Saturday, December 2, 2017

How I learned to stop worrying and love Cities of Splendor

Introduction (or “The expansions were free. But they came with this $50 Start Player token.”)

PAX AUS 2017. Hundreds of gamers crowding around the generously-spaced TableTop area, and I’m number twenty in a queue at one of the game stall cashiers when I spot a copy of Cities of Splendor on a shelf. I pull it out and glimpse at the price. $50.

I’ve read the first impressions and reviews of Cities of Splendor on BGG, so I knew what I was in for. Four expansions and a whole lot of air in a box. Oh, and a Start Player token. I liked Splendor, and it still comes out on some game nights as a quick starter or wind-down game, which is a lot more than I can say for many other games in the collection. Out of these four expansions, I was really only interested in one - the Orient expansion which introduces those Cool Red cards with Awesome Effects.

“Honestly,” I reason to myself. “$50 means that this is a box containing expansions worth $12.50 each. If I saw the “Orient” expansion by itself priced at $12.50, I’d snap it up and be happy about it. And if I saw the other expansions alongside it, I *might* pick them up based on collector’s instinct and poor impulse control.” And so, twenty transactions later, I am the owner of one expansion that I really wanted, and three other expansions that sort of came along with it like socially-awkward in-laws you hope to only see on infrequent special occasions.

At home, I open the box and read the rules. First snag. It’s recommended that only one expansion should be played with the base game. What, I can’t mix them all in? Do they not play well together like my kids after chocolate cake? I decide to reserve my judgement until I’ve played through all the expansions.

The Orient Expansion (or the one with Cool Red Cards with Awesome Effects)

Need I say anything about this expansion that hasn’t already been said by other reviews? This expansion is awesome because its cards are awesome. Like, take a look at this one:

So you build this card, and claim another card. Two cards for the price of one! And if you plan it right, you can build a Level 3 Red card to claim a Level 2 Red card to claim a Level 1 card. THREE cards in a single turn! Incredible! It’s stupendous! It’s a Willy Wonka fizz-bang action-chaining special!

Or how about this one?

Build this card, and BAM! Reserve a Noble Tile. Like the one Fred across the table was working all game to get. Sorry, Fred, King Henry here might have been interested in some of your bling, but it looks like he’s been convinced to deal with us exclusively by Lovely Lola from our merchant guild’s Public (and Private) Relations Department.

I expected much from this expansion. And got that and more. Two solid thumbs up.

The Cities Expansion (or the one with Oversized Noble Tiles - Oh, They Flip to show Different Things on the Other Side. That’s Pretty Cool.)

With the Orient expansion being such a resounding success, it was with some trepidation that I tried out the expansion from which the entire set is named after. This expansion replaces the Noble Tiles with City Tiles, which are really just Noble Tiles with prejudice.

The game ends in the round when someone claims a City Tile. The winner is the player with the highest VPs who has a City Tile. So you’ve got 16 VPs and I have 14? But I have a City Tile, and you don’t? Tough luck - I win.

This expansion really brings out the race aspect of Splendor. But instead of everyone racing for the same 15 VP finish line, here it’s everyone racing towards three different finish lines. It’s like implementing a variant in the base game where you need to have 15 VPs and a Noble Tile to win.

This forces everyone off the “just build the cards with the VPs” track into the “must get those gem sets for one of those Tiles” track. Yes, it does remove a viable strategy from the base game (which I’ve employed a number of times myself), but it forces set collection and competition for those sets. And more competition is always fun. I enjoyed my plays with the Cities expansion more than I expected, which is a good thing.

The Trading Posts Expansion (or the one with the Needlessly Large Board with Static Powers)

So honestly, why the board? Why not just have cards or tiles? Or better yet, why not have more than 5 tiles with different powers, and randomly pick 5 to play with each game? Surely that’s better replayability?

Those were the sort of questions I had when I broke out this expansion. The powers themselves seemed to vary in usefulness. In particular, this power seemed OP-ed:

This means that once you build 3 Reds and 1 White, you can claim this power which allows you to take a gem chip after you build a card. Seems like a no-brainer to build. So in my first game with my wife, I strove towards getting this power. And got my butt handed to me.

Some after-game analysis revealed my oversight. I’d not noticed this particular combination which my wife gleefully exploited:

Having this fellow available means that you’re pretty much guaranteed 8 VPs once you start hoarding Greens, which is exactly what my wife did and ended the game before I could even get a decent engine up.

That was too quick, so we gave it another go. And BAM! It ended just as quickly, this time with my wife spreading Shield Tokens across the Trading Posts board and grabbing the “Gain 1 VP per Shield” power which gave her the extra VPs to end the game.

If the Cities expansion is like a round-the-track race, then the Trading Posts expansion is more like the 100m sprint. The winner tends to be the one who quickly builds up one of the Trading Post powers, and abuses it to win. And which Trading Post power is best depends on what cards or nobles are available. It’s so fast that my wife and I can play several games of this back-to-back, and do a “best of 3”. Pretty neat.

The Strongholds expansion (or the one with the plastic towers that look like bottles of sauce ketchup)

“So every time you build a card, you get to do a Stronghold action, like placing or removing one of these ketchup bottles on a card,” I demonstrated to another group of players.

“Tomato sauce,” replied one of the players in a bored, corrective tone, which initiated a string of ‘No-I’m-right-no-you’re-wrong’ statements, which ended with us agreeing to disagree. The yellow one was undoubtedly mustard though.

This wasn’t an expansion I was looking forward to trying out. In fact, the plastic bits stayed in the sealed bag for the longest time until someone finally insisted that we should give it a go. Part of my reluctance was that I couldn’t see how yet another “reserve-a-card” mechanic could improve the game. And I felt that some players were going to be doomed in an endless, repetitive cycle of ‘I-place-my-stronghold-you-remove-it-I-place-it-back’ actions.

We started the game. Most of us couldn’t work out what was valuable to each other, so the first few stronghold placements were pretty random.

And then this happened:

Much to the horror of the Green and Black players, they were suddenly limited to only purchasing Level 2 development cards which their engines weren’t ready for. They couldn’t build a cheap card without removing those strongholds, and they couldn’t remove those strongholds without a Stronghold action, and they couldn’t do a Stronghold action without building a card. The Yellow and Red players were sufficiently amused to leave their strongholds exactly where they were until they were nice and ready to claim the cards underneath.

And then there was the turn when several players collaborated to place their strongholds on cards to deny the player in the lead. Oh my, it was mayhem. Players were building cheap cards, just for the Stronghold actions. There was vindictiveness. There was indignation to a level I’ve not seen since the days when someone rolled a 7 and moved the Robber.

And I liked it.

I seemed to have gone with the ‘race’ theme to describe some of these expansions. Strongholds is the sort of race that involves chariots, spiked hub-caps and bloodied gladiators. It’s not for everyone, but it’s sure fun with a right crowd!

Final thoughts (or “Let me tell you what I really think about this game”)

Since purchasing Cities of Splendor, I can safely say that this game has hit the table a whole lot more, and I can see that this is going to be one of those games that we pack with us for holidays. This expansion surprised and delighted me, and that doesn’t happen very often.

So how do I rate it? I'll use the trusty “I Play Games with my Wife” Measuring Stick, which sorts games into two classes: “Wife never wants to play this” and “Wife requests for it”. With Cities of Splendor, the wife lost a few games and raged that she never wanted to play it again, and then requested for it the very next night.

So, I think that puts Cities of Splendor into a class of its own.