It’s a mad world, and you’re going to put your mad stamp on it by building a mad city–in a minute or less!
Can you build the best city the fastest? Will your parks and lakes be anything more than unused space? Find out in Mad City!
How It Works
Mad City is a real-time city-building/puzzle game for two to six crazed city builders. The goal is to be the first to reach a point threshold (either 100 or 150 points).
The basic game of Mad City is very simple. Players receive nine face-down city tiles that are divided into districts by colors and further divided by roads. When the timer is flipped, players arrange their tiles in a 3×3 grid. Players may rearrange their cities as long as the timer is going. Any player who has completed their city may grab the park ranger tree. They must stop building, but they get to score their parks and lakes (green spaces) in the scoring phase.
Once the timer runs out, players score their cities. They score points for how many buildings are in each “zone” in their city (divided, again, by roads and colors). The player with the longest continuous road segment scores additional points. Rounds continue until at least one player reaches the point threshold. The player with the most points is the winner.
The standard game plays exactly like the basic game with two modifications. First, zones may not score. Each zone color and building number has a corresponding token. The tokens are rotated when that zone type would be scored, until the token is eventually flipped. Once the token is flipped, all future zones of that type and building number score points. Second, players may bet whether they have the longest road or the largest zone of a color. They get points if they are correct and lose points if they are not.
Mad City, or Calm Suburb?
Mad City is a real-time puzzle game, which might tell you right off the bat whether this game is for you. I like real-time games, and I like puzzles, so I like Mad City.
Mad City, like most other real-time games, works because while the puzzle at its heart is simple if you had enough time to optimize, the one-minute time limit on rounds prevents players from analyzing every angle. (The time limit also effectively eliminates analysis paralysis. Whew!) Speed is prioritized over optimization. And I think the speed element here works especially well for two reasons: one, the puzzle is interesting but easy (unlike, say, Galaxy Trucker), and two, the game is also a race.
Players aren’t just racing against the clock as in real-time cooperative games like Escape and Space Alert, and they’re not trying to solve a ridiculously mind-bending puzzle as in Space Sheep. This keeps the game both accessible (my niece and nephew, ages 8 and 10, were able to play the basic game) and competitive. Because the rules are light, the game is easy to pick up (at least the basic game).
The race aspect of Mad City is interesting. Players have a full minute to complete their cities, but if they complete their cities early, they can claim the park ranger tree, which might give them additional points for their parks and lakes. This can be a big benefit if you have lots of parks and lakes in your city, but it’s not an insurmountable benefit. Because the player with the park ranger tree can no longer work on his or her city, the other players benefit from having more time to optimize their zones. So players have to weigh carefully whether having more time or scoring their parks and lakes is more beneficial. (And sometimes snagging the park ranger tree is beneficial just to ensure another player doesn’t get it.)
I like that there are multiple ways to score in the game and that it’s not always clear what is the best strategy for gaining points. Having the longest road seems great at times, and perhaps Settlers of Catan has drilled into us that getting it is important. But my nephew, who was consistently chasing the longest road, pointed out, “You know, I think I can get more points if I let it go.” (I was proud of his realizing this on his own.) There is some fun speed optimization to be done in the game as certain thresholds score you different amounts of points. You score the same number of points for 9 blue buildings as for 11, so you have to examine: is it possible to split them into two districts to maximize your points? This is where the game is at its best for me. While this is simple to figure out if you had even two minutes, it’s much harder to optimize when you’ve only got one minute and the clock is ticking.
The standard game adds more layers of consideration to the game, and while the game is more interesting for it, I’m not sure who the target audience is. Even the advanced game is fairly simple (although perhaps out of reach for younger kids), and while it does add more considerations, Mad City is probably not a game I would choose to play with my gamer friends. If we’re playing a real-time game, we’ll probably choose stand-bys like Space Alert or Escape: The Curse of the Temple, the former because it is meaty with lots of considerations and the latter because it is frantic, uproarious fun. Mad City’s standard mode is good, but I’m not sure it’s as compelling as other games in the genre.
That being said, even though there are other real-time elephants in the gaming closet, Mad City holds its own in a very specific category: family games. Now, I’ve mentioned that I love Escape, but not everybody does, and I understand why not. Escape is fast and frantic and fun. It’s also intense, and some players lock up and don’t care for it. It’s stressful, and some who play the game think it feels like work. Mad City allows this type of player to enjoy the adrenaline of a real-time game without the added tension of impending doom. The solitary nature of building individual cities also removes some of the tension of real-time cooperative games, which have a tendency to get…heated…when one player won’t roll their dice fast enough, or won’t make decisions quickly enough, or won’t share their golden masks with a player who clearly needs them and they have to stay where they are and lose a die when the gong sounds so even though it’s a cooperative game you are secretly plotting a way to get back at your sister and…
Ahem. Sorry. I got carried away.
