Game Review: 'London' by Martin Wallace

Two weeks ago, I reviewed Automobile, a recent Mayfair Games release from famed board game designer Martin Wallace. Since then, I've had the opportunity to play a few rounds of London, another game from Wallace published earlier this year. Both games have several common qualities: they are deeply strategic, have a strong historical theme, and contain some signature Wallace play mechanics. That's pretty much where the similarities end, though. London takes Wallace's style of gameplay in new directions as a card-driven game, but does it work? Read on for the full review.

Just the Facts:

Players: 2-4

Playing Time: 90 minutes

Age: 13 to adult

Publisher: Mayfair Games

MSRP: $55.00

Release: January 2011

The Gameplay:

London is a card-driven board game that starts off immediately following the Great Fire of London in 1666. Throughout the game, players focus on rebuilding the city by drawing and playing building cards, progressing through a deck that spans approximately 250 years of history. Cards depict the famous building and monuments from various periods time, and the deck is prepared in a roughly chronological order. Actions must be taken in moderation though, as controlling large numbers of cards without first investing in the expansion of the city will cause punishing outbreaks of poverty.

Each player begins with a starting hand of six cards, five coins, and five poverty cubes. How each of these can be used in play will be explained along with the turns in London, which are a fairly simple experience. There are only three phases to each turn, and the complexity of the game is contained within the cards themselves, not the actions surrounding them. Turns are broken down into the following phases:

  1. Draw a card. This can be done from either the deck or from a selection of up to the last ten most recently discarded cards.
  2. Take an action. Players must choose one of the following: Move cards from their hand to the table, activate cards already on the table, purchase land on the game board, or draw three cards into their hand. At any point during this phase, the player can also take loans from the bank should they need additional money. These must be paid back at the end of the game with either additional money or a penalty in victory points.
  3. Discard. There is a nine-card hand limit, enforced at the end of each turn. Discards go into empty slots in the display of the ten most recent discards, shown on the game board as two rows of five cards each. If at any point an eleventh card is discarded, the top row of five discards is removed from the game and the bottom row moves up.

Of the four possible actions in that second turn phase, buying land is a common early-game choice. The map is divided into twenty areas, referred to as different boroughs of London. Each borough costs a set amount of money, but also awards the player victory points and allows them to draw new cards into their hand. Expansion into new boroughs also plays an important role in reducing poverty, which players will be penalized for causing.

An example of the cards used in London

The second possible action is to play cards onto the table from your hand. The cards are separated into four distinct colors: brown for economic activities, pink for political activities, blue for science and culture, and grey for paupers (nearly useless cards that clog up your hand). The act of playing cards is where tough decisions are made, because in order to play a card onto the table, a second card of matching color must be discarded from your hand. In addition, some cards also require a sum of money to be placed on the table. Cards can either be played side by side, or on top of existing cards. Only the top card on each pile can be used in later turns, but the number of piles a player creates will increase their amount of poverty. This brings up the second important decision, of whether a card has enough value to warrant creating additional piles of cards.

The third possible action on a turn is to activate the cards in front of you. Each card has a clear cost, either in money or additional discards from your hand, and a clear effect, which can be earned money, victory points, or either an increase or decrease in the player's amount of poverty. After play, most cards will be flipped over. Most likely, these face down cards will have new cards placed on top of them in later turns. Occasionally, a card does not indicate that it should be flipped, so it can be used on later turns (or be covered up by a new card if the player does not with to continue using it).

The final action, drawing cards, is not often taken, and serves as a late-game option to run out the deck by players who feel they are in a good position. Alternatively, it can be the only way to draw multiple new cards in a turn if all twenty boroughs are occupied.

A game of London in progress

Up to this point, the concept of accruing poverty cubes has been mentioned several times as the balancing factor in nearly every decision a player makes, so I will provide a quick explanation of how it works. Poverty is only calculated after a player choses to activate their cards on the table. It will not come as a surprise, so players can balance out their game before choosing to take that action. The formula for calculating poverty is to add the number of cards in a players hand with the number of card piles in front of them on the table. From that number, the player subtracts the number of boroughs they occupy and the result is the number of poverty cubes a player must take. Acquiring a few of these cubes is normal. After all, each player does start with five. However, the penalty to a player's victory points becomes prohibitively steep once they possess a large stack, so balanced play is crucial.

