Tuesday, September 24, 2013

London: Martin Wallace Superior, I am Inferior

I had the opportunity to play London a few weeks ago.

To protect the names of the innocent, I will use aliases.

On my left was Rygar, on my right was Brod.

Ahead of me lay the city of London, smoking still from the ravages of the Great Fire. The city must be rebuilt! But buildings and districts are never cheap, and the stink of poverty whiffs around every corner. My poverty stunk worse than most.

Each turn you can do one of 3 things:

1. build buildings
2. run (activate) buildings
3. buy territory


You have a hand of cards in front of you which represent potential buildings. You need a pair of the same color to build a building so there is some collection aspect to the game. The starter buildings are free to play (as long as you have a pair) but the further along you go the most expensive (and more powerful) the buildings in the deck become.

Buildings might earn you money, reduce poverty, win victory points and more. But to get their benefits they must be activated.

Running the Town (Activating)

Instead of building, you could instead "run" your existing structures and use their abilities. Many of the buildings are one-time effects. After you run them they flip over permanently and you can then build on top of them next turn. Other buildings cannot be flipped (and so you gain their benefit for multiple turns) but also provide a much smaller effect.

Money is an odd sort of duck…most of the buildings that generate money represent a one-time windfall. You activate the relevant building, gain a small pile of mega-pounds and then flip the building over, never to see it again.

Its a big step in a different direction from most games, where you are revving up an economic engine as the game moves forward. London gives you money in fits and spurts, and then sends you back to zero when your fishmonger gets paved over to build a school.

Then, at the end of the "run," you get to calculate how much poverty your little slice of london dumps into your lap. Poverty in this game is an ever-present thing. Much like pollution in other games, poverty is a natural byproduct of running your city.

Poverty is calculated as (number of your buildings) - (districts owned) + (cards in hand). You don't want to have a bunch of cards in your hand when you decide to do business!

Finally, the game lets you buy territory. Territory costs a fixed amount of cash, and awards both cards and victory points. And as previously mentioned, territory helps soak up the poverty constantly leaking out the back end of your industrial production.

How the game is supposed to be played:

You are dealt a hand of cards to start with, so everyone starts building first thing. You don't start with enough money to buy a district, so the next thing you will probably do is activate your buildings. But don't activate your buildings until you have gotten rid of most of your cards!

Once you've earned some money, buy territory. You get a bunch of cards when you do this.

Then, build more buildings. Then activate them. And so forth until the game ends and you could up your victory points. This is what Ryan and Brad did, and they earned many many beautiful victory points rebuilding the city of London.

The horrible things I did instead:

Once I have it all typed out, the play of the game seems pretty simple. But when I started it did not seem as such. What you have to watch out for is doing any of the previous activities too early. If you activate your cards while you still have cards in your hand, many different calamities happen. You get more poverty. You get less money. You get less of any ability you could have possibly played. And you still have cards in your hand to get rid of! You will never get that chance back to use your cards quite as effectively.

I was tempted to avoid adding too many buildings to my tableau since each built building adds to your poverty score. But since cards in hand also does the same you should get rid of your cards ASAP. And since each building uses 2 cards to be put into play, you are reducing potential poverty just by playing the cards.

Because I played fewer cards at the beginning, I received less money. And as the game progresses, my perception was that it became harder and harder to earn any money. The big cards you find towards the bottom of the deck all cost a lot of money. And I didn't see as many effects to award much money back into my coffers. So I should have saved, saved, saved!

The single most card I didn't really use to good effect was the Hospital. These cards allow you to copy the effect of another building card once, essentially getting the same benefit twice. If you can find a big enough benefit, the Hospital can be HUGE.

At the end, I had a mitt of 9 cards (the maximum) and no money to play any of them. And at the end of the game, I got 9 more poverty points added to my total because of this, resulting in a poverty score that was actually off the handy chart printed on the board.

When the dust settled, I had 3 points. Rygar had over 60, and Brod had over 50.

Playing London, I am most reminded of my previous plays of Pret-a-Porter. You have to understand the economic system ahead of time, otherwise you will bomb out as you explore its many rules. Of course, both of the other players picked it up pretty easy. But that's neither here nor there! Also like Pret-a-Porter, there's NO forgiveness once the ball gets rolling. Missed opportunities not only punish you for missing them, they further punish you in your ability to develop your city on subsequent turns. Don't do anything wrong, ever.

But in spite of all this, I will call London to the mat if I ever see it available to play again. After sleeping on the situation I had a couple of epiphanies I would love to someday follow up on.

1) Don't be afraid to take out loans! Loans are terrible, it is true. You have to pay them back by the end of the game otherwise you get a 7 point penalty. And you have to pay 50% interest when you DO pay them back. On the other hand, they can sometimes be the least terrible option you have open. They are WAY better than ending up with a bunch of cards in your hand you can't use. Unused cards earn you poverty points and probably provide ways to eliminate poverty, or at least gain some victory points. The absolutely worst thing to do is do nothing.

2) Don't build structures that don't "turn over" early in the game, or build them but don't get too attached to them. Feeling like you are unable to pave over a building hampers your further development, prevents you from getting rid of cards and thus increasing your poverty. Keeping a Street Light that can remove 2 poverty points is insignificant if you can play 2 cards to pave over it with something else that will ALSO get you some benefit, reduce your hand by 2 cards, and prevent 2 extra poverty from being ADDED to your pile at your next activation.

3) Save your money! So many things in this game cost money. And money is always in such sparse supply. You almost never have continuing income. It comes in little windfalls that you need to HOLD ON to until the exact right thing to invest in. You will need cash in the late game to play most of the high victory point cards, and it will be difficult keep your accounts filled until they come around.

Lodon is a don't-mess-around board development game. Don't enter this arena without your thinking hat on, and turned up to level 11. But I still had fun, and I want to play again.

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