I guess it isn't too far a leap from planning the perfectly balanced garden to planning the perfectly balanced city. Well, OK ... so it's a pretty LARGE leap.
La Citta is the latest release by designer Gerd Fenchel. Gerd's only other design of note is Kraut & Ruben, a fun, yet simple game of establishing a vegetable garden. Now, he's designed a game about establishing a city!
City building is a popular theme for game designs ... Metropolis, Big City, Square Mile, Land Grab, Ransom and more. La Citta proudly takes a place of honor amongst these games and is a satisfying, albeit lengthy experience. A typical game of La Citta takes 3 hours plus to complete when playing with a full contingent of five players. However, the game remains fairly tense, so for me at least, it is a reasonably quick three hours.
The object of the game is to construct cities and expand them by adding new amenities and facilities. This will have the result of attracting new immigrants to your cities, sometimes at the expense of your neighbors. Ultimately, fully rounded cities and large populations are what wins the game. However, it is a constant struggle to feed all of these people. Failure to do so has serious repercussions.
The board is set-up either using a pre-set method as outlined in the rule book, or by randomly placing the various terrain tiles. Terrain comes in the form of agricultural tiles (which are needed to supply food), mountains (needed to supply income from mining) and water (used to supply, er, water). A player gets the benefit of these terrain features if he is able to build a city or proper development adjacent to the appropriate terrain. For instance, in order to acquire food, players must construct a city or farm next to an agriculture tile. Each tile depicts from 1 - 3 food symbols, indicating the number of food chits a player acquires. These agricultural lands continue to provide the food on an ongoing basis unless the player is forced to abandon the adjacent farm or city. Likewise, in order to acquire income from the mountains, players must construct a quarry adjacent to a mountain tile. Constructing a bath house or fountain next to a water source allows the city to accommodate an unlimited number of citizens. Otherwise, the maximum citizen limit for a city is eight, or five if the city does not contain a marketplace.
Each player begins the game by establishing two cities, using a procedure which is very similar to that utilized in Settlers of Catan. Placement of the cities is VERY important, as it not only determines the initial supply of food that a player has with which to feed his citizens, but it also heavily influences the direction in which a player can expand. Placing too close to one's neighbors, or near the corner of the board, may quickly result in limited space in which to expand. This can be even more deadly if a city cannot reach essential sources of water, in which case the city is forever doomed to remain a small village.
Each turn, a player has 5 actions which he can perform. Each player resolves these actions one at a time, beginning with the start player, until all players have resolved all five actions. Each player receives three 'action' cards, each of which can be used to:
* Construct a minor development (farm, quarry, market place, statue, cloister, fountain). There is no monetary cost for one of these buildings.
* Take 2 gold.
* Establish a new city.
As one of the above actions is taken, a card is turned over to represent that it has been 'spent' for that turn.
In addition to the three action cards, a player also has the option of taking one of the seven face-up cards which can be acquired by any of the players. These cards come in several varieties and allow players to perform certain actions, including:
* Construct a mid-range or large development (palazzo, bath house, hospital, cathedral or university). Each of these buildings does have a monetary cost associated with it, ranging from 1 - 3 gold pieces.
* Master Builder, which allows the player to construct a building of his choice provided he can pay the appropriate cost.
* Rich Harvest, which doubles the production of one farm for that turn only.
* Golden Times, which increases the population of a city by 1 - 3 citizens.
* Bread and Games, which allows a player to double the point value of a certain development, thereby increasing its attractiveness to neighboring citizens.
* Closeness to the People, which allows the player to peek at 2 or 3 of the 'Voice of the People' cards to discern which city features the people are demanding this turn.
A player is free to use any combination of action cards and the 'open' cards during his five actions per turn. Thus, there is ample room for a player to pursue his own strategies. Still, there are never enough actions to accomplish everything you desire to do, which is always a good feature in game design as it causes much angst and agonizing decisions.
Deciding which improvements to add to a city is a critical decision. Many developments depict symbols which indicate certain 'achievements' or 'advancements' for the city when that development is constructed. These 'advancements' are cultural (white), educational (black) and health (blue). If a player manages to add all three developments to a city, he will receive three (3) bonus victory points at the end of the game for each city in which he has accomplished this feat. But that is not the only significance of these 'advancements'.
Each turn, four 'Voice of the People' cards are set out, three face down and one face up. These cards depict either culture, education or health. There are an equal amount of each card and all cards will be cycled through during the course of the game. After all players have completed their five actions, all four of these cards are revealed. The 'advancement' which has the majority of cards displayed is the advancement which the people are demanding that turn. This doesn't have to come as a complete surprise, however, as one variety of the cards which are available for players to select during their action rounds is the "Bread and Games", which allows the player to peek at two or three of the face-down cards. Once the cards are revealed, all cities which are within two hexes (inclusive) of another city can potentially lose or gain citizens. Each of these cities is examined to determine how many developments they have which correlate to the 'advancement' which the people are demanding this turn. If a city borders another which has more of the demanded developments, than that city will lose a citizen to this more attractive city. Thus, if an advancement deficient city borders several other cities which have more of the demanded advancement, then the deficient city will lose several citizens on a turn. This could be catastrophic as the game requires that each development tile in the city must be occupied by at least one citizen. If a city loses too many citizens and cannot populate each development, then it will begin losing these development tiles. This is not only costly financially, but could also force the loss of a farm, quarry or bath house / fountain with the corresponding impact on food, income and population. It's a deadly "snowball" effect that one must constantly be on guard against.
