Michael Schacht is quite the prolific designer, but his designs seem to be a mixed lot for me. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed a few of his designs, while most I have assessed as good, but not great. Indeed, it has been awhile since I’ve found one that I though was excellent. Sadly, California is not going to break this trend.
The game is set in sunny California, and players are charged with the task of renovating their mansions, hoping to create such stunning spectacles that their neighbors are enticed to visit, bearing gifts, of course! Renovating a house, however, is expensive, so players must manage their money properly and skillfully time their purchases.
Each player receives a mat depicting the ground floor of their mansion. There is space for 16 tiles to be placed onto the 4 x 4 grid, with some extra storage space available in the attic for one and potentially two tiles. There are also two central boards: the bank and the stores selling flooring and furniture. The bank holds four gold coins, and when the last one is taken, the current round (“day” in game parlance) concludes. Similarly, each store holds four tiles, each depicting a type of flooring or furniture, and when the last tile of one store is selected, the day ends.
On a turn, a player may either select one of the tiles, or take one coin from the bank. If a tile is taken, compensation must be paid to the store. The cost of a tile depends upon the number of coins remaining in the bank, which will be 1 – 4. So, the longer a player wiats to acquire a tile, the less expensive it is likely to be. However, there is the persistent danger that a coveted tile will be taken by an opponent if one procrastinates too long. The acquired tile must immediately be placed into the player’s mansion. Flooring is usually selected first, as furniture must be placed onto a finished floor. There are six different types of flooring, and each piece of furniture corresponds with a particular type of floor. Thus, part of the challenge is obtaining the proper flooring and corresponding furniture.
A player may store a piece of furniture in his attic, which initially only has room for one tile. During the course of the game, however, attic flooring may become available, allowing a player to expand the capacity of his attic to two tiles. Furniture stored in an attic must immediately be placed into the mansion when the proper flooring is installed.
If a player places a flooring tile into his mansion, he must pay the amount listed – either 1 or 2 silver coins – on the space upon which he places it. Further, any future flooring tiles of the same type must be placed adjacent to the same type of flooring. If this is not possible, than further flooring of that type cannot be acquired.
Furniture tiles must be placed onto corresponding flooring. Placing furniture is free, and is necessary if a player is to attract guests and acquire bonus tiles. Bonus tiles depict certain combinations of flooring and furniture in a particular pattern. When a player matches the pattern depicted on one of these tiles, he immediately takes it and will earn the points depicted at game’s end. These bonus tiles are quite lucrative, and wise players will attempt to acquire as many of them as possible.
When players add an item of furniture to their mansion, a guest of the corresponding color will be enticed to the mansion, hoping to see the improvements. If there are other guests already at the mansion, the newly arrived guest will bring a gift. Each gift is worth a victory point at game’s end, so players will attempt to attract multiple guests in quick succession in order to earn these gifts. However, guests are fickle, and they will be lured away to another mansion when an opponent adds furniture of their color.
Since the acquisition and placement of tiles is expensive, players will be forced to go to the bank to acquire money. They sometimes may be forced to securing a loan, which if not repaid by game’s end, will cost victory points. As mentioned, a day ends once all four coins are taken from the bank, or when all four tiles are purchased from a store. This can happen quickly, so there is little time for dallying. When a day ends, all remaining tiles in the stores are discarded, and the stores and bank are refilled to capacity. A new day then begins. Twelve days are played, after which the game ends and points are tallied.
Players earn 1 point for each gift they have acquired, as well as each space in their mansion they have improved. To this they add the value of any bonus tiles they earned, and subtract 2 points for each outstanding loan. The player with the most points becomes the toast of California high society.
The game’s decisions seem to be quick and not terribly taxing. The game flows along at a fast pace, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m playing on automatic pilot mode. Yes, I’m making decisions, but they seem minor, and don’t seem to be critical. Each day moves too quickly to formulate long-term plans and see them to fruition with any degree of certainty. The modus operandi seems to be grab the tiles you need when available, grab money when needed, and hope the tiles you need ultimately surface.
California is pleasant enough, and there isn’t anything seriously wrong with the game. Indeed, it seems well placed to be a decent family game, or one with which to introduce new folks to our hobby. For me, however, California is like watching a TV sitcom. You might get a few chuckles and smile, but after it is over, you can’t help but feel you could have spent that time on something more productive or enjoyable.
Diana, Gail and I sought to make our mansions the showpiece of the west coast. Diana was successful early in luring guests to view her improvements, while Gail and I concentrated on acquiring bonus tiles and improving the most spaces in our mansion. As the game progressed, our achievements in the various categories became very similar, so that at game’s end, 1 point separated all three of us.
Finals: Greg 24, Gail 24, Diana 23
I had the most money remaining, so won the tie-breaker.
Ratings: Gail 7, Greg 6