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APRIL 1906: San Francisco has just been hit by the tragic earthquake and fire which killed 50,000 citizens and destroyed most districts. The council is eager to rebuild the city to its former glory as quickly as possible, and is seeking investors willing to finance the rebuilding. Cash and influence decide who will build the most lucrative districts. The city has been divided into 35 blocks, the data of which are kept on small tiles ensuring that the layout will be different from game to game. Action cards determine where building will occur. Players bid with influence to secure the best building sites and building projects. The game is played over a time scale of 12 years, with rounds varying from no time elapsed to several years elapsed.
When I first saw San Francisco (Amigo, 2000 Andreas Wetter and Thorsten Loppman), it was in a review in GAMES magazine, and I wasnt really that interested. There was nothing about the game that looked spectacular, and subsequent comments on the web cemented my opinion that the game probably wouldnt be that much fun. Nevertheless, I read a positive review on the game, and it was on sale (a sure fire way to get me interested in the game), so I picked it up and tried it out.
And I was very, very surprised, because I really, really liked this game! Im a big fan of auctions, and those in this game really please me. There was one glaring component problem, but the remainder of the components were nice, and after one playing, I was quite eager to play again. In subsequent games, I found more and more strategy in the game, and it has become one of my auction games of choice, and one I will often bring to the table. Those Ive played it with have all complained about the component issue, but also have said that they enjoyed the game and would gladly play it again.
The game comes with a plethora of pieces, but the setup isnt really that bad. The theme of the game is the rebuilding of San Francisco after the earthquake in 1906. Each player represents an investor (oil, steel, etc.) who is interested in using their support to build the most prestigious districts in the city. The majority of action takes place on a five by six grid of squares representing city districts on the board. Each player receives 15 wooden sticks, 10 influence cards (numbered from 0 to 9), and three option tiles all in their color. They also receive 12 checks (cards) worth a total of $590,000. A deck of action cards is shuffled and placed face down on the board, along with a deck of Request for Bidding cards. Each player puts a token of their color on two tracks one at 0 on a victory point track, and one at 30 on an influence track. A pile of district tiles are shuffled and placed randomly around the board, with their number sides facing up except for the city hall, which always goes in the middle of the board. There are two parks in these tiles, and both have white (neutral) sticks placed on all four sides of them after setup. The oldest player begins, and then play proceeds clockwise around the table.
On a players turn, they must turn over the top Bidding card, which will then be auctioned off. They may choose to refuse the card, in which case a second card is drawn, which then MUST be auctioned off. The top of the card tells how many districts are being auctioned off, the middle of the card tells what kind of districts, and the bottom reveals what type of auction it will be. Each auction is handled differently:
- When an auction uses checks, each player, starting with the active player, lays a number of checks in front of them, each higher than the player before them. Once a check is bid, the player cannot change it. They can add to their previous bids, or can drop out (a player does not have to bid). The winner (only) pays the checks they bid to the bank.
- When an auction uses influence, each player secretly places one of their influence cards face down on the table. All influence cards are revealed at the same time. Players whose influence numbers are the same cancel each other out. The players who are left win the auction(s) according to influence bid, and must move their influence marker down the track accordingly (players cant bid more than they have.)
- When bidding with option cards, each player secretly places one of their option tiles face down on the board and then all are revealed simultaneously. If only one player has shown a certain type of tile (office, industry, or residential), they win the auction for that type. If two or more players put down the same tile, they then place 1-5 money checks in front of them, face down, all of which are revealed at the same time. The higher bidder (both lose in a tie) pays the money and wins the auction.
Depending on the auction, each player who has won places one of their sticks on a road that borders the type of tile shown on the bidding card. It is possible that this gives a player a majority of influence on a district(s). If a player has the most sticks around a block (2 of their color, and 1 of two other players; 3 of their color, and 1 of another player, 2 of their color, 1 neutral, and one of another player, etc.). That tile is then flipped over, and the player with the majority gets the points for the tile. (4, 5, 6, or 10). They then move their victory point token accordingly. If no majority is formed by the placement of sticks, then the next player draws a bidding card, etc.
Whenever a tile is scored an action card is turned over, and placed on a year space on the board of which there are twelve. Each action card has different results, giving players more money and influence, allowing them to move sticks, etc. After the twelfth action card has been executed, the game ends, and the player with the most victory points is the winner!