Anyways, in Mad City, a lot of the negative tension of a more intense real-time game is removed, which is great for families. It also provides an immediate reward to players. Everyone’s score goes up each round, and even if you don’t “win,” you can take pride (or at least delight) in the city you have made with your own hands.
Mad City is also great for family contexts in that it is forgiving. The tile placement rules are not as stringent as in, say, Carcassonne, and while an ill-fitting city may not score tons of points, it’s still legal. (In this regard, it reminds me of Sushi Go in that it has a low barrier for entry so everyone can play, yet it rewards playing well.) In addition to forgiving placement rules, the scoring is also forgiving, since benefits like longest road don’t offer the player who claims them tons of extra points (although better players will score better points, it doesn’t seem as much of a runaway as in other games).
One problem some players may have with the game is that tiles are distributed randomly, and some building types are worth more than others. Yellow is the most common (and least valuable) zone type in Mad City, and blue is the scarcest (and most valuable). There was one round where this problem struck home to me: I had outscored my fellow players by a wide margin, and it wasn’t necessarily because I had played better than them. Rather, I had been given a stack of tiles that had primarily red and blue zones on them, giving me more opportunities to score. Similarly, parks and lakes are not necessarily easy to come by, and so the park ranger tree–claimed by the player who grabs it first–has limited utility. (Although an argument can be made for structuring your city in such a way as to make good use of it, or in taking the tree to keep someone else from scoring points in this way.) As I said, this will be a complaint to some (primarily hobbyists), but I’m not sure this is a big deal in the family context.
In addition to the basic and advanced modes, Mad City includes instructions for a solo game. The solo game involves drawing tiles one at a time and arranging them in a 4×4 grid, then scoring it and hopefully improving through further play. I found the basic solo mode for the game dull. However! There’s an advanced solo mode that involves the same frantic city building of the basic game. Essentially, you have one minute to complete a 4×4 city and score it. You play a few rounds and see how you did. This is much more enjoyable to me, although I think I cheated and took some extra time in a round or two. I found the timed optimization puzzle a fun solo diversion, and the game box is small, so this game could legitimately be used in that context.
Mad City supports one to six players, and since it is a real-time game, it doesn’t really suffer from downtime at higher play counts. (Even with younger kids, it’s easy to pause and help them tally their score, then tally your own and keep things moving.) In smaller play counts, especially in the standard game, there’s a higher likelihood that you will score points for longest road or the park ranger and that your bets will pay off. In larger player counts, there’s more competition for all of these things. Since the reward for each of these is fairly minimal, this game really should work for all player counts.
A quick note on the components of Mad City. The city tiles clung to their cardboard frame for dear life, so punching the game was tough (especially considering there were so many pieces of cardboard!). Also, since the city tiles have black edging, they began to show wear even after the first game. This isn’t such a big deal–it’s not the kind of game where you will memorize a tile you want and look specifically for it based on the backing. The velvety bag included is a nice touch, although it does feel a bit cheap. (It also had a “Made in China” sticker on it, while the outside of the box says “Made in the USA”–I got a chuckle out of this.) The components in Mad City are thus serviceable, but not spectacular. Of course, the benefit of this is that it keeps the MSRP low. All told, the components don’t hinder the game in any way, but they also don’t inspire awe from onlookers.
I’ve written the summary of my opinion of Mad City, and if it seems ambivalent, that’s because it is. Mad City is a fun game, one I have enjoyed and do enjoy playing, but it’s also, in my mind, overshadowed by other, better games. If I’m choosing what to play with my friends, if I reach for a tile-laying game, I’ll choose Carcassonne. If I reach for a real-time game, I’ll choose Escape. If I reach for a city-building game, I’ll choose Ginkgopolis. If I reach for a puzzle game, I’ll choose Hanabi. But this is unfair: the standard mode is included to give life to the game, but Mad City is truly a family game, and it is certainly a good fit for that context. But even there, I’m not sure it’s the best fit. My niece and nephew enjoyed the game, and we had a lot of fun building cities together, but even for them, there are other games that they prefer. (Of course, they much preferred Mad City to Escape, which was too frantic for their tastes.) Mad City has a narrow niche in which it is the “best in the category,” but if you’re looking for a real-time competitive family puzzle game, it might be just what you’re looking for.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Mayfair Games for providing us with a review copy of Mad City.