Built in a Day?

Review of board game La Città by Pevans

La Città is a complex game, but the ultimate goal is pretty straightforward. Players start with the beginnings of two cities and aim to end the game with the greatest population across their cities. Through the game players expand their cities and increase the number of citizens in each. In particular, they can attract population from other cities by best matching "the voice of the people". But they must be able to feed all their citizens each year. The combination of logistics, planning and interaction makes for a great game.

The game comes in one of Kosmos's square boxes and has a surprising heft to it. Inside is a substantial board, which has the playing area and a couple of tracks for laying cards out. The playing area is a mix of tracks of single hexagons around larger, triangular areas. Tiles representing different terrain types (farmland, lakes and mountains) go into the latter. Players build their cities in the tracks using the smaller, hexagonal tiles that represent different types of buildings. There are two decks of cards: Politics cards provide actions that players can make. Voice of the People cards are used to determine which "service" is in vogue: Culture, Education or Health. There are tokens for gold and for food, summary cards for each player and, finally, lots of small figures to represent the citizens. These may only be 15 mm in height, but they really add to the atmosphere (and look) of the game.

Setting up the board involves placing the terrain tiles - either randomly or according to the standard set-up for the number of players (smaller sections of the board are used with only 2 or 3 players). Then cards are set out: seven Politics cards and four Voice of the People cards. The Politics cards are face up, giving players a choice of card to take. The Voice cards are one face up and three face down: as the final "voice of the people" depends on the full set of four, players have some idea of what it may be, but cannot be sure. Each player has two cities on the board, starting with just the castle tile in their colour and three citizens on each. They take as many food tokens as the value of the farmland areas next to their castles. This is an important part of the game: at the end of each year players need as much food as they have citizens. The penalty is not only losing the excess population, but the handicap of having one less action in the next turn (or losing 5 victory points in the final turn - another neat touch).

The meat of each game turn is the five political rounds. Each player in turn takes one action, playing either one of their standard Action cards or taking and playing a Politics card. Wrapped around this is the administration. To start each turn, a new set of Voice cards is laid out, players gain gold for the quarries they have in play and each city gains an extra citizen - unless it has reached a limit for growth. After the political rounds, the voice of the people is tallied and citizens are then moved between cities -another important part of the game. Finally, players have to feed their people or take the consequences. The new turn begins with the starting player marker moving round.

The game ends when the Voice cards run out. This will happen after six turns, with three cards left over. This is a clever point as it means players can never calculate what the voice of the people will be - though they can work out the odds. Players then score points according to the total population they have. There is a bonus of 3 points for each city that has buildings of all three services (Culture, Education and Health). And the five-point penalty for anyone who has failed to feed their people in the last turn. The player with the most points wins.

Okay, back to those political rounds. In each round players can play one of their Action cards or one of the Politics cards and carry out the action. Each player has three Action cards, all of which are the same, but does not have to use them. They allow a player three options. To take two gold, to add a small building to one of their cities or to start a new city (players have a total of four castles with which to start cities). Using a Politics card is simple: take it and use it - but this often requires gold. The simplest of these allow players to build larger buildings. Other cards allow different actions: adding citizens, adding (temporarily) extra food tokens, taking a look at the hidden voice of the people cards and so on. A fresh Politics card is drawn from the pack to replace the card used.

Expanding cities is clearly the key element of the game. This is done by placing the appropriate tile on the board, adjacent to an existing tile of the city, and moving a citizen to the new tile. No spare citizen, no extra building. Cities are also limited in the number of citizens: a maximum of five if there isn't a market, up to eight without a 'water source' building - fountain or public baths. As a further restriction, these two buildings must be placed next to lakes. Finally, cities cannot link up - there's a tactical nuance here in restricting other players' cities by expanding towards them.

Buildings also provide additional resources for cities. The basic buildings are farms, which add to the player's food capacity if they are adjacent to farmland tiles, and quarries, which produce gold if they are adjacent to mountain tiles. Other buildings have 1-3 hoops in the colour of a particular service: Culture/white, Education/black, Health/blue. (Another tactical nuance is that the hospital provides one hoop each of blue and black, useful to get a head start in two colours as well as two steps towards having all three colours in the city.) The number of hoops in a colour is significant when the voice of the people is revealed: one service (or possibly two services) will predominate. If two cities are close enough, the city with the higher number of hoops in the predominant service (player's choice if two) will attract a citizen from the other city. This is done for all cities round the board.

