Posted by: gschloesser | August 11, 2011

San Francisco

Design by:  Andreas Wetter and Thorsten Löpmann
Published by:  Amigo
3 – 5 Players, 1 hour
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

This new release from Amigo and is designed by Andreas Wetter and Thorsten Löpmann, two designers with whom I am not at all familiar. If this is, indeed, their first serious venture into game design, then I applaud their efforts.

It is 1906 and San Francisco lies in ruins. The city by the bay has just been devastated by a massive earthquake. Players represent wealthy investors attempting to rebuild the city and construct the most prestigious districts.

As would be expected, the theme is intriguing, yet fairly thin. I certainly didn’t get the feel of re-building a devastated city. That’s not necessarily bad, but it certainly will be a drawback for some. The components didn’t add to the feel, either, despite the attempt to depict ruins on each district tile. Truth-be-told, this artwork was so muted and light as to make it extremely difficult to view. In every game, we had considerable trouble matching the artwork on the ‘Call for Bid’ cards to the ruin artwork on the tiles. Further plays have made this a bit easier, but that’s only because we learned to identify each district by their values. It would have made things a LOT easier if they had placed numbers on the ‘Call for Bid’ cards which matched the numbers on the relevant districts.

The board depicts a section of San Francisco (a 7 x 5 grid) which has been destroyed. Onto this grid, players place tiles representing various districts, including residential, commercial and recreational. Each category has two distinct types of buildings (row houses or villas, for example), and have point values of either 4, 5 or 6. There are two special districts, the town hall and bank district, each of which are valued at 10 points. In addition, there are three parks which have been left virtually untouched by the earthquake.

A player’s turn is quite simple: turn over a ‘Call for Bid’ card and decide to place that one up for auction, or discard it and reveal another card. If he chooses this option, the second card MUST be placed up for auction. The cards will specify the type of auction to be used (I’ll discuss this in a bit more detail later).

The cards usually award the auction winner the right to place one or two ‘influence’ markers (those ever popular wooden rods) around the district depicted on the card. Sometimes, more than one player can win the right to place an influence marker, and occasionally the district upon which they can place the marker is not restricted. It is the bidding battles over the right to exercise the power depicted on these cards which is the heart of the game.

What is a player trying to accomplish? Once a player gains a majority of influence markers around a particular district (which is present when no other player can place enough markers on that district to reach the same or more influence markers there), that player ‘re-builds’ the district, flipping the tile over to its ‘restored’ side. The only exception to this procedure are the town hall and bank, both valued at 10 points. A player must possess ALL four influence markers around these districts in order to re-build it. The player achieving this earns the prestige points equal to the value depicted on the tile. The player with the most prestige points at game’s end is the ultimate victor.

If one or more districts have been ‘re-built’ during a turn, an action card is revealed. These cards come in eight main varieties, allowing players to place more influence markers, move markers around the board, gain influence points, earn bonus prestige points, acquire more checks, etc. Most of these require yet another auction to determine the player who gets to exercise these privileges. Some, however, allow all players to participate in the benefits.

If the execution of an action card results in a rebuilt district, then yet another action card is revealed and the process is repeated. This procedure can quite literally repeat itself ad infinitum, or at least until the end of the game, whichever comes first. When a total 12 action cards have been revealed, the game ends and the player with the most prestige points is the ‘Golden Gate Guru’.

The designers have borrowed heavily in their choice of mechanisms from other games.  My good friend Mark Jackson enjoys calling this one the ‘Frankenstein’ of games — assembled from many different parts.  The game is essentially an auction game, utilizing several different … er, various … auction methods. I can’t say different because ALL of the methods used have been utilized before. Consider the auction methods which are being used in the game:

Method 1: Influence cards. Each player has 10 influence cards, numbered from 0 – 9 respectively. When this type of auction is called for, each player lays one of these cards face-down, then simultaneously reveal them. The player who played the card with the highest influence wins the auction. If two or more players tie, they cancel each other out and the player who played the next highest influence card wins.

Sound familiar? It should. This method has been used in a WIDE variety of games, including Hols der Geier (Raj), Sky Runner, Montgolfierre and many more.