Of course, being the recipient of such immigration is not always beneficial. One must be able to feed these new immigrants. So, a sudden influx of new citizens could easily cause a situation wherein you have more mouths to feed than food available, resulting in the starvation of the excess population. Not only is this a tragic human catastrophe, but it also causes the loss of your first action on the next turn. If this was the final turn of the game, the impact is even more severe ... the loss of five (5) victory points!
After the "Voice of the People" has been heard and all immigration resolved, then players must feed their population. If they have enough food tokens based on their farm and city production to feed every citizen, they are to be congratulated and can rest easy ... until next turn. If, however, they cannot feed their citizens, the excess citizens are lost, which could easily result in the loss of development tiles as well. Further, the player's first action in the next round is forfeit. The "Rich Harvest" card can certainly come in handy to help alleviate such food shortages.
After the completion of a round, new "Voice of the People" cards are set out, each city receives one new citizen (the little citizen figures come in both sexes, so one can only surmise that they were very active during the year!) and all players receive income. Each player automatically receives one gold, plus additional gold for each quarry they have adjacent to mountains. Then, the entire process repeats itself for six rounds. Some have complained that six rounds is too much and makes the game unnecessarily lengthy. Peter Sarrett has suggested that the game can be played within the smaller boundaries of the 'three-player' board and then reduced to four rounds. I can't see why this wouldn't work. I, however, don't mind the length of the game as each turn causes me much angst and concern ... but in a pleasant sort of way!
The game presents the players with seemingly incompatible tasks:
* Expand your population (more citizens equates to more victory points) versus feeding all these hungry folks!
* Expand your territory, which requires more citizens .. meaning more food is needed. Also, this will inevitably mean encroachment on neighboring cities, which threatens the loss of citizens due to the "Voice of the People" demands.
* The need to construct three different types of advancements, which not only give victory points but also can cause neighboring citizens to immigrate to your city. Of course, this means you have to feed these new immigrants, requiring even more farms!
* The uncertainty of which advancement the people will demand this turn. Sometimes, even getting a peek via the "Bread and Games" card is not enough to ascertain their demands accurately. Having to develop all of your cities in all three advancements, while constantly keeping a wary eye on the developments and advancements of your opponents, can be downright unnerving. One gets the feeling of being the hapless circus entertainer who is constantly struggling to keep a dozen different plates spinning on the end of poles. Sooner or later, some of them are going to come crashing down.
* Five actions versus the desire to perform at least double that amount!
Yep ... La Citta has most of the elements I seek in a game. It's not perfect, though. There is some interaction during the course of a game, but most of it is indirect. You can select face-up action cards before your opponent has the opportunity to grab the one he wants. You can also develop your cities in such a fashion as to restrict, or even prohibit the growth of your opponent's cities. Further, you can add advancements so you can constantly lure citizens away from your opponents. However, all of these are 'indirect'. There is no direct interaction amongst the players. There's no trading or deal-making, no slamming each other with event cards, no military attacks on opponents, etc. Some have described the game as being "multi-player solitaire". I wouldn't go that far, as there is enough interaction, albeit indirect, to prevent the feeling of playing solitaire. Still, the game could have easily incorporated other, more direct interaction mechanisms which would have elevated it to greater heights.
The components are, at first glance, visually stunning. The artwork on the tiles is wonderful, and who can argue with the tiny little citizen pieces. It would have been so easy to simply use the generic wooden cubes to represent the citizens. Kudos to Kosmos for going first-class with these components.
Now the drawbacks. The artwork on the tiles is only discernible at close inspection. Once the board begins to get congested, it is very difficult to differentiate at a glance between the different tiles. The tiles are all very colorful and detailed and begin looking a lot alike as the board gets crowded. Maybe it's just my 38 year old eyes, but sometimes I'm willing to give up a bit of fancy artwork for more functionality and ease of play. Still, this is a minor quibble and doesn't appreciably detract from my enjoyment of the game.
There is some German text to content with on the Kosmos version. Fortunately, Rio Grande Games is releasing an English version which will overcome this hurdle. I actually thought I was getting a Rio Grande version when I ordered the game and was surprised when the Kosmos version arrived. Oh, well ... I'll undoubtedly purchase the Rio Grande version anyway and place the Kosmos version on the Gulf Games prize table!
The short and skinny? La Citta is a nice journey requiring careful planning, constant vigilance and continual juggling of priorities. The game is filled with those "agonizing decisions" that I just love. Still, it is a bit long, is not terribly interactive and does not have the constant excitement of an El Grande. As such, my rating after four plays is at a 7.5.
Great review. Have you had the chance to play this with 2 players?