Tucked away in the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony was a segment illustrating the evolution of Britain from pastoral island to thriving metropolis. Apparently many American found this transformation boring. I, on the other hand, was riveted — probably because, as the participants rolled up the grass and erected smokestacks, I could visualize myself playing the corresponding cards in Martin Wallace’s London.
Set after the Great Fire of 1666, and spanning the quarter millenia thereafter, London has players rebuilding the Capital through the play of cards, which depict buildings such as shops and train stations, infrastructure such as sewers and schools, populations such as refugees and paupers, and institutions such as the British Museum. Most of these cards confer a one-time benefit to the owner — money and victory points are the most common boons — when he chooses to “run” his city.
Even as big a fan of Martin Wallace as I must admit that that his games can rarely be accused of elegance. They often seem as though they could have benefited from some additional development (and, indeed, several of his games have received this development and been reissued under a new name: Age of Steam/Steam, Brass/Age of Industry, etc.). One of his newest offerings, A Few Acres of Snow, asks the active player to select two actions from a menu of over a dozen, a panoply of options that can lead to paralysis.
Players of London, on the other hand, use their turn to perform a single action from a possible four: draw cards, play cards, run their city, or buy one of the 20 London boroughs shown on the game board. This simplicity puts London within spitting distance of “gateway game” territory, something else rarely said of Martin Wallace’s offerings.
Even with such a streamlined design, though, Wallace manages to pack in a fair amount of theme. The cards, of course, have a host of different effects that reflect their type: markets produce money, paupers can be sent to school (or prison), and so forth. Cards are placed into stacks, which allows a player to “build over” those of an earlier era with modern buildings of increased efficiency. And, when a city is run, players receive deleterious “poverty points” equal to their stacks of cards, minus the number of boroughs they have acquired; thus, having a lot of buildings in a small area breeds poverty, while expansion reduces the pressures of urbanization. As I said: simple and thematic.
Wallace also attempts to mitigate the lack of player interaction that plagues many other games of this ilk. The game board features a display area, which holds, face-up, cards from which a player can draw. When someone plays a card to their area, they must also select from their hand a second card and place it into this display area. Thus, the face-up cards available for you to draw are those that your opponents have seen fit to make available. This clever twist on the traditional draw-cards/play-cards system allows you to stay in your own sandbox if you prefer, though it behooves a player to keep an eye on what would benefit his opponents — and withhold it.
Comparisons between London and San Juan are inevitable and illuminating, as both have players building a city by playing cards to the table before them. (London, it’s worth noting, is very much a card game, despite the attractive and largely superfluous gameboard). One could almost imagine London as the San Juan prototype — if, during development, someone hit upon the idea of using cards instead of money to pay for buildings, and of jettisoning the board entirely, you’d be three-quarters of the way from one to the other.
Whether you prefer London to San Juan largely depends on how the amount of polish you demand of your games. Personally, I enjoy the opacity inherent in a rougher-hewn design. Whereas powerful building combinations are fairly obvious in San Juan (e.g., a building that gives you additional goods pairs well with a building that allows you to sell additional goods), London requires analysis, and repeat plays, to suss out these opportunities for synergy.
Where London falters, in my opinion, is in the ratio of complexity to playing time — 90 to 120 minutes is a bit long for a game in which player options are so constrained. It also, perversely, contains a few cards that require to owner to single out another player for abuse. Some game groups (such as my own, alas) consider any and all “take that!” elements in a game design as grounds for summary rejection.
I, on the other hand, quite enjoy London, despite (or, let’s be honest, probably because of) its idiosyncrasies. Like Martin Wallace, I appreciate theme and I am willing to brook a few complications if they help in the setting the atmosphere. More to the point, I’m a fan of simple games that require tough decisions and provide ample opportunity for strategic play. By that criteria, London is capital indeed.