It’s something of a testament to Martin Wallace’s game of London, that I was able to get it out onto the table at around 1:30 in the morning, and not only play it myself for the first time, but teach it to my three opponents. Rare is the Martin Wallace game that I can comprehend from a reading of the rule book, which, as I’ve noted on numerous occasions in these pages, says more about me than it says about any of the rule books (Automobile, Railways of the World, and God help me, Byzantium, which I’ve owned for about five years and have yet to decipher).
London is a card-driven game, with a typical (for Wallace) economic component to it, and is perhaps best understood, looking at it backwards; from the standpoint of scoring at the end, as a means of determining your course of action at the beginning (come to think of it, a lot of games are best understood this way). Your final score is going to be based on your overall acquisition of in-game and end-game victory points, from which you will deduct points related to ‘poverty’ (we’ll get to this in a minute) and money considerations (money on-hand and the repayment of loans you may have taken during the course of the game). You ignore either side of this acquisition/deduction equation at your peril. In our late night/early morning experiment with this game, one of the players (Mike) was the hands-down winner in VP acquisition (50 points, over a distant tie at 35), but had to deduct 63 points, leaving him with a negative score; 42 of those deducted points were related to ‘poverty’ and 21 of them were from the 7 VPs each that he had to deduct for failing to pay off three loans.
The board is a map of London, broken up into 20 boroughs and a two-level card display area of 10 spaces; five on top, five below. Depending on the number of players (from 2-4), you’ll utilize between 6 and all 10 of the available spaces; 6 for two-player, 8 for three and all 10 for four. A deck of 110 cards, divided into three smaller decks (A,B,C) is placed near the board. Six cards from the A deck are dealt to each player, along with $5 (in pounds, actually), and five poverty points (black, wooden cubes). And the fun begins.
On your turn, which rotates clockwise, from a start player, you will draw a single card from the draw deck, and then, do one of four things – Play cards, run a city, buy land, or take three cards; each with its own delightful set of consequences. Playing cards entails taking cards in your hand and playing them to a display that will be forming in front of you. Running a city entails activating these cards, so that their benefits become available to you. Buying land entails purchasing boroughs on the map, at a cost indicated on the borough itself; only one player per borough. Taking three cards is pretty self-explanatory. At the end of your turn, you must have no more than nine cards in your hand, and must discount down to that number.
Playing cards – understanding the information on the cards you place on your display is key. Not just in terms of what each card actually ‘says’ but what its play and activation means, both short and long term. They contain information like the cost to place it, the cost to activate it, the result of play or activation and whether or not, following activation, it is either flipped over or remains active. Some cards in the deck bear end-game victory point amounts, which will be added to your score. Others allow you to collect in-game victory points, collected on the spot. Still others allow you to deduct, or force you to add poverty points. Some give you money, others a combination of things. For each card you place on your display, you must discard a card of the same color to the card display area on the board. Familiarity with the deck, which should take a game or two, is important.
Running a city – the trickiest component of game play, because of its relationship to the collection of poverty points. When you ‘run a city,’ you essentially are activating cards you’ve already placed on your display, paying whatever related cost is involved (sometimes free, other times not). You can activate as many cards on display as you wish, or not. When you’re done with this process, you will add up the number of card stacks (not individual cards) in your display at the time, and the number of cards in your hand. From the total, you will deduct the number of boroughs in your possession (bought, with your marker on it). Early in the game, unless you’ve spent some time purchasing a bunch of boroughs, you’re going to end up with a positive number and will draw that many poverty points (black cubes) from the supply. These little suckers add up, and they’ll cost you at the end; if you have 10 of them at the end, you’ll have to deduct 15 points from your score. You’ll deduct three points more for every cube over 10. The balancing act here is that the player with the least amount of them at the end of the game gets to discard theirs, and doesn’t have to deduct points, while everybody else gets to deduct that least amount from their total. So at the end of the game, if Player A has the least amount with 6, and you have 12, Player A tosses his six, and you get to toss 6 of your 12, taking your poverty point deduction on the basis of the 6 you have left (this would actually be 7 points).
Buying a borough – pretty simple, actually. Each borough shows a price, the number of cards you need to draw when you purchase it and the number of VPS you’ll collect at the end of the game for owning it. Bear in mind that at the end of your turn, you can’t hold more than nine cards in your hand.
And that’s about it, as far as process goes. There is an on-going discussion taking place about this game on BoardGameGeek about a ‘surefire’ strategy for victory, which, if true, would earn it a ‘broken’ label, meaning that it’s been figured out and is thus, pointless to play. The strategy centers on purchasing boroughs early and often, utilizing loans, and collecting excess cards on every turn. As you continue to pile on debt, you are also creating an optimum selection of cards for your hand. When you purchase boroughs, you are required to draw an amount of cards associated with that purchase, and at the end of your turn, you need to discard down to nine, so you draw, choose ‘good’ cards, discard the ‘bad.’ When you do finally play, and activate cards, you tend to negate the acquisition of poverty points.
Example: With ownership of say, six boroughs, and with the maximum of nine cards in your hand, you draw a tenth on your turn. You choose to “Play cards,” laying out five, and discarding five (for each card you play on to your display, you have to discard one of the same color). On a subsequent turn, with now, no cards in your hand, you draw one and choose to activate the five on your display, sitting in five stacks. They earn you appropriate income or VPs. Cards on display (5) + card in your hand (1), minus boroughs you own (6) means you collect no poverty points. If you own a couple more boroughs, the formula will yield a negative number and you’ll be able to turn in that many poverty cubes you already own.
A common thread that runs through this strategy is the acquisition of Omnibus cards, which provide you, on every turn, with a dollar for each borough you own. This creates something of a revenue engine, which will fuel further borough purchases. Of course, if you own two Omnibus cards, you’ll double the money coming in, and discussions on this particular strategy emphasizes the seemingly unstoppable combination of such double Omnibus cards. With the cash coming in, you should be able to successfully pay off your loans (you have to pay $15 for every $10 you borrow) and have money left over.
Executing this ‘perfect’ strategy isn’t too difficult, but it’s not really a breezy romp
either. Lot of factors go into it, and it’s best executed in two and three player games. With four, apparently, the card distribution is spread out a little more. Knowing about this vaguely, I was quick in my first game to start buying boroughs, and looking to optimize the hand that I would eventually use to play and activate cards. I finished second to Sinead, who knew nothing about the strategy and just successfully balanced all of the game’s tasks. I do, think, though, that with a greater familiarity with the cards, I might have executed the strategy better, and yeah, it seems like a winner. You’re discarding a lot of cards on every turn when you buy boroughs and creating an optimum hand for yourself, which has a way of making the 110 cards in the game disappear quickly (exhaustion of the deck is the end-game signal), and the A deck almost useless (you’re hoarding cards as that deck flies by). The thread of the Geek conversation about this can be found at: http://boardgamegeek.com/article/5840047#5840047
That said, though, London is fun to play. As they say in and around Boston, it’s wicked easy to learn, and teach, and while engaging your brain in a hefty exercise, it doesn’t burn any serious cells doing so. And FYI: The Mayfair board is good-looking, the components are top notch and the card stock is strong enough to withstand repeated play. You might want to consider downloading a scoresheet for the game, which can be found on the BoardGameGeek entry for the game, under “Files.”
London is designed by Martin Wallace, with artwork by Mike Atkinson, Peter Dennis and Simon Jannerland. It was originally published by Wallace’s own Treefrog Games and is currently being published by Mayfair Games (who provided me with a review copy). It accomodates 2-4 players, is recommended for ages 13 and up, and takes about 90 minutes to play. It retails for around $40