25 May 2019

Board Game Review: Ginkgopolis

The cover art for Ginkgopolis. A man and a woman in vaguely futuristic clothing looking at some technology that appears to be planning the construction of a futuristic city, standing on a metal platform in a grassy area with a few trees, as a path runs towards some sci-fi buildings in the background.

Not too long ago, I got to try out a game that you may have heard of. It's called Ginkgopolis, by Xavier Georges, from Z-Man Games. I had fun learning it, and am anxious to try it again, now that I know how to play it! See, it's... not quite an area control game, and not quite a deck-builder, and not quite a resource management/building game... but it's got elements of all of those things, all crammed together in a most intriguing little mechanic!

But I seem to be getting ahead of myself again, as I am wont to do. So let's pause for a moment and take a look at the numbers:

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, and makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.
Strategy: 4
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 3
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 60 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Ginkgopolis

The year is 2212. As the resources available to mankind dwindle, new methods of building cities have come to prominence, which balance the production and consumption of resources. The Ginkgo Biloba has come to symbolise this new symbiotic relationship. You, as a player, are working to build the cities around you in the most efficient manner possible. Although you don't take any direct action against other players, you can spoil their plans with some well-laid plans of your own...

The game consists of sixty city tiles, twenty each in blue, red, and yellow, and a corresponding card for each tile (all of which are numbered). There are also urbanization cards and corresponding tiles (these tiles are round rather than square), which are marked with the letters A through L. Each player gets small wooden cylindrical tokens in their chosen colour to represent resources and a small screen to keep their things hidden. Victory point tokens in the shape of ginkgo biloba leaves, some character cards, a set of slightly larger gray cylinder 'construction site' tokens, a handful of 'new hand' tokens, and a card for the first player marker complete the set.

The first three tiles in each colour are shuffled together and laid out randomly in a three by three grid. The remaining city tiles form a draw pile. The letter tiles are arranged alphabetically around the edge of this grid. The corresponding cards (both letters and numbers) are shuffled into the starting deck. Players get three character cards (either through random deal or through a pick-and-pass system), which determine how many resource tokens, city tiles, and victory points the player starts with. Deal out four cards to each player.

Each turn consists of playing a card from your hand. Cards are played face down, optionally with resource tokens and city tiles on them, then all players reveal their cards at the same time. Players execute their cards in player order, starting with the player who has the first player card in front of their screen. These cards can be played in one of three ways:
  • Exploit - Play a card with no tiles or resources. Playing an urbanization card in this way gains you either one city tile or one resource token, taken from the general supply to your supply behind your screen. Playing a city card gains you resources (if the card was red), city tiles (if the card was blue), or victory points (if the card was yellow). How many you get is determined by the height of the corresponding building (more on building height in a moment).
  • Urbanize - Play an urbanization card along with a city tile. This tile is added to the edge of the grid in the location where the letter on that card is currently located. The urbanization tile is moved a space out from the grid to make room for the new city tile. When you take this action, you get resources, tiles, and/or victory points from all adjacent city tiles as if you had exploited those tiles.
  • Build - Play a city card along with a city tile and the necessary number of resource tokens. This tile is placed on top of the tile corresponding to the card you played (thus, if you played the red 2 card, you would put your new tile into the grid on top of the red 2 tile). You must put a number of your resource tokens on the tile you've added to the grid equal to the height of that stack. So, if there were four tiles in the stack after you add your new tile, you'd have to place four resource tokens on top of that stack. The city card you played is placed in front of your screen; these cards, along with the character cards you received at the start of the game, form a tableau that grants you benefits on later turns. However, you need to be careful in doing this: if you build onto a stack that has any resource tokens already on it, those tokens are returned to their player. If that player is not you, that player also receives victory points equal to the number of tokens they're receiving. Additionally, if your tile is a different colour than the one on which you're placing it, you must spend an additional resource token (return it to the general supply). If the number of the tile you're placing is lower than the number you're covering, you must pay the difference in victory points.
After each player has executed the cards they've played, pass your hand to the left. The first player card is also passed left. Draw up to a hand size of four. Then repeat the process of playing, revealing, and executing cards.

