Review: Cities: Skylines – The Board Game
Whether Rock N’ Roll is your preferred material, or concrete; whether it takes a day or a hundred years; Cities: Skylines is your opportunity to build and manage a city and prove once and for all that traffic, crime, and pollution are easily solvable problems if you just work together and don’t get bogged down in bureaucracy.
Unleash the cranes and hire some firefighters, and see how happy you can make your citizens in Cities: Skylines — the Board Game.
How It Plays
Players will work cooperatively to build the happiest city they can, playing cards and placing tiles on the board. Money and happiness is earned based on what utilities and services are available when you play zone cards.
If you’re going to build a city, you’re going to need some land, and that’s where you start. Choose which section of the board you want to start your city on, and pay to activate it.
From there players will progressively take turns playing a card from their hand to add zones or buildings to the board.
Each card has a “cost” and a benefit. Utilities (power, water, trash) and services (buses, parks, hospitals, schools, police, fire) cost money, and each card corresponds to a specific building. As a benefit, utilities provide the corresponding resource while services provide either happiness, or a reduction in traffic, crime, or pollution.
Commercial, Residential, and Industrial cards typically have costs in the form of increased power or water usage, pollution, traffic, or crime. Frequently the benefit is either money or happiness, but that is often dependent on having specific service buildings available in the neighborhood. Also, when you play one of these cards you can choose any of the available tiles corresponding to the correct zone type.
The full game includes Unique buildings that grant a permanent ability, Policy cards that offer a limited benefit but don’t require you to place a building tile, and Headlines which add an obstacle or penalty while they are in play.
Once you play a card, you have to place the tile within a neighborhood. There are not any particular restrictions on proximity to roads. The main thing to consider is what bonuses you’ll get from service buildings; initial service buildings require adjacency, although later a service building can service a whole neighborhood.
At the end of your turn, you can draw a new card from any of the 3 decks, although the cards get progressively “larger” in the sense that they provide more benefits while generally having higher costs.
Each tile is divided into neighborhoods by roads. Once each neighborhood has at least one building or zone in it, you can end the round at any time, by player choice. When the round ends – called a Milestone – you calculate your total happiness. If your power, water, or trash are in the red – IE not enough utilities to cover what’s being used – you lose happiness. Also if you have too much unemployment, or too many unfilled jobs, you lose happiness. Pollution, traffic, and crime will eventually reduce happiness, but only at the end of the game. Once you’ve tallied up your happiness for the round, you pay to flip over a new board and begin the next round anew. This adds new neighborhoods and sometimes enlarges the neighborhoods you already have.
The game allows custom city configurations, so you can make the game last longer or shorter by how many board tiles you use (4 is the standard game).
Once you close out the final milestone, you calculate your total happiness and see how well you did!
We Built This City…
Cities: Skylines starts off real strong. A couple pages of rules, an optional set of “scenarios” to introduce game mechanics one at a time, and straightforward, cooperative cardplay will get your group ushering in a new era of advanced city-planning in no time.
I’ve written before about how, when a game is translated from PC to cardboard, designers will sometimes focus on the mechanics of the game versus the “feel.” This can result in an overcomplicated mess that is tedious, boring, long, or just feels unfinished, all while failing to truly capture the experience of the digital version within the tabletop experience.
In this, at least, Cities: Skylines wildly succeeds in pulling the opposite direction. Any mechanical connection to the PC game is lip service. You won’t place roads, run water pipes, add roundabouts, or any of the other specific tasks required by the video game. You’ll place zones, so to speak, but not in the same way you create neighborhoods, and certainly without all the minutiae required on screen.
And yet, despite the simple cardplay, Skylines truly manages to evoke the feel of managing a newfound city. Even though you don’t run pipes or power lines, you’ll still have to think about power and water. Even though you don’t place roads or factories, you’ll still feel like you’re managing traffic and pollution. It just doesn’t require you to manage complex data (aided by a CPU) in order to do those things. It’s all in the cards; what you gain, what you lose, in what order you play. Without having to track a thousand numbers, you still have to consider when and where to put the police and fire stations, or if you need a hospital or school first. You’ll also have to manage cash flow, as well as limited land space to fit all your best buildings where you want them to go.
