Board Game Review: Ginkgopolis – Newer Game with an Old School Feel | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Ginkgopolis – Newer Game with an Old School Feel

The theme of Ginkgopolis kept me away from the game for longer than it should have. Players represent futuristic city planners creating a new city based on the ginkgo biloba tree. It sounds dull and unexciting, but the game relies very little on the theme – and it is better for it.

The Basics. Players begin by drafting starting cards. Each player is dealt a hand of four cards to choose from. And, each card has both an amount of starting items (resources, tiles or points) as well as an in-game power. Players choose one card and then pass the remainder to the left. Then they do so twice more until they have chosen three starting cards. Players then gather the resources (which look like little barrels), tiles, and points indicated on their cards.

The board begins with nine tiles in play. There are three colors, each labeled one through three. Around the board are also letter tiles. The central deck is then constructed with twelve letter cards (A through L) and the nine cards (three colors, 1 through 3) representing the nine tiles currently in play. Players are dealt a starting hand of four cards each.

The board at game start – the numbered tiles are randomly distributed.

Players then select one card to play, and depending on the available cards, players generally have three actions available. First, they can play any card by itself to “exploit” the card. Exploiting a letter card gets the player either one resource or one tile. Exploiting a number card gets you resources, tiles, or points depending on its color. The amount gained is equal to the height of that stack of tiles.

Alternatively, the player can play a tile with a card. If a tile is played with a letter card, the player expands the playing area. The tile replaces the letter disc and connects to the existing play area. The player also must place an available resource on that new addition. Plus, depending on what tiles it touches, the player can also gather resources, tiles, or points.

Expanding at H

A player can also play a tile with a number card. Doing so overbuilds by placing the new tile on top of the tile matching the played card. The player must then add a number of resources on top equal to the new height of the stack. Any existing resources are returned to the owner along with a point for each. It also costs a resource to change colors and costs points if you overbuild a higher number with a lower number. The card used to overbuild (since that tile is covered and effectively out of the game) is kept by the player and generally provides an in-game ability or end game points.

At the end of the game, there is a final scoring of districts. A district is two or more contiguous tiles of the same color. The player with the most resources in a given district gets a point for every resource there. The player with the second most resources gets a point for each of their own resources. The player with the most points at game end wins.

In the end, it’s all about the points

The Feel. Ginkgopolis feels old. Not old like Monopoly, but old like Puerto Rico or Ra. It feels like a game that would be right at home with some of the best games from the beginning of the golden age of board games.

The game provides relatively simple rules. Each turn, a player selects a card and can do one of three things: Exploit, Expand, or Develop. Choices are somewhat constrained by cards in hand and the drawn tiles. But the impact from those choices really drives the game. Deciding where to expand or overbuild, and the consequences that changing a tile color can have on the game are huge.

One of the best aspects to Ginkgopolis is the card drafting. And it’s good on two levels. First, each round all players select the card (and tile) they intend to play before anyone actually plays. That “locks in” the action and then players play it out. This dramatically reduces down time since all players are selecting at once. If it went turn by turn, players would have to re-analyze the board each time and the game would drag. Further, it creates a near simultaneous action selection that minimizes (though does not eliminate) the importance of turn order.

Overbuilding the red one with a red nineteen

Second, knowing that you will be passing the remaining three cards sometimes creates very hard choices for the players. It is rather common to have a card that might benefit you a little more, but another that would be passed to your opponent that might be very effective for your them. Perhaps it’s better to use that card – even though it’s slightly less useful to you – just to prevent your opponent from getting it.

The scoring of districts at game end creates powerful competition. Sometimes, players fight within a district to have the most resources present. Other times, players will overbuild with a different color to either divide a district, or to join two districts and dramatically change the calculus. It has a strong influence from area control, but in addition to adding resources into the district, players can actually change the size and scope of the area itself.

