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La Citta! Another big square box from Kosmos – and this time heavy as well. Gerd Fenchel, a relative unknown, is the creator of this unusually big German game. It'll bite off a large chunk of your evening. Clocking in at between 2.5 to 3.5 hours (depending upon your group's level of analysis paralysis), it lies at the outskirts of what's generally considered "acceptable" for German game players.
La Citta is a game about giving the people what they want, while making sure they get what they need. Each player is a city planner for six years (turns) of the Renaissance, during which players try to construct the most advanced cities in order to attract the largest populations. As your cities grow, your people will clamor for the good things in life, specifically culture, education, and health. Most years the population will choose one of these platforms to champion, and you, as their leader, must make sure your cities provide for them. Let’s say Joe Citizen is in want of culture (ain’t we all?). Your city only provides him with a measly statue, but the city right next door has two statues and a cathedral. Joe packs his bags and moves to your opponent’s city– your loss and your opponent’s gain.
Of course, you must provide for your citizens’ needs as well. The great unwashed do love their culture, education, and health, but they get the biggest kick out of eating. Food is all-important. Give your people health when they want education and you’re merely unpopular, but leave their tummies empty and you’ve really got problems. Not only do you lose citizens (who’ve gone off in search of nuts and berries) but you’re also heavily penalized in the following turn. Bad PR is tough to overcome.
La Citta is played on a rather large hex grid punctuated with triangular splotches of land. Cities (castles, farms, buildings, etc…) are placed on the hexes, while the land tiles are randomly placed in the triangles. Land comes in three types: fields (which provide food), mountains (which provide gold), and water (which provided health).
The game comes with lots of various building tiles (schools, churches, quarries, farms, etc.) to which all players have access. These tiles are double-sided—for example, the fountain is printed on the reverse of the bathhouse—which has been a point of contention among some players who feel this efficiency comes at the cost of making it harder to find the tile you want. I don’t find it to be an issue, and suggest you simply divide each paired set into two equal stacks with a different side showing in each stack. There are many of each type of building and, in the several games I’ve played, I’ve never seen a type run out. Each tile also features 1-3 colored arches representing culture (white), education (black), and health (blue). Each arch in a city represents a point in that category. Some players have criticized the tiny graphics on these tiles, saying they become muddled as the board fills. Again, this is a non-issue. The only thing of any importance on these tiles is the color and number of arches and those are easily distinguished.
Fine, but who will live and work in our cities? For the citizens, Kosmos has done a remarkable job and included tiny little statue-like bits. Each citizen bit is conceptually equivalent to 1000 citizens, but in practice they’re just counted in single digits. Also, for the politically-correct among us, the bits are gender-specific. Nice touch, but it’s not part of the gameplay, and it’s barely noticeable.
Finally, we have two decks of cards: the Voice of the People cards, and the Action cards. Voice of the People cards determine the direction of the political wind – what do people want? Action cards offer various special actions during the political phase.
Starting cities are determined in a Siedleresque around-the-table-and-back fashion. Castles (like farms) produce food, so it’s wise to place these initial settlements near agriculture tiles. Players track their arable land by collecting food tokens. Much as a player’s wine markers in Vino represent a player’s total number of vineyards rather than produced wine, each token represent a farm and not harvested food. Effectively, each token is an accounting tool to indicate that the player can feed one citizen.
The game consists of six turns of eight phases each, but the fifth (political) phase is really the heart of the game. The other phases are more or less housekeeping—earning money, increasing population, etc.—dictated by what happens in this phase. Players start with three action cards, each of which entitles a player to build a small building of his choice at no cast, collect two gold, or start a new city. Players can instead opt to use an action card from the board, seven of which are visible at all times (used cards are discarded and replaced immediately). There are several types of these cards, allowing such actions as constructing buildings, polling the people, increasing a player’s population, and so forth. Play passes around the table five times, with players performing an action on each pass. It is in this phase that you construct your city according to the wishes of the people.
Four special cards were dealt at the start of the turn, all but one face down, from a deck evenly divided among black, white, and blue cards. These cards represent the voice of the people and are revealed once all players have taken their five actions. Whichever color appears most often becomes the category the people are demanding that year. If a city has fewer arches in the current category than a neighboring city, one of its citizens immigrates to that city. Many buildings require a minimum population level to sustain them, so this can have a domino-effect causing the loss of buildings, farms, etc. It’s not pretty. One possible action during the political phase lets a player poll the people, peeking at some of the face-down cards.
Once those picky citizens have settled back down, you must see if you can feed them. If you have at least as many food tokens as you have people, great. If you have fewer tokens you have starved your populace and your city starts to fall apart. All citizens you couldn’t feed die, which may cause the further loss of buildings from your city. Adding insult to injury, any tyrant who starves his people loses his first action in the following turn’s political phase. Ouch! The fact that the feeding phase comes after the migration phase is particularly treacherous. Plan ahead—make sure you can feed all those people you’ve attracted to your beautiful city.
After six turns players score a point per citizen and gain a three-point bonus for each city with a least one of each of the three colored arches. You can’t escape penalties by starving people in the final turn, either—since you have no further actions to lose, you lose five points instead. Moral: food good.
Whew! That’s a lot. I told you it was a big game. Many players have commented that La Citta is very much a board game version of Sid Meier’s computer game, Civilization. It’s a tough balancing act that requires you to spin several plates at once. The voice of the people cards only affect players whose cities neighbor an opponent’s, so it becomes more valuable to poll the people as the game progresses. Quarries only produce once per turn and so are most profitable if built at the beginning of the game. Cities need access to water tiles or they won’t be able to expand beyond eight citizens. When calculating how much food you’ll need, don’t forget to consider the people your city may attract—immigrants need food, too. Isolation is good; big cities with few neighbors will score plenty at game’s end. Most importantly, feed your people. Starvation leads to ruin.
Apparently, it took Gerd Fenchel five years to design La Citta and, in my opinion, it was time very well spent. La Citta is one of the most involved, time-consuming German games I’ve played. It’s also not nearly as abstract as many German games. While playing it, I really felt like I was doing what I was doing. Most of the options available to me made sense and there is very little luck involved. Depending upon the type of game you prefer, that may be an asset or a liability. For my money, it’s definitely a good thing.
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (email@example.com)