I have an unabashed love for Stonemaier Games. I’ve talked about this before and, to me, the company represents everything that’s right about Kickstarter games. So when Jamey Stegmaier asked me if I wanted to take an early look at their latest game project, Between Two Cities, it didn’t take long for me to say “YES!”
Launching today on Kickstarter, Between Two Cities is a departure from previous games from Stonemaier. Unlike Viticulture and Euphoria, games that were designed by Stegmaier and his design partner, Alan Stone, Between Two Cities was developed by two entirely different designers. Ben Rosset (Brew Crafters, Mars Needs Mechanics) and Matthew O’Malley (Diner) put together this quasi-cooperative/partnership-tile-laying game that is simple to learn, but will have you scratching your head, trying to figure out who’s winning right up until the very end.
After numerous plays, it’s apparent that Between Two Cities is a fun and accessible game that has the potential to play differently nearly every time. With many ways to score points, it’s been a blast to try out varying strategies and because the game is fast-playing (a typical game takes no more than 20 minutes, including scoring), we’ve had the chance to try out lots of different approaches.
The theme of Between Two Cities is the early 1800s, a period of urbanization and construction. You’ve been asked by two different cities to revitalize their city centers. That’s what the instructions say anyway. It’s the only place where the theme comes up and, to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t seem to work to me. Maybe it will make more sense in an expansion, but not so much now. Still, the game is fun, regardless of when it’s supposed to be or what your job is supposed to be.
Between Two Cities is a game for 3 to 7 players (although there is a 2-player variant and a solo game in the works). It’s played by selecting and laying tiles to create two cities, one in partnership with each of your neighbors. (So in a three-player game, there will be three cities assembled.) Cities are exactly four tiles wide and four tiles tall, a perfect square. Cities are scored based on the type of tiles that make up the burg and how many of a tile in the city.
To be specific, let’s take a moment to understand the tiles and how they score. Tiles come in six different types: yellow shops, which give bonus points for a strip of shop tiles. A single shop will give that city 2 points, but string them together and a city’s value will increase by 5 points for a pair, 10 points for three shops, and 16 points for a full strip of shops.
Gray factories are awarded points dependent on a majority among cities. The city with the most total factories gets 4 points for each factory tile in their city. Second place gets three points per factory and all others gets two points per factory. Red taverns distribute points based on sets. There are four types of taverns, representing the best drink, food, beds, and music. Collect a whole set and the city gets 17 points. Three-quarters of a set gets 9 points, half a set gets 4 points and a solo tavern set gets a single point. A tile only counts toward a single set and any additional tiles start a second set.
Office buildings (you remember the great office parks of the early 1800s, don’t you?) are awarded based on total number in a city. Offices are worth 1/3/6/10/15/21 points, where a single office building in a city gets one point and six offices get 21 points. If an office is adjacent to a tavern, it gets a bonus point. (Some things are unchanged, regardless of the date.)
Park tiles work similarly to shops. You’ll score points based on the number of adjacent parks in a group. A single park gets you 2 points, coupled together you get 8 points, a trio gets you 12, then 13, 14, etc. So a large park has diminishing returns but a couple of smaller parks can earn big points.
Finally, house tiles are worth one point for every other building type in the city. So a single house tile in a city with a factory tile, shops, taverns, offices, and parks is worth five points. But if a house tile is adjacent to a factory, it’s only worth one, regardless of the variety of tiles in your fine city. No one wants to live next door to the factory.
Play takes place over three rounds. In the first round, each player selects seven tiles from the pool before selecting two to play. After each player has selected two tiles, placement begins. You are building two cities, one to your left and one to your right, each with a different partner. Players can discuss with their partners which of their tiles is better in which city and where the tile should be placed. Each tile must be placed adjacent to another tile, but there are also some scoring considerations, as mentioned above. Unused tiles are passed to the left and play continues until there is only a single tile to discard.
In the second round, players blindly select three duplex tiles – a vertical or horizontal combination of the regular, single-space tiles. Each player selects two, places them after discussion, as in round one, and then the round is over. Simple! In the third and final round, players again select seven random tiles and play them as described in round one. The exception this round is that unused tiles are passed to the right.
Once each city is constructed in perfect four by four configuration, the game ends and scoring begins. Each player will have two scores, one for the city on the left and another for the city on the right and the player’s score that is submitted for final ranking is the lower of the two scores, which prevents a player from ignoring one of his cities.
