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Review: Ginkgopolis

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Ginkgopolis box

In the future, space and resources are scarce. Move over, bricks and I-beams, and welcome to the party, ginkgo biloba trees. We’re going to build a city that can practically run itself. So grab some seeds, plant some trees, and build a sustainable skyscraper. Ginkgopolis needs your expertise!

How It Works

Ginkgopolis is a city building game with tableau-/engine-building, drafting, resource management, tile-laying, area control, and deck-building mechanics for one to five players. The player with the most success points at the end of the game is the winner.

The player screens in Ginkgopolis. These work very well, even if you're tall.
The player screens in Ginkgopolis. These work very well, even if you’re tall.

To begin the game, each player receives a player screen, start cards of a matching number, and the resources shown on those start cards. The starting city tiles are placed randomly in a 3×3 grid, and the letters A-L are placed around the perimeter of the city. The deck of cards representing the city is shuffled, and each player receives four cards.

The game is played in rounds, with each player acting in turn, starting with the first player. Players begin the round by simultaneously selecting a card from their hand, placing it face down in front of them (with or without a building tile), and then passing the remaining cards left.

The game setup.
The game setup.

Then, in turn order, players do what their selected card shows. Players may simply play the card without a building tile; doing so activates that space on the board, granting resources. If players play their card with a building tile, they will place their building tile on the space that corresponds to the card played. Then players activate any abilities on the cards in their tableau, and if they built a tile in the city, they get a bonus. If they built the city outward, they receive a one-time benefit based on the tiles adjacent to the one they built. If they built on top of an already placed tile, they add the card to their tableau.

Once all players have taken their turn, the first player card passes, and each player is dealt a new card. Whenever the deck is exhausted, any new tiles present in the city get their cards shuffled into the new draw deck.

The buildings are in three colors, and the three colors always refer to a bonus item of one type. Most cards in a player’s tableau trigger when either a card is played, the city is built up, or the city is built out, although some offer end-game scoring bonuses.

Players begin the game with three expert cards, which begin the tableau bonuses they will inherit during the game.
Players begin the game with three expert cards, which begin the tableau bonuses they will inherit during the game.

The game ends when the draw stack of tiles is exhausted twice (after the first exhaustion, players may return tiles for a bonus point apiece) or when all of one player’s resources are in the city. Players count their points earned during the game and receive additional points via area-control scoring for districts of matching buildings in the city and for end-game bonuses on cards in their tableau. The player with the most points is the winner.

Ginkgopolis, or Ginkgopoly?

Ginkgopolis is a Frankenstein’s monster. Its mechanics have been gathered from the four winds, stitched together, and mashed up into something almost completely unrecognizable, wholly new. It’s an unwieldy beast to teach, and the theme is not one that’s particularly engaging. But Ginkgopolis is hands-down one of the best games I’ve played. Ever. Period.

Let’s start with the weakest aspect of the game: the theme. A city built of Ginkgo trees, while perhaps interesting in concept, is a strange premise for a game. It’s easier for me to get other people interested in a game of trading goods in the Mediterranean than in one where “Ginkgo Biloba…has become the symbol of a new method for building cities in symbiosis with nature.” The theme is just so far afield that most players I’ve introduced it to don’t know what to do with it. There’s nothing familiar in it. While it’s almost laughable these days to have another game box with a dour-faced medieval on the cover, Ginkgopolis occupies the other end of the laughable spectrum: a somewhat abstract Euro game with a theme that’s so off the wall, it seems like the game is trying way too hard.

The thematic explanation on the back of the box. Not a great gateway into the game, in my opinion.
The thematic explanation on the back of the box. Not a great gateway into the game, in my opinion.

That’s not to say the theme doesn’t make sense. Having played the game and gotten better at it, I can see that the whole game is built around sustainability: players must balance the competing claims of building the city and doing so in a way that won’t exhaust their resources. If they build too much without building their infrastructure along the way, they will find themselves engaged in wasteful turns. Players who build with an eye toward efficiency will simply do better than players who build everything they want as soon as they are able. So in that respect, a utopian future of building cities of ginkgo trees makes as much sense as anything else. But that doesn’t make the theme any more palatable when I’m trying to gather friends to play it.

