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Game Preview: My City, or A Tile-Laying, City-Building Game That Gives You Fits

W. Eric Martin
United States
Apex
North Carolina
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Board Game: My City
My City is a city-building legacy game from Reiner Knizia and KOSMOS, and despite my love for Knizia's work — as expressed in this overview of L.A.M.A., for example — Knizia and the legacy format is an oil-and-water combination that doesn't deliver what I want to see from his designs.

At heart, My City is akin to Knizia's FITS, a 2009 nominee for the Spiel des Jahres. In both games, each player receives their own playing board and set of polyominoes, and gameplay is Bingo-style, with someone revealing a card that depicts one of the pieces, then everyone playing that piece onto their board.

Board Game: FITS
In both games, you're generally trying to cover as much of the board as possible since you lose points when any of the background material is visible; some spaces provide positive points, though, so you try to build around those while covering everything else, but the odds of you getting the tile you need at any one moment are often against you, so you must make do the best you can.

In FITS, you can pass as many times as you wish, placing the tile to the side and knowing that you'll never have another chance to play it; in My City, you must pay 1 point to skip placing a tile, but you start with a reservoir of 10 points, which is far more than you'll need in most games.

If you can't place a tile on the board in My City or choose not to place a tile, you can spend 1 point, place the tile face down out of play, and continue. Alternatively, you can declare yourself done with the game and calculate your score, gaining 1 point for each visible tree, losing 1 point for each visible rock, and losing 1 point for each visible light-green space.

Board Game: My City
End of episode #1: Gain 8 points for trees revealed,
then lose 12 points for empty spaces uncovered

Whoever has the most points wins the episode and fills in two progress symbols on top of their game board, that is, literally fills in those symbols with a marker. In a game with three or four players, the player with the second-highest score fills in one symbol.

On top of this, the winner of this first must place a sticker with two rocks on their board while the third and fourth players (or the second player in a two-player game) must place a sticker with one tree on their boards. Thus, in each episode that winner makes important progress toward the long-term goal — having the most progress symbols at the end of the 24-episode legacy campaign — while receiving a possible impediment for the episodes to come, an impediment that might be of no consequence given that you're actively trying to cover as many non-tree spaces as possible. Those with poor scores receive a minor boost, filling an empty space with a tree so they won't lose that point in the future, with an additional point coming if they manage to build around that tree.

This basic structure of gameplay in My City remains the same throughout the 24 episodes of the legacy campaign — flip a building card, place that building on your board — but as you might expect, things get more complex in subsequent games. In episode #2, the building colors become important, with you gaining points for the largest contiguous block of each color; place five yellow buildings together, for example, and you've earned yourself five additional points. In episode #3, each player adds a well to their board, and if you place a different building on each side of the well while keeping the well visible, you earn 4 points.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
From gallery of W Eric Martin
Final board in episode #3

My City includes eight "chapter" envelopes, with each chapter containing the new rules, stickers, scoresheet, and other elements for the next three episodes in the legacy campaign. Chapter 2, "The Churches", adds new buildings to the game, while Chapter 3, "The Flood", lets you build in the forest, which was previously off limits.

I've given light spoilers for My City to this point, and I'm going to reveal much more in the remainder of this post (and the video below), but I'd argue that none of it matters in the overall flow of the campaign. If you prefer to know nothing — an attitude I respect given that I avoid seeing trailers for movies that I intend to see — then you shouldn't even look through the box given that the names of the chapters give you some sense of where things are heading.

I's argue that none of that info matters, though, because My City doesn't tell a narrative in the style of Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, the only other legacy game that I've played. (Disclosure: I was paid to edit the rules of Zombie Kidz Evolution, but I still haven't played it.) Knowing that, for instance, Chapter 4 is titled "The Gold Rush" and Chapter 7 "The Railroad" will have no effect on how you play earlier episodes. Placing a rock or tree here or there is mostly irrelevant in the flow of the overall campaign, and each element that's introduced is important only once it's introduced. You'll have a well for a few episodes – or multiple wells if you don't do well in episode #3 — then the wells go away. You'll have a sawmill, then the sawmill vanishes along with some of the forest. You'll mine gold for several games, then those mines close.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
From gallery of W Eric Martin
Episode #18, with you trying to connect colored buildings to the proper mines

My City has a sandbox feel that loosely tells the story of a city over time, but little that you do has real consequence to the overall goal of the campaign, that being to score as many progress symbols as possible. With the gold rush in Chapter 4, you do gain a new way to earn progress symbols: Have more gold nuggets than all other players, with you earning a nugget by being the first player in each episode (starting in episode #10) to connect the two gold mines with a group of contiguous buildings or possibly by being the first to cover the forest with buildings.