Some comments on the game
1.) Components: As I said in the introduction, there are a lot of components in this game, but fortunately there is a wonderful plastic insert in the thematic, sturdy, box. All the tiles, both the players and the districts, are nicely illustrated and of a good thickness. The sticks are nice, and if you run out of them, I guess you could go to your local Settlers of Catan game. The board is fantastic, and really reflects the period settings. The cards both the influence and checks, are of the highest quality and they really look good! The artwork on the influence cards show different fictional people, although some of them, like the mayor, look like famous characters i.e. Robert E. Lee. For the most part, the components are just great!
2.) But: There is a rather big problem, however, with the tiles. All of them have some beautiful artwork of different district types there are six different kinds. On the backs are large numbers, easily showing which district is which because they all are in different colors. HOWEVER, these numbers are not on the bidding cards. When one wants to see which tiles are up for auction, they must compare the pictures. This sounds easier than it is and it really becomes a pain in the neck. We managed to enjoy the game regardless, but this was a small irritation to me, and a greater irritation to the other players. I thought about marking them with a marker, but didnt want to ruin the game. Ill live with it, but it still annoys me that this wasnt caught in play testing.
3.) Rules: The rules for the game are in German, but there are a couple good translations on the internet at www.boardgamegeek.com. I found them quite easy to understand, with many full colored pictures and illustrations. There are also quite a few hints and tips about strategy sprinkled throughout the manual. Complete play examples are listed, and gone through and I had no trouble learning the game. The game isnt extremely hard to teach, but it did take a while for people to get into the swing of things as can be expected with three different types of auctions. Two variants are also included in the rules, both of which I highly recommend.
4.) Bluffing: Bluffing and guessing others bluffs is a major part of this game. Some people are really put off by the fact that three players can bid a 9 influence card, and all cancel each other out, while another player can have bid a 0, and win. I, however, find this exhilarating, and really enjoy the influence auctions, more so that the other two types. The action cards also add a bit of pressing ones luck, too. One of them allows players to draw checks from a random pile where they can draw until they reach $100,000, but if they go over, they lose them all. It adds a slight Blackjack feel to the game, and one that causes a lot of yelling and laughter.
5.) Strategy: Most of the strategy lies in the above bluffing, and knowing how to bid in auctions. Other strategy comes in the form of knowing where to place the sticks but its usually rather obvious. The only other important bit of strategy is knowing when to pass up on a Bidding card and draw another. The simple fact is, though, that if you dont like auctions, then this probably isnt the game for you.
6.) Fun Factor: I really had a lot of fun playing this game, mostly because I love auction games. Those who played also enjoyed it, although most people liked the check auctions more so than the influence auctions. Everyone had a good time, and while this game is not too light, it was still easy enough for teenagers to enjoy and have a good time.
Overall, I was very pleased with the game. If the tiles were fixed, it would probably have made it into my top twenty games. As it is, I really enjoy the bidding, and place this in my top five auction games, one that I will gladly play anytime. Those who complain that the game is just an unholy combination of mechanics of other games fail to realize that the combination actually is a success. The theme is lacking, to be sure, and is rather superficial, but the mechanics are strong and they and the components really help drive the games Fun Factor. If you are looking for a medium weight auction style game, I can think of few better than this one. It plays in about 90 minutes, and is a good centerpiece for many a gaming night. I know it will in my group. If you like auction games this is a prime one to add to your collection.
First of all, I have never played any of the games that people say SF has borrowed its playing mechanisms from. So it might be true that if you have played any of these games, then there is not so much new under the sun when playing SF. But for me, I must say that SF is really a fun, quick and pretty intense practice of gameplay. It clocks in about one hour, gives you plenty to think about with regard to how you should spend your political and financial power. I also like to play the game with the optional rule that during bidding for options in the game, you can make deals with your opponents using money checks, which gives you an opportunity to grow stronger financially during different stages of the game.
I also think the overall quality of the components in this game are top notch. Perhaps the publisher could have used numbers on the action cards to identify the correct buildings to bid over, but in my opinion that is a minor concern. The rest of the game consists of thick cardboard tiles, top quality cards and game board with nice colours and graphics.
SF will be one of the games our group will play frequently from now on, and I can recommend it heartily, as long as you have not played the games its mechanisms are borrowed from.