Ginkgopolis is such an interesting game because it rewards sustainability–long-term planning–yet the game revolves around drafting cards. Each round players receive a new hand of cards from which they will only play one. In one sense, players will do well if they take advantage of the best opportunities. But as with any game that involves drafting, players must balance the hypothetical optimal move with capitalizing on the actual opportunities they are presented with. Yet the game isn’t all luck and tactics. Drafted cards cycle through the deck, in addition to new cards as the city is built, and players receive two new hand tokens at the start of the game, allowing them to get completely new choices, either for their own sake or to avoid passing crucial cards to opponents. But players have to manage this draft.

The starting deck has cards representing the letters A-L and the buildings 1-3 of each color. In addition, cards get added to the deck throughout the game. Each color has cards and tiles numbered 4-20 that, when added to the city, get added to the deck, offering new opportunities for building.
The starting deck has cards representing the letters A-L and the buildings 1-3 of each color. In addition, cards get added to the deck throughout the game. Each color has cards and tiles numbered 4-20 that, when added to the city, get added to the deck, offering new opportunities for building.

I like card drafting anyway, but in Ginkgopolis, it serves a different purpose than in, say, 7 Wonders or other card-drafting tableau-building games. In Ginkgopolis, each card signifies coordinates in the city. The cards players choose to play will either activate a specific space on the board (if played without a tile) or represent the deed where the new tile will be built. In other words, the card drafting is in the service of tile laying.

But there’s a dual purpose to the cards. The benefit for building up is that instead of getting anything immediately, you add the card for the tile you covered to your tableau, which gives you a future bonus. The card draft thus often creates grueling decisions. Do you build here because this location is better, or do you build there because by doing so, you cover that tile and get to add its card to your tableau? Do you build the city outward to receive an immediate benefit? Or do you delay gratification and build up, strengthening your infrastructure for the game? Do you build over a tile that will give you a special power in the game or over one that will score you bonus points once the game is over? There are many decisions to balance simply in choosing where to build (although in your first game or several, you might be focused on only your tableau or the city and not both–it’s a hard consideration to juggle).

My tableau in a solo game I played.
My tableau in a solo game I played.

The spatial aspect of building the city increases the decision space (and thus the fun) of Ginkgopolis. It’s satisfying to see the city you’ve built at the end of the game. But even more than this, the area-control scoring is compelling as you decide how to maneuver your influence in the city. At the end of the game, players score points for districts–sections of the city that involve two or more orthogonally adjacent tiles of the same color. The player with the most resources in that district scores one point for every resource in the district, and the second-place player scores one point for only their resources. What makes the area control compelling is that buildings can change color (and thus new districts gerrymandered) as the game progresses. When you first start playing, it doesn’t seem to make much sense–why would you change the color of a building when it costs an extra resource to do so? But as the game progresses, you begin to see the power that simply changing a building’s color can have on the entire landscape. And if, in the process, you can change a building’s ownership, so much the better for you. Because there are only three colors of buildings in the games, there are enough colors to keep districts distinct, but few enough colors that changing colors is often advantageous.

The city of Ginkgopolis midgame in a solo game.
The city of Ginkgopolis midgame in a solo game.

I’ve been describing the various systems in the game and why I like them, but underlying all of them is a resource management game that is a challenge to juggle. There are three main resources in the game–resources (…), which show ownership of buildings; tiles, which allow players to expand the city; and “success points,” which give players flexibility and are ultimately what is scored. The economy is tough to manage, because every turn you obviously want to build if you can. But until you have cards in your tableau that reward you with the resources you need when you build, it might be more prudent simply to activate a card. (This, of course, adds another consideration for the card draft.) Resources, tiles, and points are color coded red, blue, and yellow (respectively) to match the three colors of buildings and determine what those buildings’ cards grant you when they’re in your tableau. Because of this, players can’t focus on a single color: they must overbuild all three colors of buildings, at least if they want their economy to be balanced. Again, the game rewards efficiency and sustainability: the player who can come out on top of this resource management game will probably succeed in the rest of the game, so important is this to keep players building.

The gray cylinders mark the board so it's easy to tell at a glance the cards that need to be added to the deck when it's time to reshuffle.
The gray cylinders mark the board so it’s easy to tell at a glance the cards that need to be added to the deck when it’s time to reshuffle.