Given that the main source of victory points at the end of the game is population, this is a crucial mechanic. If you can consistently attract population to your cities, you not only increase your own standing, you are hampering them. Having citizens taken away from you means you don't have the surplus to enable you to expand your cities and compete with the neighbour who's draining your resources. If this happens for several turns, you are in serious trouble.

The other implication of citizens moving between cities is that you have to estimate what your population will be in order to make sure you have sufficient food to feed them. The handicap for failing to feed all your citizens is sufficiently nasty that you really want to avoid it. It also means that, if you have cities that dominate in particular services, you need to invest in additional farms to make sure you have the food resources. On balance, being able to gain citizens is best, so building up your cities' service value is important (one decision to make here is which cities to build up - do you try to develop them all or concentrate?). This takes gold, so building quarries to provide gold is important - and something that should be done early on to maximise the income.

As you can see there are conflicting demands on players' resources and decisions have to be made. Do you build quarries for gold, farms for food or larger buildings for services? And do you concentrate on a particular service or a mix (remember that bonus for having all three services in a city at the end of the game)? But then you need marketplaces and water sources to continue expanding… So logistics and planning play a major part in the game. This, too, has to be balanced with the need to respond to what other players are doing.

So what we have here is a complex game that requires players to take account of many things and how they interrelate. You have to think ahead and to react to circumstances. You are constantly limited by the options available - the number of actions, the amount of gold, the Politics cards on show. All of which means that players are faced with hard decisions to make. Competition is fierce and the game often ends in a close result.

I have played this game some half a dozen times and don't feel that I have mastered it yet. In the first games I ignored the voice of the people, on the basis that, other things being equal, I was just as likely to gain citizens as lose them. But this is a crucial part of the game: you can't ignore it. The Politics card that allows you to look at (some or all of, if you are prepared to pay) the Voice of the People cards can be very useful here. However it takes one of your precious actions, so you have to decide whether it's worth it. Of course, this is something that is more valuable the earlier in the turn you do it, so that you have time to make use of the information. In the first couple of turns cities are far enough apart that the voice of the people is not likely to have any effect, so looking at the hidden cards is pointless. This also means that building up services in your cities is not a priority at the start of the game.

Having gold is also important as it can be used for so many things. All of these are to do with the Politics cards. Some of them, like the larger buildings, require gold to use; others, like the card that lets you look at the Voice cards, are more powerful if you spend gold. For this reason it makes sense to build quarries and to build them early in the game to get the most income from them. A tip: look for an opportunity to place quarries next to two mountains so that they produce two gold each turn. This is very powerful, but can only be done in the three-player standard set-up or with the random set-up. Which brings me to a problem I have with the random set-up. By its very nature this will produce layouts of the board that make the sequence in which players start the most important thing in the game. I've already mentioned the effect of multiple mountains. Another is the effect of having all the lakes clustered in one area. Only cities that can get adjacent to these are going to be able to expand above 8 citizens. So I would like to see some guidelines on the tile placement to avoid extreme layouts: say, no more than two lakes adjacent to each other, ditto mountains, and no value two farmland tile adjacent to the value three farmland.

The luck element in the game is fairly small, but it can be significant. The voice of the people is the major part of this, clearly. This can be countered by using the appropriate Politics card to look at the cards, of course. What you can't affect is the selection of Politics cards that is available. If the card you want to use is not there, there's nothing you can do about it. So you have to tailor your tactics to what is available. Similarly, you have to adapt to what your opponents are up to.

All in all, though, I am very impressed by this game. It is a distinct challenge, while remaining great fun to play. I recommend it highly.

La Città was designed by Gerd Fenchel and published in Germany by Kosmos and in the USA by Rio Grande Games. It is for 2-5 players and takes 1-2½ hours to play. Pevans rates it 10/10.
This review is due for publication in Games Games Games 151.

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