This is new release from Amigo and is designed by Andreas Wetter and Thorsten Lpmann, two designers with whom I am not at all familiar. If this is, indeed, their first serious venture into game design, then I applaud their efforts.
It is 1906 and San Francisco lies in ruins. The City By the Bay has just been devastated by a massive earthquake. Players represent wealthy investors attempting to rebuild the city and construct the most prestigious districts.
As would be expected, the theme is intriguing, yet fairly thin. I certainly didn't get the feel of re-building a devastated city. That's not necessarily bad, but it certainly will be a drawback for some. The components didn't add to the feel, either, despite the attempt to depict ruins on each district tile. Truth be told, this artwork was so muted and light as to make it extremely difficult to view. In every game, we had considerable trouble matching the artwork on the 'Call for Bid' cards to the ruin artwork on the tiles. Further plays have made this a bit easier, but that's only because we learned to identify each district by their values. It would have made things a LOT easier if they had placed numbers on the 'Call for Bid' cards which matched the numbers on the relevant districts.
The board depicts a section of San Francisco (a 7 x 5 grid) which has been destroyed. Onto this grid, players place tiles representing various districts, including residential, commercial and recreational. Each category has two distinct types of buildings (row houses or villas, for example), and have point values of either 4, 5 or 6. There are two special districts, the town hall and bank district, each of which are valued at 10 points. In addition, there are three parks which have been left virtually untouched by the earthquake.
A player's turn is quite simple: turn over a 'Call for Bid' card and decide to place that one up for auction, or discard it and reveal another card. If he chooses this option, the second card MUST be placed up for auction. The cards will specify the type of auction to be used. (I'll discuss this in a bit more detail later.)
The cards usually award the auction winner the right to place one or two 'influence' markers (those ever popular wooden rods) around the district depicted on the card. Sometimes, more than one player can win the right to place an influence marker, and occasionally the district upon which they can place the marker is not restricted. It is the bidding battles over the right to exercise the power depicted on these cards which is the heart of the game.
What is a player trying to accomplish? Once a player gains a majority of influence markers around a particular district (which is present when no other player can place enough markers on that district to reach the same or more influence markers there), that player 're-builds' the district, flipping the tile over to its 'restored' side. The only exception to this procedure are the town hall and bank, both valued at 10 points. A player must possess all four influence markers around these districts in order to re-build it. The player achieving this earns the prestige points equal to the value depicted on the tile. The player with the most prestige points at game's end is the ultimate victor.
If one or more districts have been re-built during a turn, an action card is revealed. These cards come in eight main varieties, allowing players to place more influence markers, move markers around the board, gain influence points, earn bonus prestige points, acquire more checks, etc. Most of these require yet another auction to determine the player who gets to exercise these privileges. Some, however, allow all players to participate in the benefits.
If the execution of an action card results in a rebuilt district, then yet another action card is revealed and the process is repeated. This procedure can quite literally repeat itself ad infinitum, or at least until the end of the game, whichever comes first. When a total of 12 action cards have been revealed, the game ends and the player with the most prestige points is the 'Golden Gate Guru'.
The designers have borrowed heavily in their choice of mechanisms from other games. My good friend Mark Jackson enjoys calling this one the Frankenstein of games--assembled from many different parts. The game is essentially an auction game, utilizing several different... er, various... auction methods. I can't say different because ALL of the methods used have been utilized before. Consider the auction methods which are being used in the game:
Method 1: Influence cards. Each player has 10 influence cards, numbered from 0 - 9 respectively. When this type of auction is called for, players each lay one of these cards face-down, then simultaneously reveal them. The player who played the card with the highest influence wins the auction. If two or more players tie, they cancel each other out and the player who played the next highest influence card wins.
Sound familiar? It should. This method has been used in a WIDE variety of games, including [page scan/se=0629/sf=category/fi=stockall.asc/ml=20]Hols der Geier (Raj), Sky Runner, Montgolfierre and many more.
Method 2: Checks. Each player begins the game with the following mixture of checks: 2 $10,000s, 2 $20,000s and one of each value from $30,000 to $100,000. When involved in a 'check' auction, bids go around the table with players laying checks from their hand onto the table. A player must either withdraw or play a bid higher than the player before him. If the bid gets back to a player and he desires to increase his previous bid, he cannot retrieve the checks previously laid on the table, but must supplement it with additional checks from his hand. Eventually, everyone will withdraw except one player, who wins the bid.
