Stonemaier Games is known for two things: excellent customer service, and excellent game design. Both qualities originate from founders Alan Stone and Jamey Stegmaier. What happens when the founding duo takes a chance on outside designers? Between Two Cities is just that. Designed by Matthew O’Malley and Ben Rosset, Between Two Cities is a 20-30 minute filler game of tile drafting, with a twist: you build a city with both of your neighbors, but only the weaker city counts for scoring. Is a crazy twist and a great publisher enough to make this a great game? 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: Between Two Cities comes in a small box, primarily because of its few components: for the most part, the game is just a giant pile of square tiles, with a few duplex tiles mixed in. These tiles are quite large, with great (though drab-colored) artwork and clear, distinct iconography. The game also comes with cards for scoring reminders, and randomizers for seating order. The tiles are so chunky and beautiful that the game really wowed me in this regard. $35 MSRP is totally normal for a game of this range, and you’re getting quality components for sure.
Accessibility: Actually playing this game is incredibly short and simple – you are simply picking two tiles at a time in the draft, and putting one on each side of you, making cities collaboratively with your neighbors. There aren’t too many weird restrictions – your tiles need to be oriented “upright” and your city needs to make a 4×4 grid – that’s it, really. The trickier part of the game is the scoring.
None of the individual scoring rules are that complicated, but together, they provide a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s easy to intuit among an individual hand what might be a good idea (well, past the first hand, which is a crapshoot). On the other hand, it’s also very hard to quickly add up how you’re city is doing, to tell if you’re truly balancing your two cities. Back to the first hand, though, the inability to “math it out” means that the game is not ruined by donwtime among players who would do so. The main problem is that unless we’re complete idiots, scoring the game takes almost as long as playing the game, and there’s no easy way to do it. If you can get past that hurdle, though, it’s a cinch to play.
Depth: One interesting byproduct of the game’s rule that you score your worst city is that the game generates quite a bit of discussion as you decide which of your two tiles goes where. I like that a traditional “Euro-ish” drafting game has this negotiation element to it. I also really appreciate the rulebook having an explicit rule for what to do in “power gamer” situations where someone wants to decide after someone else (you go in order given by the randomizer). We never had an issue with that, and I really enjoyed adding this “soft skill” to the mathematics of the game.
In the game, you only look at 7 different hands of tiles, and pick two each time. I found that I was never making particularly tough decisions, especially later on in the game. However, that’s okay – after all, the game only takes 20-30 minutes to play. I don’t necessarily think the game plays itself – sometimes, you have to decide between equally good or equally crappy choices – but sometimes, there’s just the good choice and the bad choice.
Theme: The theme of city-building is thin, but it’s there. It’s relevant in the scoring, not wanting houses near factories, but wanting taverns near businesses, etc. It also feels like you’re developing the cities you build as you do it, which is impressive given the short time frame in which the game has to generate the feeling. You’ll get more of the theme out of a game like Suburbia, but Between Two Cities does the best job that it can within its constraints.
Fun: The easiest game to compare this to is 7 Wonders, where you are also developing a
city civilization through drafting, and both can accommodate seven people. However, Between Two Cities is a chatty game, while the competitive nature you have with your neighbors in 7 Wonders makes more for a quiet, determined attitude. Personally, 7 Wonders is my preference of the two, but it’s also very hard to learn by comparison. Between Two Cities is a fun game in its own right, and a great introduction to drafting games for new players – especially since they have two other players to rely on as they begin to learn.
Between Two Cities is clever, quick, simple introduction to both city-building and drafting games, making it an easy recommendation for family gamers.
4 out of 5