Board Game Review: New York 1901 – Fantastic Family Fare

At the dawn of the 20th century, the skyline was changing in New York. And, in New York 1901, you can be one of the construction magnates building up those iconic skyscrapers. All it takes is land acquisition and a ruthless desire to build and re-build your plots.

The Basics. The game board is laid out and shows several prominent New York streets. Each area contains several plots of land that can be acquired by the players. Each game also features several bonus cards. There are five bonuses, of which only one will be picked for a given game. And there are five street cards that give bonuses for the most skyscrapers on a particular street. Only three of which will be in any given game. So there will be a total of four end game bonus cards to think about. They are revealed before the game begins.

Finally, the players lay out four face up plot cards. Each shows a color and either a two-space plot of land or a three-space plot of land. Obtaining those plots allows a player to mark an area as his own or build a skyscraper there. There are precisely as many plots as cards in the deck.

Plots come in different colors and are either 2 or 3 parcels large

On a turn, a player either takes one of the face up plot cards or demolishes on of his current skyscrapers. Once he does so, he can then build one of his own skyscrapers by placing it on the plot of land that he claimed, or the resultant empty lot that he has created by demolition. The skyscrapers start out small and easily fit into small plots. But as the players gain access to bigger skyscrapers, they begin to look like funky tetris pieces that will cover multiple lots.

Players can begin by constructing “bronze” buildings. And, after accumulating some points, can then begin building “silver” and eventually “gold” skyscrapers. The game ends when the deck of plot cards runs out or a player has only four skyscrapers left. At that point, there is a final scoring where players gain points based on how many buildings they have adjacent to the indicated streets and for completing the special bonus scoring objective. Most points wins.

New York, New York

The Feel. New York 1901 is absolutely delightful. There’s one caveat that needs to be stated up front. This is a family-style game. It is very accessible, even to younger players. It has few rules which can be explained quickly and easily. And it has a fun theme. But this is no multi-hour brain burner. It’s target audience is probably not the most hardcore gamer. But if that hardcore gamer has a family of casuals, this just might make it to the table.

That aside, the game is really enjoyable. You get a fun feeling of creation as you build out your buildings and see the board evolve over time. And there’s a nice tension between getting smaller buildings on now, or saving room for bigger buildings – especially as you increase in technology. After all, a bronze building can always be torn down for a silver or gold. But a gold building cannot. So, sometimes it makes more sense to build bronze or silver with the goal of upgrading it to gold in the future.

Tons of tiles to choose from

But you don’t always have the time to do that. Players can try to rush the end-game by building everything quickly. And simply constructing all your tiles won’t necessarily give you the most points. That’s where the bonus tiles come in. It’s not just about having enough adjacent plots to construct the big buildings. It’s also about meeting those goals, so you want to be sure you have buildings on the particular streets that will score points. And you need to fulfill the bonus requirements.

One of the more interesting bonus scoring is the one that gives bonus points for the player with the most bronze, silver, and gold buildings. So, instead of demolishing those old bronze buildings, maybe it makes sense to keep them for final scoring. The particular end-game scoring tile that is drawn can really change the incentives. And, while five bonus points may not seem like a lot, the scores at game end tend to be otherwise pretty close. So it often comes down to the positioning and bonus tiles.

Certain streets are more highly sought after

There are two potential items to note, though. The plot cards are simply revealed at random. So if you and another player are both competing for the same spot, then whoever happens to have that card dealt before their turn will get it. This makes the game feel a little more luck-based than perhaps it should. Still, it just means that players will have to learn to pivot their plans and should never have too much riding on one card. The game does mitigate this somewhat by giving each player three once-per-game powers, though. So even then you aren’t completely at the mercy of fate.

The other item is that, for a family title, this game is relatively high spite. It might be obvious that a player needs one more blue lot in order to build a legendary building or construct their largest gold tower. But if a blue card comes up on your turn, maybe its worth it just to take it and claim that plot so they’ll never be able to build there. There is no way to obtain a plot that is occupied by another player. So if you’re working hard toward something, you should know that it can be relatively easy to spoil.

The five potential bonus cards

Components: 4.5 of 5. New York 1901 does a pretty dang good job in this department. The tiles are cardboard, the board has art on the back, there’s a fantastic insert, and the cards are small but high quality. In fact, if anything, this title seems just a tad overproduced. But when targeting the casual gaming crowd, it is a big plus. No drab board featuring the Mediterranean or a panoply of easily misunderstood iconography.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 3 of 5. There’s no denying that there’s some luck involved in the game. Maybe you desperately need a particular 3-space blue. Well, 3-space plot cards tend not to last long in the offering. So unless it happens to come up on your turn, you may not ever get it. That said, you have once-per-game abilities that can help. And, your strategy should avoid needing specific cards or plots whenever possible. Just be aware that you may have to pivot from time to time.

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. 1901 is solidly put together. The rules are simple, while allowing for a great deal of interaction and planning. A great advantage is that the game can be explained in under five minutes, which will allow apprehensive non-gamers to get into the action quickly. And the once-per-game cards, while not addressing the issue entirely, go a long way toward giving players a little bit more control over the game.

Replayability: 3.5 of 5. I think for the hardcore gamer that intends to play something repeatedly until he learns every nuance, you’ll find the game pretty much shows you everything it is after a few plays. But for the casual player who looks forward to a strongly interactive game with some nice variety, 1901 will be easy to return to. Even though you’ll always be constructing and demolishing, the wheres and whys will change.

Spite: 3.5 of 5. For a family title, Spite is a little on the high side. There are no take-that cards and certainly no way to take a plot or building away from another player. So you won’t lose what you’ve already built. But if you haven’t built yet and are hoping to secure one or two more plots for a large building, it’s relatively easy for another player to zip in and snatch up the land. And once they do, that’s it. You’ll never have that piece of property. The spite amount will also be group dependent. Most groups will be moderate because there are often things you’d rather do. But particularly vengeful groups might see a lot of blocking. The saving grace is that you only get four workers to mark your plots. So you can’t just steal. Eventually you’ll have to build, too.

Buildings of Legend

Overall: 4 of 5. New York 1901 is a treat. Good decisions, a dash of luck-driven card distribution, and an enjoyably lean ruleset make this a near perfect game for families and casual gamers. The driven hobby-gamer may not see as much to hold their attention, that’s true. But I also don’t think that’s the target market for this title. But, even if you such a person, there’s enough going on that you should be nicely entertained as you bring it out to enjoy the company of non-gamers.

(A special thanks to Blue Orange Games for providing a review copy of New York 1901)

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