Again, sound familiar? How about Knizia's High Society? Identical.
Method 3: Option chits. Each player has three option chits, each chit depicting two of the six types of districts being reconstructed. When this auction is called for, each player secretly plays one chit face-down to the table and simultaneously reveals them. If a player is the only one to play a particular chit, then he gets to execute the action being auctioned. If, however, two or more players play identical chits, they then must have a modified check auction to determine the victor.
Now, is this a bad thing? No, not at all... except one constantly gets the feeling of 'deja-vu'. Still, these auctions can be quite tense during the course of the game.
My main problem, however, is with the influence method. I feel this Raj-like mechanism of bidding influence cards doesn't quite work in this venue. The mechanism is good in games which are played, as my good buddy Ty Douds likes to say, for 'chuckles'. I think in a serious game, which I perceive San Francisco to be, the 'tied players lose' mechanism really hinders careful strategic planning and becomes little more than a crap shoot.
However, if this 'tied players lose' mechanism were left out, then it would distort overall play balance. You see, each player begins the game with 30 influence points. As they win influence auctions, they lose a corresponding number of influence points equal to the value of the influence card they played to win that auction. A player may only play an influence card if he has at least an equal number of influence points remaining. Thus, players who use their influence points and fall behind the others in this category will be at a severe disadvantage. There are several action cards which allow players to increase their influence points, but it is quite possible that these may not surface until late in the game, if at all. So, as is, the 'tied players lose' mechanism does allow players lagging in influence points to still have a chance at winning an auction. I see what the designers were trying to accomplish, but the result is less than satisfying with this aspect of the game.
There is also some confusion as to whether winning a 'Call for Bid' card allows the player to place an influence marker along the edges of the map. Some have proclaimed that this is not allowed and a player must wait for one of those rare cards which allows a placement along the city fringes. Others, including the venerable Mik Svellov, insist that players CAN place along the fringes with any card. I've played both ways and vastly prefer Mik's ruling. Without it, it's quite possible that many districts will stagnate without any clear majority for extended periods of time.
Fine and good, but is the game fun? I'd have to say that, so far, the answer is yes. I don't think it is terribly deep, as the strategies to pursue seem reasonably obvious. The game--and players' actions--are mostly steered by the revealing of cards. One must constantly react based on what actions the cards allow. Waiting for that needed '5' district to surface could spell doom. Still, the auction elements do add nice tension to the game and there are important decisions to be made as to which battles to fight, and from which to withdraw. Where to place one's influence markers is also a consideration, but, for the most part, this decision is not too difficult.
Further, especially with four or five players, there's a fairly large dose of 'chaos' present. Players constantly cancel each other out in the bidding process, particularly the influence card bidding method which I described above. As a result, the degree of control a player has over his own fate is somewhat illusory. This loss of control is somewhat reduced when playing with only three players, but then much of the interaction in the bidding rounds is missing.
I don't think this one is destined to become a personal favorite, but will be one I won't mind playing a few times a year. I can see the constant series of auctions becoming a bit repetitive over time, which may well prevent it from being played often. Still, for now, it is enjoyable. I'm still wondering, however, what the heck folks such as Robert E. Lee and Al Capone, whose portraits are on the Influence cards, had to do with the re-building of San Francisco! It appears the designers (or at least the developers) didnt do much homework regarding San Francisco and the various personalities involved with the town.
It's a bidder's paradise, but a devastated economy! You never get change. You'll win an auction with your Zero Card if all other secretly chosen numbers match. Randomly selected Auction Tiles determine whether Money or Influence Cards are bid for each investment right. You gain a district's Prestige Points by winning a majority of its investment rights, and this triggers the drawing of an Action Card. These allow players to replenish their resources; you get more money by stealing facedown checks from the Bank--unless you exceed your allowance! The winner is the player who has the most Prestige Points after the last Action Card is picked.
There is a cynical observation to the effect that if a social scientist steals from one author it is plagiarism but that if he steals from a lot it counts as research. On that basis this game could easily have been a doctoral thesis in sociology. It has an original and intriguing theme, and it all hangs together well enough, but you could use the mechanics as a basis for a competition, asking readers to identify which games were the sources for the various bits.