Between Two Cities is certainly more toward an entry level game than anything Stonemaier has ever done, but there’s enough strategy and thinking in it to keep most gamers interested and engaged. I enjoyed it a lot and it’s really easy to teach. For some, the scoring can be a little tough to grasp at first, but more than once I suggested we just play a game and allow the final scoring of that game to show players how a game is scored. Because the game plays so quickly, teaching in this two-step method (mechanics, then scoring) is a viable option.
The game scales well and the difference between a 3-player game and a full complement of seven isn’t that noticeable. However, I have to say I prefer the larger game because smaller games encourage players to try to point-track the opposing cities, which can slow the game down. It’s pretty tough to do that in bigger games.
There aren’t a lot of components (108 tiles and 24 duplex tiles, plus some other bits) and I’ve been trying to find the right-sized box to hold just the tiles and reference cards, so I can take the game with me to more places. It’s something I enjoy enough to want to share with more people. However, it’s not without a wart or two.
The one knock I have to give Between Two Cities is the artwork. (Final tile artwork is pictured above.) For me, a game’s look is very important and really affects my enjoyment of the experience. The tiles don’t really do it for me and the overall look is pretty dark, which makes the completed cities look like a place where I wouldn’t want to live. I think it would have been better if they hadn’t focused on a top-down view so the pieces weren’t made up of so many boring roofs. I want bright colors and exciting iconography and the point explanations on the bottom of these tiles feel pedestrian.
Despite that, I loved the game. It is fun and I’ve played it a lot. Because it’s easy to teach and games cycle through quickly, it’s one that will make its way to my table often. If I can find the right box, it will be traveling with me too.
The Between Two Cities Kickstarter, which begins today, also includes seven iconic wooden tokens for identifying each city and is available for backing at just $29, a great deal for a Kickstarter game. If you’re more of a special edition kind of Kickstarter backer, there’s also a $39 version that has a very special box and an additional (and different) set of wooden tokens. Either way, this is a project worth backing.
Not convinced? Try the print & play version and try it out yourself.
Jonathan Liu’s Thoughts
I also got a demo prototype to try out, and I really enjoyed playing it, too. I mostly agree with Dave’s assessment, though I did feel like there was some theme in the scoring of the different types of tiles (even if the whole 1800s city-planning wasn’t really emphasized). There are thematic reasons for how the tiles are scored–people want to do all of their shopping in one place, so you want shops near each other; residents want lots of different types of taverns; and so on. Even if it’s not a huge thematic tie-in, the “story” element helped me keep track of how things score.
The little iconography on the bottom of each tile is supposed to give you an indication of the scoring rules, too, but I found those less intuitive at first. I do think the best way to learn the game is to dive in.
Here’s what I really liked about Between Two Cities: first, that it really is pretty quick to learn and to play. It’ll take a little time to explain how all of the various types of tiles score, but other than that setup and play is very straightforward. I love tile-laying games because it’s fun to see the maps as they develop throughout the game, and it’s pleasing to look at your two finished cities when the game ends.
It’s also notable that it can accommodate such a wide range of players. I haven’t played many 7-player games that don’t get bogged down with player turns. But the reason this plays quickly is that you do have a bit of time pressure. You want to make sure that player to your right puts his better tile in your city, not his other one–but you also need to talk to the player to your left about her tiles before she hands over that factory to her other partner. The amount of player interaction in the game is really enjoyable–you’re constantly negotiating with the people on either side of you, trying to convince them to put the tiles you want into your cities.
That doesn’t even get into the other layer of strategy–the drafting portion. Sometimes you’re so busy trying to pick nice tiles for your own cities that you don’t consider what will be the best options for passing down to the next few cities. But as in any drafting game, taking that into consideration can be important. If you see a huge factory town popping up a few seats to your left, you may want to consider pulling out some factories from your hand, even if it means giving up something else.
The final score–the lower of your two cities–isn’t intuitive at first, but it makes sense. It means you can’t max out one of your cities at the expense of the other, so you have to have a balance. In most cases, your two cities will look quite different from each other. One will go for tons of factories, while the other tries to load up on office buildings and taverns.
I’m not as picky as Dave is about the look of a game. Certainly I appreciate good artwork when it’s there, but I can enjoy a game with prototype artwork or hand-written notes, as long as it’s legible and playable. To me, the city artwork on the tiles is functional and suits the game, but I agree that it’s not exciting–definitely not as inspiring as the cover artwork. But the gameplay more than makes up for that. I’d play this game even if the images were just green triangles and blue rectangles.
Overall, Between Two Cities is an excellent game that I think a lot of gamers will enjoy, particularly those that are looking for a lot of player interaction. It’s a great one for gamers of varying experience levels, and has a good mix of strategy and luck. Definitely worth checking out the Kickstarter.