The only thing that’s really missing from the vibe is owning the appearance of the city. Since you don’t choose where the roads go and every zone is just a flat tile, the end result of building a city doesn’t feel like “your city” with your own weird looping roads and neighborhoods. It’s just rectangular tiles that fit together in predetermined areas. Since the game is cooperative, you don’t even have the limited sense of individuality compared to other players using the same toolbox.
Still, when we first got into playing this game it was surprising just how well all the little elements fit in without being tedious, and we had a challenging but interesting experience trying to put our city together.
You may have noticed some keywords I’ve been using – “starts off strong,” “In this at least,” or “when we first got into…” – that might suggest all is not well once you’ve turned over all the stones.
Aside from capturing the vibe, which Cities: Skylines does well, a board game still has to be a solid game. To do that, there has to be… well, an endgame. A purpose.
Cities: Skylines, the PC game, is actually sort of purposeless. Sure, you have a goal of building a functional, growing city; but this is an open-ended goal. There’s not really a real “end” – you develop your city, craft it, make it your own, solve problems, and keep on growing.
This is fine on PC. Players can sit down with the game at leisure and spend a few hours crafting and building and then save and leave the game for another time, to expand their world more again. There’s plenty to tinker with, whether it’s trying to cut down on pollution or to come up with a new way to decrease traffic by another 10%. A board game needs something more definitive.
In Cities: Skylines, the board game, there is no clear deadline. The game ends when players decide it ends. Heck the round ends when players decide it ends. Those moments are called milestones, which in the PC game are awarded when you actually hit a milestone, but in the board game mean almost nothing.
On a round-to-round basis, this isn’t a huge deal. Meet the minimum requirement for zoning placement, balance out your resources, make sure you have enough cash to start the next round, and call a milestone. The sooner the better, really, since you’ll get to expand the space you have to work with.
The real problem comes at the end of the game. You still want to keep your utilities balanced, not to mention crime, traffic, and pollution, but by the end of the game you also want to maximize your happiness. Because there is no solid deadline, the game drags. There’s no ramping of tension. You just have to ask the question: do you keep playing to score more happiness, unbalance your utilities, and likely have to work to get them back in the green? Or do you end the game now? Without a finish line, the game ends up fading until it’s too much of a risk to continue, or you’re just tired of playing. It’s all very lackluster.
Sadly, “tired of playing” happens more often than I hoped. The box advertises 45-75 minutes. This would be the perfect length for this game, and if that’s how long it took to play I would give it two thumbs up. Unfortunately, because you have to take time and think and plan to make things work, this whole game-fade-out-ending scenario typically takes place around the 2.5hr mark. Exhausting.
This drag, and the game lasting twice as long as it should, makes other elements that otherwise wouldn’t be a big deal, start to stand out. Particularly, luck of the draw plays a larger role than makes sense for a 2.5hr game. Utilities, which you desperately need to keep your city going, exist only once in each of the 3 levels. Bury 2 of a single utility at the bottom of their respective decks, and you’re in trouble. If you need cash but your hand is filled with cards that only provide happiness, or require you to spend cash, you crash and burn. You can exchange cards from your hand, but that costs money too — an expensive proposition, especially if cash is what you need to keep playing. There’s no way to get a loan (which is a thing in the PC game) to kickstart your city growth. What’s more frustrating, at least in this game, than needing cash to place your fire station, but the only way you have to get cash is a residential zone that requires a fire station to give you the cash?
In a similar vein, it often feels your score relies more on your lucky card draws than how well you played. You might be rolling in cash but have little happiness thanks to your card draws. There are some unique buildings that can help you accrue a lot of happiness over the course of the game, but only if you draw them early enough to get some use out of them. After 2 hours, it doesn’t leave you with much satisfaction.
Again, if the game was 45-75 minutes, none of this would be a huge deal. It’d be a quick, fun card game about building a city together and managing its problems, and you’d play and it would be over. When it lasts hours, casual gameplay becomes drudgery.
I really wanted to love this game. I think the card play is simple and clever and captures the feel of managing a city without bogging down the players in tedious data. Unfortunately it lacks a solid endgame, resulting in what should be a fairly quick, casual game turning into an hours-long piece of work that isn’t going to suck people back in to playing again and again. Cities: Skylines fans will be best served sticking to the PC game, and for the rest there are better city games out there.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Kosmos for providing a review copy of Cities: Skylines – The Board Game