Gameplay in London continues until the last card in the deck has been drawn, after which each player receives one final turn. Afterwards, the winning player is determined through a count of victory points, which can be earned in numerous ways. Players will score points for the boroughs they occupy, the cards they have played, and the money they have earned. They will lose points, however, for any loans they cannot repay and any poverty tokens they have accrued. Multiple ways to score in London provide for multiple paths to victory, and it is up to each player to identify and implement the strategy that best suits their cards.

The Components:

  • 126 cardboard counters
  • 70 plastic money chips
  • 110 cards
  • 40 wooden poverty markers (cubes and discs)
  • 1 game board
  • 1 full-color rule book
  • Plastic component bags

The components here hit all of the key points. The don't bend too easily, the board is flush cut, and the cardboard counters are sturdy. The use of chips in lieu of paper money is also always a welcome change. The art provides great depictions of London across over 200 years of history, and the board map has a great look. It has enough artistic detail to give it the feel of an actual historical map, yet is not so busy as to distract from the game.

The twenty boroughs of London.

The cards would have benefit from some additional graphic design work, though. Granted, to flat color background of each card is there to clearly state an in-game function, but this leaves some great illustrations surrounded by otherwise bland elements.

The rule book is very well written and gives detailed examples of play. The full rules of London manage to fit across just a handful of pages, making this a game that you can get going fairly quickly right out of the box. The back cover of the book is a comprehensive player aid that can be passed around for the first few turns to help players get started.

Another positive to note is the size of the box. London can easily be slipped into a messenger bag or backpack and brought to your local game night. This is something easier said than done for bulkier games and makes London a better option for those certain situations. One of my top factors in judging a game is gauging how often you can actually get it to the table, so having a complex game in a small box is always a big plus.

Final Thoughts:

London is a good game, but not a great one. There is a niche for whom this game is perfect for, that being smaller groups of serious gamers. This is definitely a "gamer's game" that won't hold the casual fans attention, but it will stay on the table for a long time with those who appreciate deep strategy because of its replay value. Each round of London plays differently than the next due to the randomness of the cards, and it's up to the players to adapt their strategies to suit their hands.

Comparing this to our last Martin Wallace game, Automobile, I found London to be slightly less engaging. The actions of other players do not often impact your personal strategy until the final rounds of play, when board space and card supply becomes scarce. This leads to the "simultaneous games of solitaire" feeling that is often cited by detractors of European-style board gaming, but this is not a negative in its own right; It simply limits the appeal to those who enjoy this style as mentioned above.

The game also works best with a larger group of players. With three and four players, there is an excitement factor to the constant forced adaptation in your strategy due to the luck of the draw. When playing a two-player round though, experienced players might be tempted to burn through the deck trying to fish for certain cards. This takes a lot of the action out of the game, making it less interesting than a round played at a full table.

There's still a lot to like about London. For instance, it absolutely succeeds in joining a historical setting with thematically relevant game mechanics. (There's an awful lot of sacrificing peasants for the greater good of rebuilding the city.) It also offers tight strategic play in a shorter playtime than most games of this type, making it a potential go-to option for certain gamer's schedules. Games with tightly balanced mechanics and deep strategy do not come along every day, so it is important to remember the context in which this game is being critiqued. Even mediocre works from the most superb artists still rank higher than the average output for that medium.

My final recommendation is that this is a solid buy, but not a must-own title for existing fans of Wallace and his style of games. Casual gamers should seek an introduction into deeply strategic games elsewhere, but then consider giving London a try.

Mayfair Games provided a complimentary review copy of this game. Additionally, I would like to thank Chip Coffey and the Jacksonville Garrison gaming group for helping me to get this game to the table while I traveled away from home this past week. If you are in the Jacksonville, FL area, I encourage you to check out their annual gaming convention.