I realize now, only after having finished the 24-episode campaign and recording a loooong video about the game that we probably scored this nugget bonus incorrectly, and this brings up one failing with My City, a failing common to many legacy games: the rules.

In general the rules are short, simple, and clear, but the envelopes introduce new rules and bonuses, and it's not always clear when something should apply. The rules for Chapter 4 introduce that nugget-based progress rule described two paragraphs above, but we applied that rule for all three episodes in Chapter 4 whereas I think now you're supposed to apply it only after you've completed all three episodes in that chapter. (The end of the rules for episode #10 direct you to "take a look at the bonus at the end of this rule sheet", so we did, then we applied that bonus after each episode. Ideally the rules would say "Apply this bonus after each episode" or "Apply this bonus only after episode #12", whichever the case is.)

The rules for a chapter often say something like, "All the rules for episodes 13 to 18 apply", which is not necessarily helpful given that the rules often change. Most of the time you can't build over the forest, but sometimes you can; most of the time your first building must touch the river, but for a while it must touch the sawmill. I think we got most of the rules correct, but having all the rules in one place would be preferable, similar to how Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 has stickers that you apply to the rulebook so that you can have a singular reference point for all your questions.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
From gallery of W Eric Martin
Episode #24: In this episode, you can't build over trees and your first building must touch the red-roofed palace; the first building revealed was the plus-shaped church, which I couldn't place — and if you can't place a church, you're done for the round. As a result, I placed nothing!

More rules that allow you to gain progress symbols are introduced with the mine that replaces the mountain in Chapter 6 and the railroad that arrives in Chapter 7, and gaining those symbols is your overall drive at all times. Getting a minor penalty or losing out on a small bonus means nothing compared to the larger goal of collecting those symbols, so you will always be focused on winning every episode no matter what.

I played the campaign, as well as the "eternal game" (more on that below), with my exchange student Lisa on a review copy from KOSMOS, and while she enjoyed the legacy aspects of the game — the constant flow of added rules and oddness of writing on the board being something new for her — she didn't focus on the larger campaign. She won multiple episodes, often edging me out by only one point or even winning on the tie-breaker — thus demonstrating the importance of every action and every bonus or penalty — but she didn't focus on the larger multi-episode goals such as developing her mine or railroad, and her long-term progress suffered for that.

Thanks to the double-sided game boards, My City includes a way to play without the legacy elements of gameplay, although you will need to pull a few components from the envelopes in order to have all the parts you need to play. In essence, the eternal game is akin to episodes #8-10, with each player having a well, and the player who first connects the gold mines scoring 3 points. Aside from the gold mine, though, you're on your own, with your actions having no impact on others, similar to FITS.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
From gallery of W Eric Martin
An example of a completed "eternal game"

Playing the eternal game twice after having finished the campaign cemented my opinion that legacy games shouldn't be in Knizia's wheelhouse in the future. What I love about his designs are their streamlined nature, with the simplicity of the design hiding depth that's revealed only through multiple playings as you gain a better understanding of the flow of the game and how your early decisions can impact everything else — but with My City, I felt like all the new elements were getting in the way of what I wanted: a better sense of how to play the game, with Knizia not delivering the Platonic ideal of a game design as he usually does, but instead placing you on a vehicle that keeps evolving as you steer it.

That said, Knizia used the legacy aspect in a smart way, with the basic mechanisms of the game feeling like how a town would be built — start next to the river, then grow from there — and with the legacy elements serving a purpose, then disappearing. You can mine the mountain for only so long, for example, so hit it while you can! Of course you should be doing that anyway since some of the bonuses are available only to those who reach them first. The same goes for the railroad, with you needing to race for earlier bonuses at the risk of losing out and needing to extend your line even further before you can reach the bonuses available to all.

Despite my preference for the eternal game, I'd play the legacy version of My City again, if only to see how it plays out with three or four players instead of only two. With two players, everything is win or don't win, with no in-between. You have only one competitor in the race for gold nuggets or expansion in the mine or connection with the railroad, so the game feels easier than it would with more players. That statement is a testament to how much I appreciate Knizia's designs: Even when they're not expressing his strengths as well as I think they could, I'd still play them over most other games. I have a feeling that most people will enjoy the ride of the legacy campaign far more than I did, and regardless I still have the eternal game available for continued play, which gives us all the best of both worlds.

For more spoilers and a long discussion of what I love about Knizia's designs, check out this video overview:

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