Method 2: Checks. Each player begins the game with the following mixture of checks: 2 $10,000s, 2 $20,000s and one of each value from $30,000 to $100,000. When involved in a ‘check’ auction, bids go around the table with players laying checks from their hand onto the table. A player must either withdraw or play a bid higher than the player before him. If the bid gets back to a player and he desires to increase his previous bid, he cannot retrieve the checks previously laid on the table, but must supplement it with additional checks from his hand. Eventually, everyone will withdraw except one player, who wins the bid.

Again, sound familiar? How about Knizia’s High Society? Identical.

Method 3: Option chits. Each player has three option chits, each chit depicting two of the six types of districts being reconstructed. When this auction is called for, each player secretly plays one chit face-down to the table and simultaneously reveals them. If a player is the only one to play a particular chit, then he gets to execute the action being auctioned. If, however, two or more players play identical chits, they then must have a modified check auction to determine the victor.

Ring any bells? How about Basari or Löwenhertz? Very, very similar.

Now, is this a bad thing? No, not at all … except one constantly gets the feeling of ‘deja-vu’. Still, these auctions can be quite tense during the course of the game.

My main problem, however, is with the Influence method. I feel this Raj-like mechanism of bidding influence cards doesn’t quite work in this venue. The mechanism is good in games which are played, as my good buddy Ty Douds likes to say, for ‘chuckles‘. I think in a serious game, which I perceive San Francisco to be, the ‘tied players lose’ mechanism really hinders careful strategic planning and becomes little more than a crap shoot.

However, if this ‘tied players lose’ mechanism were left out, then it would distort overall play balance. You see, each player begins the game with 30 influence points. As they win ‘Influence’ auctions, they lose a corresponding number of influence points equal to the value of the influence card they played to win that auction. A player may only play an influence card if he has at least an equal number of influence points remaining. Thus, players who use their influence points and fall behind the others in this category will be at a severe disadvantage. There are several ‘action’ cards which allow players to increase their influence points, but it is quite possible that these may not surface until late in the game, if at all. So, as is, the ‘tied players lose’ mechanism does allow players lagging in influence points to still have a chance at winning an auction. I see what the designers were trying to accomplish, but the result is less than satisfying with this aspect of the game.

There is also some confusion as to whether winning a ‘Call for Bid’ card allows the player to place an influence marker along the edges of the map. Some have proclaimed that this is not allowed and a player must wait for one of those rare cards which allows a placement along the city fringes. Others, including the venerable Mik Svellov, insist that players CAN place along the fringes with any card. I’ve played both ways and vastly prefer Mik’s ruling. Without it, it’s quite possible that many districts will stagnate without any clear majority for extended periods of time.

Fine and good, but is the game fun? I’d have to say that, so far, the answer is yes. I don’t think it is terribly ‘deep’ as the strategies to pursue seem reasonably obvious. The game … and players’ actions … are mostly steered by the revealing of cards. One must constantly react based on what actions the cards allow. Waiting for that needed ‘5’ district to surface could spell doom. Still, the auction elements do add nice tension to the game and there are important decisions to be made as to which battles to fight, and from which to withdraw. Where to place one’s influence markers is also a consideration, but, for the most part, this decision is not too difficult.

Further, especially with four or five players, there’s a fairly large dose of ‘chaos’ present.  Players constantly cancel each other out in the bidding process, particularly the Influence card bidding method which I described above.  As a result, the degree of control a player has over his own fate is somewhat illusory.  This loss of control is somewhat reduced when playing with only three players, but then, much of the interaction in the bidding rounds is missing. 

I don’t think this one is destined to become a personal favorite, but will be one I won’t mind playing a few times a year. I can see the constant series of auctions becoming a bit repetitive over time, which may well prevent it from being played often. Still, for now, it is enjoyable. I’m still wondering, however, what the heck folks such as Robert E. Lee and Al Capone, whose portraits are on the Influence cards, had to do with the re-building of San Francisco!  It appears the designers (or at least the developers) didn’t do much homework regarding San Francisco and the various personalities involved with the town!

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