and on it goes. Your main job in this game, is to figure out priorities and weigh each action for the benefits they bring to you, the costs for not doing so and its impact on other players. Easier said than done.
My first few sessions of San Francisco have been satisfying despite losing all of them. I felt engaged at every moment and deeply invested in the actions taken by all players. However, the feedback from other players has not been glowing. One common gripe is the lack of choices in choosing an action: if you draw a card, you are forced to place it somewhere that will be picked up by others. That’s it. You don’t get to do much and most of the time, you don’t even get a choice if forced to draw a card. Moreover, if you pick up cards, you don’t have a choice for placement, except for the wild cards. Cards have to be placed from left to right on the district board. Yet another comment I get is that the game is “dry” I do see where that is coming from, but being a Knizia fan, I am biased. It is true that compared to other games, even for Knizia, you do not have a lot of options. You really only have four possible actions: draw and place in column 1, column 2, column 3 or pick up cards. That is not going to sit well with some players. As always, at issue here is not really limited choice, but being able to rapidly untangle the pros and cons of a decision and decide which ones to prioritize among the handful of options. Figuring out the ramifications of each action is what drives the game and you need to enjoy the process if you are to enjoy San Francisco.
All told, I do like San Francisco, but fear that it is unlikely to hit the table often. This in turn will lower my overall rating for the game as I end up considering how the game plays not only for me, but overall as a group. I want to find games that others enjoy and there is no shortage of other Knizias that can fill the niche. It is lamentable, but San Francisco might be one those those I-like-it-but-others-don’t type of game, which also means you should try it before buying it.