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Subject: A GFBR Review: Look Ma, no Hands! rss

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GeekInsight
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Since papa deckbuilder first hit the shelves in 2008, many new iterations have shown up. One of the latest is Flip City. Players are trying to build a city but are striving to map out a winning plan on a single turn. But how can you play without drawing a hand?

The Basics. The central conceit of Flip City is that it is a deck building game where you have no hand. Instead, you can always see the top card of your deck and usually you have a choice of whether or not to play it.

As each card is played, it adds cash or victory points to your tableau. And, in some cases, it adds unhappy faces. You can only have a maximum of two unhappy faces out. If you get a third one out, your turn ends immediately. So, the unhappy faces in your deck essentially constrain your ability to play our as many cards as you might otherwise like.

However, if you stay within your limit, you can stop playing cards at any time and then take one of three actions. You can buy a new card from the stockpiles and add it to your discards. You can upgrade a card in your discard by flipping it over to its improved side. Or you can buy and immediately pay the upgrade cost for a card.

Importantly, players start the game with four Residential Area cards among their starting ten. Each of these contains an unhappy face and must be played if it is shown as the top card of your deck. When upgraded, they still provide an unhappy face, but you don’t have to play them. If a forced play happens to add a third unhappy face, your turn ends immediately.

A player wins when they get eight points on their turn. Importantly, points aren’t carried over from round to round. So you have to show eight points all in one go.

The Feel. Flip City is a fun, light deck building game. While it isn’t quite a microgame, it’s certainly on the lighter end of the gaming spectrum both in terms of component count and depth. But, it has one major detriment that will keep it from being a great game and, instead, it sits in the morass of the merely good.

On the plus side, playing without a hand is actually sort of fun. It requires you to really think about the composition of your deck. And, to that end, it forces players to focus in on particular buildings or abilities that will result in a winning run of cards. Playing the field and getting a little bit of everything is unlikely to work here. Plus, without a separate currency-only card, each card in your deck will do something interesting.

In my first play, there were some comments from my group that Flip City had too much luck. After all, once shuffled, you simply played from the top of the deck until you got too many happy faces. But I think that misses the mark. It has no more (or less) luck than any other deck builder. Usually, you draw a hand (luck) and then decide what to do with it. Here, you draw from the top of your deck and then decide what to do with it. The key element of strategy, as with any deckbuilder, is refining the composition of your deck.

Plus, Flip City has a neat little push your luck element. At the beginning of the game, at least, playing that next card is a critical decision. Sure, you might get two needed coins, but if the card under it is a Residential Area, you’ll have to play it and get an unhappy face. And if the one under that is another Residential Area with an unhappy face, uh oh. Residential Areas aren’t the only unhappy face cards, so springing one at an inopportune moment can shut down your entire turn.

But as the game progresses, players flip those cards to the other side where they need not be played. In fact, there are ways to get them out of your deck entirely (and into opponent’s decks). So, then it becomes about buying the right cards to allow you to get eight points. Central Parks and Stations bestow points, so do Power Plants. Churches allow you to take more unhappy faces and Convenience Stores can even bestow an alternate win condition. So it’s really about building a deck that can put out enough cards to win without falling to unhappiness.

But Flip City is a small game. While not a microgame, one of my players said you make “microdecisions.” Which, I think, is astute. There are only five cards in the central row that can be purchased. Each turn, you can at most upgrade one card or buy one card. And, in the beginning at least, it is quite difficult to get out more than two or three coins in a turn. In fact, the biggest denomination on any card is two coins, so there really is no such thing as a big money strategy here. This can also cause the beginning phase to drag a little.

Those five buyable cards, which are the same from game to game, reveal only a couple of core strategies. Either expand your unhappy face limit by buying churches so that you can play enough cards to win. Or rid yourself of as many unhappy faces as possible, so that you can play enough cards to win. Playing an unstoppable string of cards, in any event, is the goal.

And, while Flip City is enjoyable, it ultimately falls in the “good but not great” camp of games. The main hindrance is that, with four players at least, it is just too long. Even though it has no more luck than any other deck builder, players don’t know what they have in advance. Only once their turn begins can they start thinking about how many cards to draw or whether they want to risk a turn-ending unhappy face to get that two coin card on top of their deck into play. In other deck builders, you can plan your turn in advance. Not so here.

So downtime is an issue. The game isn’t especially prone to analysis paralysis, but it is uncomfortably long for the microdecisions you are ultimately making. With two players it’s much better. But there are a lot of other good and great games for two. Plus, with four players, the central piles can run out quickly and that tension is lost with only two.

Components: 3.5 of 5. The cards are on sturdy stock and there is no worry about damage over many shuffles. The artwork is serviceable although certainly nothing to be excited about. The double sided cards, while neat, mean that you have to keep your discard and draw piles separated to avoid accidental intermingling. It also means shuffling under the table so that you can’t keep shuffling until you get what you want on top.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. Flip City has just as much luck and strategy as any other deckbuilder. The goal is to alter your deck composition so you are likely to get a winning run of cards. All it does is hide the draw from you and thereby strip away the illusion that your hand is anything other than a random sample of cards you get to play that turn.

Mechanics: 3.5 of 5. Mechanically, the game is quite solid. It’s just that those mechanics have drawbacks. Being unable to plan your turn in advance is a disadvantage – and one of my pet peeves. And the fact that you can be stymied in the early game due to a bad shuffle feels more annoying than a bad draw. It’s unfortunate that the novel ideas have some negative side effects.

Replayability: 2 of 5. While Flip City isn’t a bad game, it is one that I don’t think will stand the test of time. Unlike other deckbuilders, you’ll use the exact same cards each play. And the cards really lend themselves to only a couple of main strategies. Add that to the it-feels-slightly-too-long mystique and I don’t see this becoming the next great classic.

Spite: 2 of 5. Spite is muted in Flip City, but certainly present. The main sources of unhappy faces are Apartment Buildings and Residential Areas. With enough cash, you can toss an Apartment Building into another player’s deck. Or Power Plants will allow you to do the same. But these tend to be pricey, late game moves.

Overall: 2.5 of 5. Flip City isn’t meant to be a game of epic strategy. It’s an enjoyable, light game. It would be more enjoyable if it was quicker, and I’d recommend this with three players maximum. The novel no-draw mechanic is interesting, but ultimately presents more problems than it’s worth. This is a title I’d play if others wanted to, but I don’t think I’ll seek it out in the future.

(A special thanks to Tasty Minstrel Games for providing a review copy of Flip City)

(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out and subscribe to my Geeklist of reviews, updated weekly)
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Rob White
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Your review seemed fairly similar to my thoughts.

A few other thoughts:
1) We keep our deck in our hand at all times, so we don't get confused between deck and discards. Also, it keeps us from flipping our deck over by mistake.

2) The solo variant is not bad, if you're into solos. Also, it's a good way to learn how to play efficiently.

3) In a world of boxes that are waaaaaay to big for components (e.g. Splendor), I really appreciate that Tasty Minstrel Games created a box that fits sleeved cards and the rulebook perfectly.
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Tom C.
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Like your review! I've played 2 games with 2 players, and both seemed to go on longer than I liked. It's a cool card game, but it takes its time reaching a conclusion, without the depth to make it worth it. So I agree it is good, but nothing more so far, for me.
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