Something about Martin Wallace games absolutely terrifies me. I don’t know if it’s the intricate theming, the complex mechanics, or the rabid Wallace fans, but his games just frighten me. However, every time I’ve played one, I’ve had a good time – Railroad Tycoon, God’s Playground, After the Flood and Steam are all really good games. And even Automobile and Brass (which I’ve only read the rules for) seem like very satisfying intellectual experiences. So I don’t know what my problem is. Maybe I just don’t want to become one of those rabid Wallace fans.
London is the latest offering from Wallace and his publishing company, Treefrog (formerly called Warfrog). Art for the game was done by Mike Atkinson, Peter Dennis, and Simon Jannerland. You can play with 2-4 people aged 10 and up in about 90 minutes. The historical backdrop for the game is the Great Fire of London. This fire raged for four days in September of 1666, and destroyed about 80% of the city. The rebuilding process obviously took a long time, and that’s what this game is about – not the fire, but the aftermath. The game covers approximately 250 years of history, and you will be in charge of building up the city. Now this in itself does not interest me. Then again, I’m not much of a history guy. However, I do really like interesting mechanics and the way they interact with the theme, so let’s see what this game has to offer.
In the game, you get a map of London that has spaces for cards. There are loan counters (in £10 and £40 increments). There are black poverty cubes (worth one poverty point) and black povert discs (worth five poverty points). There are VP counters (in increments of 1, 5, 10, and 20), as well as Underground counters. There are also money counters, in silver and gold. In the limited edition, these were made of wood, but in the standard edition, they’ll be plastic. There are building counters, eleven for each player. Again in the limited edition, there are wooden buildings for use in the game.
One of the things that makes this game unique in the Martin Wallace oeuvre is that there are cards. Typically, his games are all little bits, counters, and occasionally dice. There are 110 cards in this game, labeled A, B, and C to give the game a sense of passing time. Cards come in four varieties – brown (economic), pink (political), light blue (science and culture) and gray (paupers). A card may have a cost to play, a power granted upon building, an activation cost, activation effects, and a consequence of activation. There’s also a board that shows London divided into 20 boroughs. Each borough shows four pieces of information – the name of the borough, the cost to build there, the number of cards you get as a reward when building there, and the number of VPs you get if you have a building counter there at the end of the game. Also on the board is a poverty point chart that lets you know how many points you’re going to lose if you have poverty points at the end of the game, and a card display where discards will be placed.
Each player starts with a set of buildings, £5 and 5 poverty points. Cards are sorted by their back, with A on top, then B, then C. Each player gets a hand of six cards. The start player is chosen randomly. Game play proceeds with each player taking a turn until the card deck has been exhausted. On your turn, you will draw a card from the deck or the card display, and then you take ONE action. Your choices of actions are to play cards, run city, buy land, or take three cards. Before play passes, you must discard down to nine cards in your hand (if applicable). Discards always go face up in the card display. If the card display is full when you need to discard, remove all cards from the top row, move the bottom row to the top row, and place into the bottom row.
PLAY CARDS: Take as many cards as you want and play them in front of you. For each card you play, you must discard a card of the same color into the card display. You can’t play cards at any other time.
RUN CITY: You can activate some or all of your cards in your building display. Pay the cost (if any), then flip the cards if required. Flipped cards will never be used again. You may be gaining money, points, discarding poverty points, or activating the Undergroun (good for more points at the end of the game).
BUY LAND: Pay to place a building counter in a borough. You can only place one at a time, only one building can go in a borough, and you must build adjacent to another borough where there is a building (it doesn’t have to be yours).
TAKE THREE CARDS: Do you really need me to explain this one?
One thing you can almost always count on in a Wallace game is tight economics. If you ever need extra money, you can take a loan, which gets you £10. Loans cannot be paid off until the end of the game at £15. The game is almost over when the deck runs out. As soon as it does, everyone gets one more turn. You get points for boroughs where you have a building, cards in your building display, two bonus points for the Underground, and one VP for every £3 you have. Each unpaid loan loses you 7 points. Poverty points also lose you points based on the chart on the board, but you may get to discard a few. The player with the least poverty points discards them all, and all other players discard the same amount before calculating how many points they lose. The player with the most points after all of this is the winner.
From going through the rules, the theming is not quite as obvious as it is from a number of Wallace’s deeper games. In fact, it seems a little weak. However, I’m sure that the cards add a flavor that you just can’t get from the rules. It’s definitely a departure for Wallace. It’s nice to see him trying something different, but it doesn’t feel that original. I’m still interested in trying it out. I don’t know if I’d ever buy it for myself…I find it hard to get myself excited to play many of his games more than once. It goes back to that fear thing. I do think that the most replayable of his games are the ones that have the most random elements – Age of Steam, for example. Maybe this will fit into that mold. I’d encourage you to check it out. Take a look at the BGG page. If you’re ready to buy (and let’s face it…if you’re already a Wallace fan, you’ve already got it), it will cost about $55 once it actually ships to stores.
I tried not to get as in depth in this post as I’ve been getting in the past. I’m trying to just give a flavor of the game, I’m not really trying to teach it. Not that I’m even qualified for that. Thanks for reading, and insert clever tagline here.