Here’s the trick pulled off by the designers of those rare board games that blast out of the world of hobbyists and onto the tables of the merely game-curious. In hits like Pandemic or Settlers of Catan, the theme of the game, or what it purports to be about, is expressed through engaging, somewhat intuitive mechanics — what it is players actually do. The best of these even suggest through their play decisions something of the complexity of the world itself.
In Pandemic, your pawn criss-crosses the globe, eradicating disease outbreaks while you and your table-mates manage the risks of future crises, as represented by a deck of cards you sometimes can manipulate. In Catan you build roads, cities, and armies as you exploit your patches of land — and, in the revelatory resource-trading phase, you learn something our presidential candidates don’t seem to understand: You can’t just bluster other countries into making deals that favor you.
(By the same token, I can appreciate the clever intricacies of the design of a hobbyist game like Caylus, but the thing you do in it — grind certain kinds of cubes through the board’s dense economic systems so that you have other kinds of cubes — has little appreciable connection to the game’s theme, which is that you’re demonstrating your efficiency as a builder to a medieval French king. Nothing in the game suggests anything outside the game itself.)
New York: 1901, from the newish game makers at Blue Orange Games, boasts the qualities that make a game a hit with people who like to build or master a world on a board, and it might please the hobbyist efficiency-experts, too. What you do in theme is matched by the tile placing you do on the board: You build, raze, and re-build the world’s greatest city — or at least that downtown part of it whose businessmen a couple times each century cause a global financial crisis. (Why isn’t there a game yet about preventing that?) At first deceptively simple, New York quickly reveals itself, within the first play or two, as gently cut-throat. Why not seize that empty lot your friend has been eyeing, and puke up the Woolworth Building all the way down at Wall Street?
As you jockey for land deeds and erect Wall Street skycrapers, you’re always elbowing out the other players, squeezing every advantage out of every turn. The game offers rare freedom, even in its early turns, a feature that on the first play might be overwhelming: When you can build anywhere, where or what should you build? Designer Chénier La Salle has included a series of dynamic variables to drive the market. In some games, look for a point bonus for developing along Nassau or Bond streets. The next time, it may be Broadway.
As the game skips along, you can score points for building more and more impressive buildings, but since lower Manhattan is so cramped that means you will need to demolish many of your earlier triumphs. It’s hilarious how this simplification of market forces will, in-game, drive the decision making even of players who in real life bemoan the way the real city fails to honor its history. Funnier still is the occasional game where, via optional “Challenge Cards,” those randomized market forces encourage you to keep your earliest constructions standing. Wouldn’t it be grand if, in real life, conservation more often proved to be profitable?
The rules are simple. Each turn you have the option to claim a card from a marketplace awarding you a plot of land in one of the board’s downtown neighborhoods and then claim it with a worker figure. After that, you can build if you like — simply set down a tile with a building on it. (The game, blessedly, does away with concerns of money or zoning — it just assume you’re rich and connected.) Or, in lieu of seizing a new plot and erecting a new building, you can tear down one of your existing structures and re-claim its lots with a worker figure, so that on a subsequent turn you can score points with the construction of something new. Sometimes, that new development is a wonder, something that lifts the heart to add it to the skyline. And sometimes you’re just gutting that skyline because that’s the surest route to victory. Maybe in a sequel or expansion set in midtown, we can learn whether or not we’re good enough people to resist the point bonus you would be sure to get for knocking down the old Penn Station?
A hobbyist will grasp the how and why of New York: 1901 with about ten minutes with the manual. Normal people may take twenty. The game is easy to explain, and it plays quickly — two or three turns in, and even your in-laws will have a healthy grasp of what’s going on. That’s all key to introducing a new game to non-gamers, as are the tactile pleasures of the puzzle-thick pieces and well-sculpted plastic components.
But what matters even more is the inevitable second play, likely to start 45 minutes or so after you kick off your first. In the second, each choice feels riskier, more momentous, more connected to every other choice, yours or others. Between turns, possibilities percolate in the brain, as do flashes of civic insight: Yes, New York: 1901 a simplification, an abstraction, a sweat-free god’s-eye-view of decades worth of development. But doesn’t it seem some days that the city we have is the result of players in some game we can’t understand reacting to each other — and their own point-keeping system — rather than what we truly need?
Simply put, New York: 1901 isn’t just a good time with friends or family. It’s an invitation to mourn the city that was as you build the city to come.
New York: 1901 is in stores now.