I'm always on the lookout for card games with simple rules and stunning art. Unreal Estate is one of these card games that, after seeing the art and reading the rules, really fit for me. This week we recieved our copy. I was very excited to get this to our table.
(I really like the art on these cards)
Hopefully you can see above just how nice the card art is. I love the simple, whimsical, and colourful takes on cliched fantasy buildings. The rules are equally simple and whimsical. You are the municipal planner for a fantasy city. You draft sets of buildings from the proposal board but can only score them if there is a matching building on the scrap board. Cards that weren't drafted from the proposal board at the end of the round are moved to the scrap board. If there are more than one of a building in the scrap board, then your points are multiplied by the building count (2 buildings = 2x multiplier, 3 buildings = 3x multiplier, etc...)
So this is set collection with a twist, and that twist is that oftentimes you can score more points by not drafting a matching card and instead letting that card move at the end of the round to the scrap board. Much of the game is spent manipulating the scrap board to build large scoring sets without tipping off your opponent to your plans.
There are also 6 cards each game that introduce mild take that elements to the game, like when a player scores you get half the points or steal a card from an opponents hand. These cards don't overwhelm the game and, since the cards are randomly added and different each game, help to keep the gameplay fresh every time.
The game plays really quick -- it is over in about 15 minutes (my son complained after his first game that he wished there were more cards!). The game play is much more thinky than similar set collection games. Much of the game is figuring out what your opponents want and setting up situations on the draft board where they will let the card you are collecting move to the scrap board to score you huge points. There is some press your luck in trying to play your sets before your opponent (when a set is played, the cards are also cleared from the scrap board, preventing an opponent from playing the same set) but this isn't a push your luck game. The meat is a very subtle, cerebral game of bluffing and manipulation.
And that subtlety is the games undoing as a family weight game. When I played this game with my kids, they focused exclusively on getting the most cards of the same type in their hand -- at the expensive of moving cards to the scrap board. This type of play absolutely breaks the game. The cards that others are collecting never make it to the scrap board, which frustrates scoring. When a card does make it to the scrap pile, who can score feels random and based solely on turn order. While this looks like a simple family weight game, it really isn't.
When I have played it with older, experienced players who can appreciate the subtle manipulations required, this game really shines. My Mom, who has taken a few bridge lessons, took to this game instantly. The bluffing and board manipulation harkens back to many classic card games that she is familiar with. Our sessions without the kids produced tense, enjoyable games that felt almost entirely devoid of luck.
I've played this now with player counts up to 4 players and for me the sweet spot is definitely as a 2 player head-to-head game. In the 2 player version each player gets 2 turns each round. This allows for more strategic play. I found it very interesting to set up draft choices for my opponent where they knew either choice would benefit me, such as choosing between a card that they are collecting or taking a card to keep it from the scrap pile. I found in higher player counts this extra layer of depth was missing -- with more than a single opponent there is too much variability to predict how each player will choose.
I do have my quibbles. A poor font choice (is gothic script a font?) makes the cards very difficult to read for older eyes. Several times when playing with my 77 year old mother I would have to read to her the cards on the board, and even that sometimes proved challenging for my younger eyes. The distinctive art does help tell the cards apart, but it takes several playthroughs to get to the point where you can recognize the building without reading the caption.
I was expecting a light family weight card game. While I was disappointed that the game play is too subtle for my kids, I was really happy to discover a deep card game that is reminiscent of classic set collection games. This one has great legs and one that me and my Mom will be playing a lot of over the summer.
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