Spinning the wheel this week, and....it's Martin Wallace's London. A game I like, but may be of minimal interest to a lot of our crew. Anyway, here goes.
I think more than anything the element that defines my gaming taste is cards. Dice is a very close second, but if I truly sit back and look at all the games I've enjoyed over the years, they almost always have cards in them. Cards interject variability into a game in a way that expands its space well beyond what you would reasonably expect. Even a game that is ultimately terrible, such as Munchkin, feels much bigger than it truly is in terms of the narrative that you're developing over the course of a game. Arkham Horror cleverly tripled its variability by making each encounter card into three, allowing for increased variability with fewer cards than you'd expect necessary for such a level of storytelling.
I'll admit too that cards can play to one's ego. Cards in a game don't exist in a vacuum. They interact with the game pieces and game state, and most often directly with other cards in a deck. When you find two cards that work well together, you get that awesome feeling of being A Particularly Clever Gamer. Card interactions can be so rewarding to certain groups that these can dominate the conversations of gamers immersed in a particular game. Card combinations permeate almost every level of discourse about Magic: The Gathering, for example.
Designers can increase the width of this spectrum by using cards for multiple purposes. A great example of this is Omen: Reign of War. Cards are units that can do battle. Beasts, however, can be deployed for great strength or alternately a powerful one-time effect and then are discarded. On top of that, every card has an 'offering value' that allows you to discard them at the end of a turn to net you more cards, money, or both.
This brings me to this week's game, Martin Wallace's London. Don't be fooled by the presence of the board, this is primarily a card game, dominated by card play and card interactions. The board is an important but often secondary piece to the puzzle. You'll spend most of your time picking up, playing, structuring, and discarding cards. Thematically, it's about the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666, but beyond some thematic superficiality in terms of card names and what some of them do, you'll have to squint to see that theme play out.
(To be fair, video reviewer Rahdo did an excellent job in making some thematic connections to certain cards and plays during his runthrough of London. A lot of them were reaches, but clever ones. I think Rahdo generally does a good job with this sort of thing, even though I get the feeling he does this because it's more important to his viewers than it is to him. I could be wrong, of course.)
The game is spent drawing cards and playing them. To play a card, you'll add it to your tableau by discarding a card of the same color, and sometimes paying additional costs as well. Periodically taking an action called "running your city." That's the point where you hope all of your card interactions line up well to generate you a ton of money and VPs. Like many Euros, you'll have to balance out a 'bad thing' while you do it, and in that case it's poverty. You'll earn poverty just for running your city, but you can build certain cards to help minimize this, and also get rid of some that you've previously built up. Having buildings on the board helps to minimize poverty when you run your city. Too much poverty can cost you dearly at game's end, so it's up to you to determine if certain efficient plays are worth the risk. You can reduce your poverty by purchasing buildings to place, and that's where the map comes in. Spaces are generally worth cards and victory points, though particular types of spaces on the board will further trigger other cards that get played.
That's the game in a nutshell, basically. I can see your parched lips from the dryness of my description, and I don't blame you for that. Taken at face value, London does sound pretty dry. I understand that.
At one time, reading a shakedown of a game that read like above would have sent me running for the hills, and I'll admit in a lot of cases it still does. But something happened over the past few years, and that's the fact that I've developed an affinity for Martin Wallace's designs. Love them or hate them, at a fundamental design level they are always interesting. He always seems to be trying new things. And he has a way of trying to bring theme to the most Euro of designs. You get the feeling he doesn't considered himself constrained as such. Sometimes his games get a little messy along the way, and he's not afraid to take risks.
London itself is not one of his most daring designs by any means, but it is tightly designed without choking the player the way games like Agricola tend to do. There is just the right amount of room to explore the cards you take and the cards you build, but there is so much room for bad play that the game will gleefully let you drown yourself. (I've found this to often be another hallmark of Wallace's work--think Steam, for example.) And the design space remains finite enough, even with all the available cards, that it doesn't lead itself to extensive AP and chin-stroking. There's precious little 'take that', and the interaction is of a subtle variety. When you discard a card to build another one, it goes to a public spot on the board, making it available to be taken by another player. Also there will be a race to get buildings on the board in certain spots, or block your opponents from certain places you know they want. But that's it in terms of player interaction.
So why do I enjoy London? Over the past several years I've done some growing up, and really had to shed some of the leftover pretentiousness of my younger self. This allows me to say, "You know, this is a good game, despite the fact it has these things in it you've always proclaimed a loud distaste for." But another factor is at play here, and that's the 'Personal Acceptance' factor. (I don't really have a good name for this personal phenomena.) It goes like this--if a person as a creator, artist, or musician makes it to "inner circle" in terms of being liked, I'll give that person more leeway to experiment, and I'm more likely to start in a place of acceptance for anything that they make. If someone is not in that same circle, they'll have to work much harder, and I'm much less likely to give them room to experiment. I'm not sure when it happened for Martin Wallace, but I'm pretty sure it was sometime around A Few Acres of Snow. That's not the definitive point because I'd played and enjoyed both Steam and Liberte before that, but I think that's where I really started paying his designs more attention.
(All of this reminds me--I still have A Study of Emerald shrink-wrapped. I need to get that damned thing played.)
So there's London. I would tell you that if this sounded like you'd like it/hate it you could act accordingly, but even reading my own words, it sounds like I'd hate it. It's not my favorite game ever by any means, but it is really good. So maybe you'd like it, maybe you wouldn't. I dunno.