New York needs a new mayor, and you think you’re pretty qualified for the job. You can hobnob with the New York City officeholders. You know what it’s like to be the giver and receiver of favors. You have a firm grasp on the interplay between money and influence. You can unite a coalition of voters behind you.
But if you’re going to win, you’ll have to be just a little better at greasing palms than your opponents. Do you have what it takes to become the mayor of this great city? Find out in City Hall!
How It Works
City Hall is a role-selection/auction game for two to four players. Players vie for control of the various offices in city hall in order to gain votes to be elected mayor of New York. The player with the most votes at the end of the game is the mayor.
To setup, each player receives a supply of staffers and influence, money, and building cards. Play order is randomly determined, and the player last in turn order receives additional influence. Then, players draft two starting land deeds, with each unchosen deed being “sweetened” with extra money. Players place one of their building cards on one of their starting deeds and place one staffer on the first space of the population track and on the first space of the approval track. Play begins with the player first in turn order.
In each round, each player in turn order selects an unactivated office in city hall to activate. Each other player bids influence to wrest control of the office from the selecting player. The selecting player may either accept the highest bid and take that player’s influence, allowing the bidding player to take the office’s action, or pay an equal amount of influence to the bank and take the office’s action him- or herself. Once each player has activated an office, a new round begins: each office that wasn’t activated receives an influence to sweeten it, each player receives 1 influence from the bank, and turn order adjusts (if applicable).
The offices do things like allow players to collect money and/or influence, get new land deeds, construct buildings, gain approval, adjust turn order, or draw new (and loyal) population into the city. Money lets players buy land and approval, influence lets players bid for offices in city hall, land deeds and buildings affect attracting population to the city, and population and approval are what count in winning the game.
Once a certain number of buildings are built or one player reaches the end of the approval track, there is one final round in which each of the seven offices in city hall is activated. At the end of the round, special endorsements are given to players who satisfy their conditions (e.g., most money, most influence, most land deeds), each worth 10 votes. Players determine their votes via a simple equation: (population x approval rating) + special endorsements = votes. The player with the most votes is elected mayor of New York and wins the game.
City Mayor, or Nightmare?
City Hall is in some ways a difficult game to talk about because the surfacy things to say about it aren’t really true. It avoids easy categorization. It looks like a role selection game, but it isn’t quite, nor is it an “auction” game (at least in the sense that many of Reiner Knizia’s games are auction games). It looks like an economic game (and it is), but money plays a very small part in the economy. It looks incredibly dull, but it’s actually quite engaging.
Let’s deal with that last point first, because that’s about the worst I can say about City Hall. City Hall looks boring. So boring, in fact, that I had the game in my possession for nearly half a year before anyone was willing to play it with me, and then only grudgingly. (The Parable of the Persistent Widow comes to mind here.) The theme is about fighting for influence in city hall in order to be elected the next mayor of New York. This theme doesn’t excite me either, but it also doesn’t repel me. Yet I’ve found it to be a hard sell when trying to get other people to play. “Hey, you want to spend the next two hours looking at a somewhat drab board, trying to control offices and canvass votes?”
This isn’t to say that the game’s look or theming is inappropriate. In fact, this is one of the best themed games I’ve played–the offices make sense, the look of the game makes sense when considered against the time period, and the way the game plays fits within the thematic framework. The problem is more that the game’s theming is too appropriate, making the people I tried to coerce into playing it again and again think of the game more as work to be endured than a game to be enjoyed.
And this is a real shame, because the game is pretty brilliant.
City Hall combines two of my favorite game mechanisms in a way that I’ve not seen done quite this way before: role selection and auctions. When I read the rules, I thought, Oh, so this is like Puerto Rico, except other players set the price to take the action. Indeed, some of us around the table that first game played the same way–and quickly realized how mistaken (or at least incomplete) this view is.