Points, tiles, and resources – managing these is critical

One of the great parts of the game is that you are forced to manage at least three different tokens. Resources are needed when expanding or overbuilding. You can’t dominate a district (or overbuild at all) without the requisite resources, and gaining resources means either using in-game abilities or exploiting red cards. But, you’ll also need tiles. Tile draws are essential to ensure that you have the ability to expand and overbuild when needed. Tiles are drawn randomly, so a good tile drawing engine is necessary to ensure that you have a good chance of picking up decent tiles. Tiles come from in-game bonuses or from exploiting blue cards. Finally, generating points during the game is not only helpful at game end, but also allows flexibility so that you can build using lower tiles when necessary. As with the others, points come from in-game bonuses or exploiting a yellow card.

During the actual gameplay, the theme is really irrelevant. While calling it “pasted on” might be a bit unfair, I don’t think I’ve ever viewed the game as anything more than a gussied up abstract. But, it doesn’t need an especially intriguing theme to keep players coming back. The gameplay – and the fierce competition and interaction – are sufficient to keep me coming back.

Your original draft of workers determines starting items and in-game abilities

Despite some very positive aspects, there are a few negative points. The biggest, by far, is the randomness of tile draws. Players have some control over card draws in that the game utilizes card drafting. Plus, the game gives each player two draw-a-new-hand tiles. They can be discarded to redraw a new set of four cards, but there is no similar system for tiles. The only way to get better tiles is to draw more of them.

The other major drawback is that the game definitely has a sweet spot in terms of player count. At four players, the game is wonderful, tight, and provides a nice balance of strategy and tactics. With five, the game still works well, but it can feel more chaotic. You simply have less time to react to big plays and the board can change more before your turn comes around again. The big swings in the last few turns can be huge.

With fewer than four players, the game adds another rule. After reshuffling the cards, players have to discard a number of cards right off the top. If this wasn’t so, players wouldn’t cycle through the deck enough to really see all of the cards being added. This adds more hassle and upkeep and makes the game feel more artificial (even though the odds of drawing a particular card aren’t appreciably changed).

Bad hand? Time to use a hand exchange token

Components: 4 of 5. The pieces are the high quality you’d expect in most euro games. The barrels are painted wood, the tiles are nice and thick, and the ink does not rub off easily (important given the amount of shuffling). There are also nice touches like a change in the color of the backs of starting tiles so that they can be found and separated easily.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. Although there are luck elements in the game, and sometimes a lucky draw can open opportunities, strategy is much more important overall. The meat of the game comes in knowing when to expand and when to overbuild (and when to use an action to exploit). Because of the card drafting mechanic, hand management requires paying close attention to your opponents and what their options might be.

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. With the exception of the way it accommodates different player counts, Ginkgopolis is a great game. Just as many of the early classics of modern board games provide relatively simple rules but significant depth, Ginkgopolis does the same. And it does so while creating strong interaction on multiple levels.

Replayability: 4 of 5. Ginkgopolis features several different strategies that can lead to victory. Overbuilding to get the best end-game victory points is popular. So is strategically overbuilding to create, divide, and gain the majority of various districts. To a lesser extent, playing cards to gain points during the game is also very advantageous. But, each of these strategies requires management and acquisition of resources, tiles, and points to have the most flexibility. Plus, there’s no reason you can’t do a little of each.

Spite: 2.5 of 5. There are no “take that” moments in Ginkgopolis. No cards that force an opponent to give up resources or make players discard. But, Ginkgopolis does feature some significant spite moments. The battle for districts can be cut throat and one change in tile height or color can dramatically alter the distribution of points at game end. So there are pivotal plays that can feel very targeted.

The player screen iconography is not especially helpful

Overall: 4 of 5. Ginkgopolis is a solid game, and one that is remarkable to play. It’s a little thinky, features high interaction, and has just enough luck to keep things uncertain. Importantly, success often comes from responding and adapting to other players – there is no set “right path” in the game. Ginkgopolis feels unique and if you haven’t experienced it, you really should.

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