Blue Orange Games has been blazing a trail in the U.S. for the past couple of years, putting out excellent games like Doodle Quest and Battle Sheep – great, simple games with small boxes and low price tags, aimed at a younger audience. This year, Blue Orange has set their sights higher, moving into the realm of “big box” games – now, I’m talking Ticket to Ride size here, not Twilight Imperium 3. Their first effort in this realm is New York 1901 from new designer Chenier La Salle, and veteran artist Vincent Dutrait. Speaking of Ticket to Ride, this game is being constantly compared to that one – is that good, bad, or irrelevant? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:
Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?
Components: First, let me ease your fears. You may have seen some early reviews or Facebook posts (including mine) with some mismatched colors – I was sent a pre-production copy, and that’ll be fixed in the final print run. Apart from that, though, the components are great! Vincent Dutrait did a fantastic job with the artwork, and there are a bunch of nice little touches. The character tiles have names and places of origin, and the back of the board has a beautiful painting, which I’ve never seen on the back of a board – entirely unnecessary, but it really ups the overall quality of the product. The skyscraper scoring markers are another nice little touch. The heart of the game is the puzzle-piece skyscraper tiles, and they’re great also. (I don’t know if the final game will have punch boards, but my game came pre-punched if so.) I’m really impressed, and I think you get more than your $50 MSRP worth, compared to other games in the same vein.
Accessibility: This is a weird one. This is most definitely a Spiel des Jahres-level game, that’s very easy to get going – once you grok the rules. And the rules aren’t complicated – they’re just, I guess, new. This is a very unique game, but it doesn’t seem as unique as it is, since everyone’s done the most basic aspects in other games (place puzzle-ish tiles on a board, draw cards from a tableau, etc.) However, although there are only two options on your turn, one is an and/or action of two parts, and that often had players thinking they could draw cards on turns when they demolish/rebuild, since you can do it when you build (you can’t). The back of the cards have a sort of reminder card thing going about the two actions, but it’s entirely iconography. Still, I didn’t put that to use in any game I taught, and I should have. I also wonder if it would have been equivalent, and simpler, to say that your turn has two phases: first, you may take a lot card OR remove buildings, and then you may build something. I also struggled a bit when reading (without having the components in front of me) the idea that you always need to clearly mark a lot as yours once you own it, either with a worker or a building. This is not a hard concept – but my first rules read-through was at 2AM, which was probably a bad idea.
But then I also think I’m making a huge mountain out of a very small molehill. Players usually fully understood what was going on within a few turns, and I’d like to point out that I’ve seen beginners make ten different mistakes in their first games of Ticket to Ride – I never had nearly that much trouble here. I never had a player complain or get upset about misunderstanding a rule, because those clarification questions will come right out of the gate in the first few turns. It’ll go perfectly if the teacher fully understands the rules and can clarify – but “learning together” for your first play is probably a bad idea. So, while this isn’t as simple as those true gateway games like Hey, That’s My Fish! or Las Vegas, it’s about the same complexity as Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne or a little under, and it’s certainly simpler than Dominion or Settlers of Catan. I’ll also mention that the squares on the tiles, indicating the number of spaces you need to fit the piece on the board, are extremely helpful.
Speaking of Ticket to Ride, let’s throw that comparison out of the window, now that I’ve already used it more than I should. This game is constantly being compared to Ticket to Ride, and they have a lot of surface-level similarities (similar art, audience and setting), but they play nothing alike. This game has no “currency” like how you cash in cards in Ticket to Ride, and the puzzle-piece and blocking aspect is much different than the route building of Ticket to Ride. While you do draw cards from a tableau, that’s in many games, and I’m not positive that Ticket to Ride was the first. I would say that a closer comparison is that this is probably the gateway area-control game that Michael Schacht was trying to design with his many iterations of China but never quite pulled off like it’s done here.
Depth: Boy, was I surprised! The first few turns of our first game seemed very obvious, and I was wondering when the game would get interesting. Now, I realize that simply throwing some pieces on the board without much thought was probably not the best idea! This game opens up more and more as you play, both within a single play and from one game to the next. You have to consider the majority bonuses for the roads, the Challenge card, getting lots big enough to fit those gold pieces and communal skyscrapers, the lot cards available… For such a simple game, optimizing your strategy is not as simple as it seems. In every game I’ve played, I’ve gotten the 13-point skyscraper and still lost. It’s 13 points, but it’s also only one skyscraper for those road bonuses. I have a sense of how to play and have a basic strategy, but I have no sense yet as to how to win effectively – and I love that.
Some people have said that this game can be cutthroat, and it can, especially as a two-player game. However, with three or four players, you’ll do some incidental blocking, but just trying to hose one player just helps the others, so there’s not too much of that. There’s definitely competition over cards and lots, and it feels tense, but it doesn’t feel mean – so I wouldn’t worry too much about that.
Theme: This is such an original theme! The only other game I can think of in the same ballpark is Skyline 3000, which is set in the future, rather than glorifying the first skyscrapers of New York. I also love the little facts in the game: the communal skyscrapers have measurements on them (which is used as a tiebreaker), and the rulebook points out that each of these was a real building that, when built, was the tallest building in the world! How cool is that? At its heart, it’s still a point optimization game, and the skyscrapers feel more like puzzle pieces than skyscrapers, but for a simple, family game, the theme here really works. It doesn’t hurt that the art is amazing, either.
Fun: Wow. I’ve enjoyed Blue Orange’s other releases, but they “feel” like the small, filler games they are. This is the full gaming experience, still at the family game level, but with so much more to chew on. If you’re the gamer who gets excited about games like Jamaica, Ticket to Ride (oops, I did it again), Tokaido, and so on, rather than looking down at those games as too simple, then this is an easy, easy recommendation. I’m amazed at how they were really able to make something brand new and innovative, without making it feel that different from its predecessors. This is one of the best games I’ve played in 2015 so far, and one that I intend to keep playing for years to come.
If you’re like me, and love those family-weight games, New York 1901 absolutely belongs on your shelf.
5 out of 5