The auctions in City Hall are the heart of the game. They aren’t just a price-setting mechanism; they are the driving force behind the game. From reading the rules, I thought, I choose the action I want, the other players set the price. So be it; I pay the price. I realized quickly in my first game that such a strategy is not the way to win. City Hall is a game of greasing palms and mutual back-scratching. It is often more advantageous to activate an office that other players will want (and will pay you for) than to choose one you want yourself. The reason is that influence is hard to come by. The game’s influence economy is a semi-closed system: the main method of gaining influence happens through its changing hands among players. There is a small influx of new influence each round, but if your plan is to bank on that, again, your strategy is probably not a winning one.
There are, of course, other ways to gain influence. Each unchosen role in city hall grants an influence in the next round. Unpopular offices seem that much more attractive when they’re sweetened by influence (and by other players not bidding them up). The lobbyist role also allows a cash-rich player to purchase influence–the Donald Trump strategy, if you will.
The influence auction to determine who takes actions is an interesting premise, but it can be a fragile one. Because the game is so dependent on auctions, controlling the currency is key. Modern Art, another semi-closed economy auction game where players pay the auctioneer, suffers the same complaint of fragility. Namely, if players improperly value something, they can hand the game (or at least a huge advantage) to another player. If the other players bid too low on an office, it can swing the balance in favor of the player taking the cheap action. (Although this sort of swing probably won’t happen on one or two “too-low” bids–this has to be a gamewide problem to upset the balance.) If another player bids too high for an office, it can put the auctioning player in position for a windfall. In one game, another player bid eight influence for an office on my turn. Granted, if he had bid much lower, I would have met his bid, because it’s something I wanted to do too. But with such a high bid, while I didn’t get to take that action, I was in a position to run the table for a full round or so, which was a huge boon to me. I’m not sure if his bid won me the game (I was in a good position without this late-game windfall), but it certainly didn’t hurt me.
Mismanagement of influence can be frustrating. The game’s feedback is such that you know you’ve made a mistake fairly quickly (“Why can’t I win any offices?”), but that doesn’t make it any easier. It’s hard to climb out of a deficit in influence. You gain one each round automatically (along with everyone else), but other than that, you are beholden to the other players to bid for the office you choose, hoping they don’t remember how influence poor you are. It can be frustrating to watch the action pass you by while you gather strength. City Hall is quite a punishing game when you make a mistake. But for me, this is a feature, not a bug. Managing the influence economy isn’t part of the game; it is the game.
In fact, I like City Hall very much because of the influence economy, but when I reflect on the rest of the game, I almost forget about it. Yes, there’s a tile-laying aspect in buying deeds and placing buildings in the city and an area majority element in attracting population to the city, but the game for me comes down to the core mechanism: this role selection auction. Gaining money, placing buildings, getting population–fine; they are necessary. But they are only necessary insofar as they inform this central auction. This may upset players who would rather have another element shine. For me, I am fine with every aspect of the game pointing back to the auction.
Because the auction is full of so much tension. City Hall is not a solitary affair. You have to fight for every scrap you get. You can’t just choose a role, carry it out, and pass the turn to the next player. Even your actions can be taken from you, so you have to weigh your decisions carefully: How much influence do you have? How much do other players have? How much do they want to take the action? When is it better to feint in order to gather strength for a later action? When is it better to Win At All Costs? Each turn is tense, and because there is an auction before each action is taken, it keeps players invested start to finish.
Another thing that makes the auction so compelling is that there are many different strategies to employ. The basic strategy is to get your population and approval as high as possible, but there are multiple ways to accomplish this goal. You can try to build lots of housing, which is more likely to draw population. You might instead build factories, which, while they pollute the air and don’t draw population, compensate by bringing in a lot of money in taxes, which can be used to buy approval and even influence. And if you are able to control the health commissioner office again and again, you can cover over a multitude of setbacks in other areas. There are also several special endorsements handed out at the end of the game, which players can use to bolster falling polls in other areas. There’s an endorsement for having built the most of each building, for having the most deeds in the city, for having the lowest approval rating, the most money, the most influence… If you can be the -est at something, there’s ten votes for you. But banking on special endorsements can also be a shaky foundation on which to build a campaign, as any ties result in no special endorsement in this category.