Permutations in Ginkgopolis

Each card that you have in your tableau grants you a benefit. Some of them give you something (resource tokens, tiles, or victory points) when you take the Exploit action. Others give you something when you Urbanize, or when you Build. Still others give you bonus victory points at the end of the game based on certain criteria (like the one that gives you a success point for each resource you have on blue tiles, just as one example). Both the character cards with which you start the game and the city cards that you add to your tableau during the course of the game give you benefits of this nature.

Additionally, each time you add a tile to the play area, either through the Urbanize or Build actions, you must place one of the construction site tokens on the newly placed tiles. Then, when the deck runs out and you need to shuffle the discard pile to form a new draw pile, you must add the corresponding cards for each tile that has a construction site token. Then remove those tokens. In this way, cards are added to the deck as new tiles are added to the city itself.

Furthermore, if you don't like the cards you have in your hand, you may spend one of the two 'new hand' tokens you receive at the beginning of the game to discard your entire hand and draw four new cards. This prevents you from feeling like you have no good options. Be careful about doing this, though, as you may only do it twice, and you get two bonus points at the end of the game for each 'new hand' token you still have.

Ending a game of Gingkopolis

The first time the general supply of city tiles runs out, all players have the option of returning any number of city tiles in their personal supply to the general supply. You receive one victory point for each tile returned in this manner. The second time the general supply is exhausted, the game ends.

Alternately, if at any point, a player has all of their available resources in the city (that is, none of the resources of that player's colour remain either in the general supply or in that player's personal supply), the game ends immediately.

Once the game ends, each player totals up their end game score. In addition to the points received from tokens throughout the game, add any points from cards in the tableau with end-game bonuses and remaining 'new hand' tokens. Then move on to final scoring.

Final scoring involves looking at districts. A district is a set of visible tiles that are adjacent to other tiles of the same colour (but a district must have at least two tiles in it; single tile districts score no points). The player with the most resource tokens in a district (breaking ties based on building height) gets a number of points equal to the total number of resource tokens in that district. The player with the second most tokens in that district gets a number of points equal to the number of resource tokens of their colour only.

The winner is the player with the most points.

Final Thoughts on Ginkgopolis

It took me a while to get the hang of this game, because the mechanic is so different from any other game I've played. As I mentioned before, it has some aspect of area control, but it's a different form of area control than most area control games. Conflict is not direct, in the sense of 'attacking' other players, but by placing your tile on a building that has another player's tokens on it, you are removing that player's tokens from the board. However, these tokens are returned to that player's personal supply, and that player receives victory points for those tokens. So in that sense, it's very different from other area control games.

Also, by playing tiles of a different colour onto a stack, you are changing the layout of the board entirely. By strategic placement of these tiles, you can split a large district into two smaller districts, and/or join two small districts into a larger district. The fact that single tile districts don't count for points also impacts this; joining a single-tile district to another tile to make it count for points, or separating off a single tile from others of its colour adds additional strategic considerations.

I also said that it's got aspects of a deck builder. Since you're adding cards to the deck with each tile you play into the city, the deck is constantly changing and shifting. But all players draw from the same deck, and cards are also constantly being removed from the deck.

And it has elements of resource management; you have a limited number both of tiles and resource tokens to use in the course of the game, but you occasionally get resources back when someone builds on a space that you have previously occupied.

This all combines to make a unique game. But of course, let's not forget the six characteristics of a good game:
  • It's fun to lose.
  • It allows for upsets.
  • It ends decisively.
  • It has no player elimination.
  • It relies on player agency.
  • It's relatively simple; at least, once you've played it a time or two.
Given the unique mechanics involved in this game, it has a bit of a learning curve. Once you've played the game once or twice, the rules become much easier to understand. But even for accomplished gamers like myself, understanding the rules the first time I read the rulebook was not as easy as I would have liked.

Still, overall, I enjoyed this game, and I'm looking forward to playing it again some day soon. But please don't let my opinion sway you; decide for yourself whether to give it a try! And whatever you do, please don't ever forget to

Game on!

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