Ginkgopolis could easily fall into the category of “fiddly,” but for as much upkeep as there is in the game, there are systems in place to keep it manageable. For example, whenever a building is built, a large gray cylinder is placed on the tile. This serves no other purpose than to show which buildings have been constructed since the deck’s last reshuffle, so adding cards to the deck is a cinch. With any game that requires telling how tall something is, it can be annoying to count from the side, especially when the thing in question is tiles. In Ginkgopolis, you can always tell at a glance how tall a building is because the number of resources on top matches. Managing card powers is always a challenge in tableau-building games, but with Ginkgopolis’s stripped-down iconography, it’s easy to stack cards by when they activate, and because everything is color-coded, it’s easy to tell at a glance what bonuses you receive whenever you perform an action. It might be hard to forget when to remove cards from the deck, but building cards are always added to a player’s tableau when they’re overbuilt, so it keeps upkeep to a minimum. Ginkgopolis, for all its Frankenstein qualities, is surprisingly elegant.

It’s hard to convey what it’s like to play Ginkgopolis, if only because there’s nothing I’ve played that’s like it. This is what makes Ginkgopolis so difficult to teach. The game has so many different interdependent systems that explaining any one piece of the game requires explaining the next, which requires explaining the next, and so on. It is surprising that the rulebook is a slim 8 pages, with the final three pages devoted to variants and a player aid, given how complex the game seems at first. I’ve gotten better at explaining the game the more I’ve taught it, but it (like Glory to Rome or Race for the Galaxy) is a game that I have to mentally prepare myself to teach.

The finished city of Ginkgopolis in a solo game. All...those...bits. Yet the game is surprisingly elegant.
The finished city of Ginkgopolis in a solo game. All…those…bits. Yet the game is surprisingly elegant.

The physical components of the game are great. The tiles are sturdy and durable. They’re thicker and larger than Carcassonne tiles, and it’s easy to see at a glance all the important information, yet the illustration is also large enough to retain the game’s aesthetic quality. (There is some subtlety to the illustrations, which is admittedly neat, although not at all a focus in play.) The cards are on a nice linen stock, and the iconography is super clear, which eases the teaching just a little. The wooden resources and building cylinders are good, although the player color choices are nonstandard. (Some find this great. Thankfully, my precious green is included.) Everything looks good and functions well. The only component I miss from the game is a bag for drawing tiles. I commandeered the bag from Carcassonne, and that works great.

The wooden pieces in Ginkgopolis. Odd playing colors, but at least there's green.
The wooden pieces in Ginkgopolis. Odd playing colors, but at least there’s green.

A quick word on variants. The game includes a solo game in the box. The rules for this aren’t clear from the rulebook, although clarification is available in the forums on Board Game Geek. The solo game is fun, if a little abstract and with slightly different rules than if playing against human opponents. I’ve played it five times or so, and I enjoy it (although not as much as some other solitaire games like Race for the Galaxy and Robinson Crusoe). The game includes additional expert cards to allow for an expert draft at the start of the game, rather than taking the standard numbered cards. This seems like a nice way to add life to the game, although I haven’t yet found a need for this, nor do I anticipate it unless I play with the same group over and over.

Ginkgopolis, if you haven’t guessed from the rest of this review, is a game that I love–the only new-to-me game of 2014 that entered my top ten. It’s brisk enough to play in a lunch hour (with conscientious players and an eye toward minimizing setup time) and meaty enough to be satisfying. Ginkgopolis offers lots of chances for combos and clever play, and even though this is a Euro through and through, it is full of interaction, whether through the card draft or the area control scoring. Ginkgopolis truly feels like nothing else I’ve played, and for that, I’m willing to put up with just about any theme–even building cities out of ginkgo trees.

  • Rating 9.5
  • User Ratings (2 Votes) 9
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Summary

Pros:

  • Novel gameplay with lots of new takes on old mechanics
  • A clever game system that makes even a complex game feel elegant
  • Decisions per minute ratio is off the charts
  • Beautiful, functional components

Cons:

  • Uninviting theme
  • Teaching the game is difficult
  • Setup can take a while if you're not prepared
9.5 Awesome

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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