Because there are so many different paths to gain the game-winning assets, the auctions are always dynamic. I might want the tax assessor just because I need some money to buy up more deeds in the city, but another player might need tax assessor to make up for dropping approval ratings. Another player might not need to focus on taxes at all, simply buying the “slums” in the city (the frequently unchosen properties, which receive money each time they aren’t chosen) and developing them. I love this, because the value of each office is different based on each individual player’s strategy. While this doesn’t eliminate the fragility complaint for some players who generally don’t like auctions already, it makes the game much more worthwhile for those of us who do.
City Hall is a bear to learn from the rulebook, and it’s also a bear to explain. (Thankfully, it’s not quite such a bear to play once you get into it.) Part of this is due to the nature of any game with interlocking pieces and multiple currencies. Money doesn’t directly lead to points, but it leads to land deeds, which leads to buildings, which leads to abstract “star values,” which leads to population, which leads to points. Whew! Similarly, the calculations in the game are not all that intuitive. The final scoring (population x approval) makes sense, but the many other values in the game (calculating taxes, the exchange rate for influence and money with the lobbyist, paying for approval with the campaign manager) are hard to keep track of in your mind. I’m sure they are perfectly balanced at these values, but they feel arbitrary, and they make the game seem more mathy than it is. I’m not sure how it might be accomplished, but streamlining these values would have gone a long way to keep the game in my head. As it is, I read the rulebook probably eight times before being ready to play–part of this, no doubt, due to not getting it played soon after reading the rules. Yet part of this is also that the rules have lots of niggles and exceptions that are hard to remember. (I compare this to El Grande, which even though I haven’t played in years, I could unpack and teach at a moment’s notice. Or, perhaps a better example, Power Grid, an economic game I play around once a year. Despite infrequent play, the only rules that need to be refreshed in order to teach and play are the step 3 rules–which are admittedly clunky. The rest of the game makes a lot of intuitive sense.)
As difficult as the game is to parse initially, Tasty Minstrel has produced one of the absolute best player aids I’ve seen. Without the player aid, City Hall would be unwieldy at best and completely unmanageable at worst. As it is, the player aid keeps the niggling rules and minor complexities from overwhelming the rest of the game. As such, you can keep a general knowledge of how the game works and then refer to the specifics and calculations when you need them on the player aid. And believe me: you will need them, especially for the less popular offices.
The components in City Hall are by turns serviceable and outstanding. The board has a very clear layout, which is helpful in play, but it’s also a bit boring to look at (see my comments on player perceptions above). The staffers are just regular meeples, which is fine, but also a little boring. The art on the card backs is nice and fits the theming, but the tones are muted and a little drab. Still, the shining star here in the components is the money cards. The numbers are clear, they feel great in the hand, and they are an excellent alternative to what would usually be paper money. The money cards are so fantastic that I want them for every game. In fact, I’ve already made plans to commandeer the cards for games that use these denominations because they are that good. (If Tasty Minstrel sold these separately, I would probably buy them.) All told, the components are good, although given the caliber of components you can usually find in a game with a $59.99 MSRP, they are a little lackluster. (However, you can usually find the game at a nice discount, which makes up for it again.)
The game plays with two to four players. It works at these counts, but I think the game gets more dynamic as more players are added to the mix. I wouldn’t turn down a game with three, although I might suggest something different with just two players. The game hums with four.
Don’t be deceived: City Hall is much better than it looks. It is certainly not a game for everyone–it can be ruthless and punishing, and the system is a bit obtuse if you’re looking for another gateway or even gateway-plus game. But if you can see through the theme, there is an excellent and interactive game here. It’s not one I’m interested in playing every day, but I would rarely turn it down. The trick is finding other people who are willing to play.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Tasty Minstrel Games for providing us with a review copy of City Hall.
The Vote is in...
- Engaging gameplay that keeps all players invested during every turn
- Fascinating central mechanism--there's nothing quite like it
- Tightly woven system makes every decision count
- Excellent money cards
- Game's theme and look is drab and uninviting
- The game is punishing, perhaps too punishing for some players
- The components per MSRP are a little subpar
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