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Cityscape

Designer: Sjaak Griffioen
Publisher: Out of the Box
Players: 2-4
Time: 10 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

It's very easy to be impressed when you open the Cityscape box—a heavy wooden board and big chunky wooden blocks. Very nice. I'm not sure if I like the printing around the edge of the board but even so this would not look out of place on a coffee table.

Gameplay is very simple, on your turn you take one of the available blocks (these are from 1 to 5 stories tall) and place it anywhere on the 4 x 4 board, stacking on previous blocks if you wish. This continues around the table until all 25 blocks have been placed and then scoring occurs. You score points based on how well you were able to predict what the final city looks like and for the most part this is based on the number of buildings you can see when looking down the four columns in front of you. (Each player sits on their own side of the board.) Prior to the placing of blocks, each player secretly makes a prediction of how many buildings they hope to see in each of their four columns. If you were correct in your prediction you score 10 points for each building you see, if you were wrong you score nothing. You can only "see" a building if all other buildings in front of it are of lesser height. Instead of making a "number of buildings" prediction you can predict that that column will contain the tallest building in the entire city or that it will have two or more buildings of equal height. In these cases you score 10 points for each such building (which usually means 20 points for an "equal height" prediction and 10 points for a "tallest building" prediction). Your score is the sum of your points for all four predictions. You can play as many rounds as you like but it seems reasonable for each person to be the start player once and so play 2,3 or 4 rounds depending on the number of players. This is also a good idea as the start player will get one extra turn due to the fact that there are 25 blocks.


Looking down this column from the left, only two buildings (A & C) can be seen. B is hidden by A and D is hidden by C (even though they're the same height).

Play tends to be very fast and rounds rarely last more than 10 minutes with much of this taken up by the prediction phase and scoring. Generally speaking, the larger blocks get placed first as they have so much more influence on what the city ultimately looks like. I found this a little disappointing as there was rarely any decision as to what block to place, it was almost always best to place the largest one available. The other surprising discovery was that although your moves greatly impact everyone else the game felt rather non-interactive. I think that this is because you really have very little idea as to what your opponents are trying to achieve. You may desperately want to mess up Bob's plans but since it's difficult to know exactly what he predicted, this is very hard to do and you may very well end up helping him. So, you generally spend very little time worrying about your opponents and concentrating on your own problems instead. (Whether this property of the game is good or bad depends on your point of view. Some people like being able to throw a spanner into someone else's works but others prefer a game where such "free targeting" is not possible.)

One of the first things you'll discover is the difficulty of achieving the various predictions. The easiest to accomplish is the "1" prediction. (That is, you hope to see only 1 building in that particular column.) If you simply construct a tall building in the foremost row of that column it's very likely that your prediction will be correct. However, you'll only score 10 points. A "2" prediction is almost as easy, spend most of the time building up the second row in that column and then place a small little block in front of it and it scores 20 points. The "3" and "4" predictions are much more difficult to pull off and, in fact, in all the games I played, no one was ever able to score the 40 points for seeing 4 buildings in a column. The real difficulty is that it's very easy for someone to mess up these predictions. Everything might be going perfectly and then with a single block, your plans are royally messed up and it can require two or three blocks to restore things. Since you only have eight or nine plays (in a four-player game) this pretty much dooms that prediction to fail. I really think that the scores for these predictions should be increased, perhaps 40 points for a "3" and 60 points for a "4". Of course this means that players will probably try even harder to make sure that they don't happen but the points could be enough that it may be worth the effort to try them.

Of course, if the "2" bids are the most likely to score points this can affect what others bid in a sort of "doublethink" situation. Consider the following situation: The player sitting opposite me almost always predicts "2's" for all his columns. As such he's likely to try and create tall buildings on his second row (my third row). If I predict "3's" and rely on him to build those tall buildings on my third row, I can build a medium height buildings in my second row and short ones in my first and score 30 points for those columns. Even if I only predict three columns correctly I score 90 points which is more than he'll get for predicting all four.

Of course the other players will cause all sorts of trouble with this "strategy" but it may affect play over the long run. Whether putting this much thought into the predictions is actually worth it is debatable and, in my mind, somewhat suspect. In the games I played it felt that you really only had any sense of control over two columns at most. Trying to control what happened over the entire board doomed you to fail everywhere. So, instead, you spend the majority of your effort working on a single column and hoping that you get lucky elsewhere. There are many times that you're able to secure a column (especially with a "1" or "tallest building" prediction) and then move onto another one but the difference between a average round and a good one would seem to be luck. I think the skill that is most likely to be rewarded is the ability to see what other players are trying to do and figuring out how to take advantage of this (as in the strategy of the previous paragraph). Having others do your work for you can be a great bonus.

As I stated at the start of this review, the components are simply wonderful. A solid carved board and thick chunky blocks. I first saw Cityscape at Essen and thought that it was a larger "promotional" version of the game and so was somewhat surprised to find out that it wasn't. Very solid and pleasing to the touch. You record your predictions by placing four small little dice in a wooden holder. I found it a little difficult getting them into place as you want to keep this secret from your opponents and so they're a little awkward to manipulate. Still it's a classy touch and better than writing it down on a piece of paper.

Having said all this, did I enjoy the game? Well, yes, but to be honest, it did not set my world on fire. I initially thought that the interaction of having each player take a different view (literally!) of the skyline would lead to more exciting play. It's certainly a more unique mechanic than say, owning the most buildings in a city or creating the tallest skyscraper. Despite this I'd rather play Manhattan where I feel that I have more control over my fate. I'd probably hold Cityscape in higher regard if the actual building part of the game were of more interest. You're only worried about height and sightlines and so placing another few stories on a building lacks the pleasure of a really clever move in Pueblo for example. Manhattan and Pueblo are two very excellent games however so even if Cityscape does not reach their heights does not mean it's unworthy of consideration. It's a decent game and one that I think will appeal to casual players. The rules are simple, it plays quickly and while it's possible to mess with your opponents, it does not feel particularly nasty.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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