Giant Fire Breathing Robot
Games with deck building and card drafting have really come to prominence in recent years. In the City: Origins takes some of those ideas and tweaks them ever so slightly. Players represent various factions in a city drafting individuals to their aide – but do so without shuffling any personal decks.
The Basics. Each player is dealt three Leader cards from which they choose one. The Leader provides the starting Influence (typically three) along with a special ability that can be used during the game. After all players have selected, the City Square is set up.
The City Square consists of five decks of cards. On one edge are the Tier Zero cards which are typically very cheap to buy and of minimal utility. On the other edge are the Mercenaries. Mercenaries don’t provide a special ability, but they do have a nice influence (currency) boost. In the center are five stacks of cards. Cards come in Tier 1, 2, and 3 (from least powerful to most) and each deck is built with two Tier 3s on the bottom, four Tier 2s in the middle, and three Tier 1s on top. The top two cards of each deck are placed below each deck to create two rows.
On their turn, a player can use his total influence to purchase a card in the bottom row. Each card has a cost. Once purchased, it is added to the player’s tableau. There, it adds its special ability (if any) as well as any influence it has. Thus, turn by turn, the players’ influence increases. Cards may also be worth a certain amount of victory points at game end.
With the exception of Mercenaries and Tier 0 cards, every card is unique. The cards come in five different colors and special abilities often key off of the color. For example, the Captain of the Guard provides two influence to his owner, but his ability allows him to provide an additional influence for each other red card. Other cards provide special bonuses or attacks upon purchase or even once per turn abilities allowing them to manipulate the card row.
The game ends when two of the seven stacks are depleted. Play continues to the end of the round, giving each player the same number of turns. At that point, players count the victory points on their cards. The player with the most points wins.
The Feel. This tableau builder feels like a deck builder with no deck. There is a central pile of cards from which you make a purchase each round. You hope to buy the cards that will give you the most points by game end. Meanwhile, you want to buy the cards that combine well together to give you the most powerful engine. But, rather than putting all of that in a deck and shuffling it up, you simply buy it all and add it together each turn.
For those who dislike the influence of luck inherent in deck builders, In the City definitely cuts that out. However, doing so also greatly reduces the decision space. You no longer have to worry about a carefully balanced or thinned deck. Instead, you simply amass ad naseum because every card helps you in some way. While some cards are better than others, or combine into a better synergy, there really are no bad cards to take.
Setting that issue aside, the game is mostly about manipulating the card row and avoiding the attacks of your opponents, as well as buying the cards worth the most points. In the early game, turns move quickly and obviously because there simply aren’t enough special abilities to be used. As the game moves on, additional abilities come into play and turns can get a little more dramatic and interesting.
The game also shines best with two or three players. At the lower player count, players can plan and scheme to acquire specific cards. At higher player counts, things get a little more chaotic. It’s harder to plan to grab a specific card because it is less likely to still be there by the time your turn comes back around. Plus, there are fewer cheap cards to go around and the last player can get stuck with relatively inferior cards – at least initially.
Ultimately, In the City is a game that sort of just happens. You take your turn, things accumulate, and then it ends. There just isn’t much in the way of tension from turn to turn. The only tension is whether someone is going to buy something before you. Other than that, it really lacks a drive – a purpose. It’s hard to fill in the blank, “Let’s play In the City because …” In the City lacks an element of engagement – something that keeps the players invested in the game. As a result, despite a non-broken system and some measure of choice, it does not strongly entertain.
Components: 3.5 of 5. The pieces consist almost entirely of cards. The cards are a good thickness, though they lack any finish on them. Still, there isn’t much in the way of shuffling so it isn’t concerning. There are also glass beads and trackers for influence which is a nice touch so you don’t have to constantly re-add your various card values.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 3.5 of 5. In the City has little in the way of luck. A player’s tableau just accumulates from round to round deterministically. Unfortunately, that also cuts down on the strategy element. However, there is still luck in which cards make it into the City Square and strategy in how to build that tableau and combine the cards together.
Mechanics: 2.5 of 5. The game works but has some unfortunate elements. Among them is the near total lack of tension created by the game’s system. Also, the game seems obviously (and unfortunately) influenced by Magic: the Gathering. The cards are all referred to as “creatures” even though they simply represent residents of the titular city. It isn’t necessary and is somewhat confusing. Further, the terminology is not universally used and sometimes cards are referred to as “cards” rather than as “creatures.”
Replayability: 2 of 5. In the City has some hallmarks of replay value. For instance, there are more Tier 1, 2, and 3 cards than will be used in any given game. So, each play will feature different cards that you can draft and combine together, but the whole experience is so inconsequential that I lack the desire to return to it at all.
Spite: 3 of 5. Spite is present In the City. Many of the cards have abilities that can penalize the influence of opponents for a turn or even force them to sacrifice (discard) a card from their tableau. And, while spite cards are not uncommon, they aren’t especially common either. Players should be comfortable with direct attacks even if they aren’t the focus of the game.
Overall: 2.5 of 5. In the City falls into the category of “fun enough.” I enjoyed it when I played it, but it’s not something I’d be especially excited to try again. It happens, a winner is declared, and then it gets packed away. It’s probably best for younger kids learning about combos, or parents looking for a game that their children can play without parental involvement. But for gamers, this mostly misses the mark.
(A special thanks to Sherwood Games for providing a review copy of In the City: Origins)
(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out and subscribe to my Geeklist of reviews, updated weekly)
Thank you for the review. I see In the City was not your type of game. Perhaps you will like Exploit! more!