The setting is San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. The city is to be rebuilt and your aim is to be the leading investor in the most prestigious new developments. The main part of the board shows a 7 x 5 grid, which represents the city, and at the start of the game a tile is placed face down on each of the 35 squares. Three of these tiles are parks (which have no scoring value but which add a little extra to the tactics); two are high value, prestige buildings worth 10 each; and the rest are split equally between developments worth 4, 5 and 6. There are two types of tile for each of the three lower values and, although the tiles are face down at this stage, you can tell what is on the reverse. As the game proceeds, the tiles will be turned face up, indicating that this district has now been rebuilt, and the points for it will be allocated to the player who was its leading investor.
The right to invest in a development is gained by an assortment of auctions, some involving money and some involving political influence. There is an auction on each player turn and its nature is determined by the turn of a card, which tells you how many players can be successful, in which type of location the investment can be made and how the auction is to be conducted. There is a fair amount of variety here and so the game doesn't fall into the trap of sending you round and round the same small circle.
The first type of auction is cash only and has only one winner. Each player begins the game with a set of 12 cheques in values 1 to 10--two each of values 1 and 2 and one each of the others. Bidding proceeds round the table until all players bar one have dropped out. You can only bid using the cheques in your hand and you can't take change: once you have laid a cheque on the table it stays there until you have dropped out of the bidding. When the auction is over, the winner places all the cheques they have used on to the discard pile and the losers take theirs back into hand. So this is exactly like the bidding in Reiner Knizia's 1995 game High Society.
The winner of the auction gains the right to invest in one of the six basic types of building--the ones with values in the range 4-6. The card that triggered the auction shows you which. Investing is a matter of placing a wooden rod in your colour on an empty street adjacent to a district of the appropriate type. If the street is not one of the ones round the edges, there will be a district on the other side of the street and you are deemed to have invested in that one also. This "other side of the street" idea is the only way you can get at the two high-valued buildings.
The second type of auction involves political influence and this time there can be more than one winner--the card will say just how many. Each player has a set of ten influence cards numbered 0 to 9 and the idea is that the people pictured on them owe you favours. Your bid will consist of calling in one of these favours and you do this by selecting one of the cards and placing it face down in front of you. The cards are then turned over. Any matching numbers are eliminated from consideration and the corresponding cards are returned to their owners. (The rationale being that if two people knock on the same door asking for the same favour, the person behind the door is obliged to stay neutral.) Of the cards that remain, the top however many are successful. It is a mechanism that makes sense in game terms and which is also immediately recognisable as the one from Alex Randolph's 1988 game Hol's der Geier.
Successful bidders place their rods and reduce their "stock of influence points" by the number on the card they played. Everybody starts the game with just 30 of these points and so you can't be bidding high numbers all the time. The influence cards played are not discarded: for all auctions of this type every player will have the full set of cards to choose from and the only restriction is that you can't play a card which would drop your stock of influence points below zero.
The third type of auction involves "option chips". You have three of these, one each for the districts of values 4, 5 and 6, and the auction is for one investment opportunity in each of the three categories. Each player selects their tile and the choices are revealed. If you are the only contestant in a category, you succeed; if not, there is an "in the fist" bid with cheques to decide things. And where does this one come from? Well, it is not exactly the same mechanism as that in Klaus Teuber's 1997 game Lwenherz, but it's damn close.
Okay, you probably think I am making too much of these borrowings and I would agree. These guys may be light-fingered but at least they are pilfering from a superior set of shops. Lots of games borrow ideas from other games and in the final analysis what matters is how well they work in their new settings. Here two of them work fine. I'd prefer it if the cash auctions were standard affairs, without the restrictions that come from having to work with the denominations in your hand, but then I was never as keen on High Society as most people. The system works. There is also nothing wrong with the Lwenherz borrowing. You are involved in a guess, but you can see from the board what other players are likely to be interested in and so the option to make your guess an informed one is there. It is the other routine, the one with the political influence cards, that I don't care for. I love Hol's der Geier, but what works in a light-hearted, end-of-evening card game is out of place in a game with pretensions to being strategic. In Hol's der Geier the consequences of an unlucky guess last as long as the next card; here they have long term implications for the whole game. What was fun in its original setting becomes something of an irritant here. The Hol's der Geier version is also more skilful, because at least there you can improve the odds by keeping track of what other people have already played; here the cards are constantly recycled, leaving you with the same blind guess every time.
For the districts of values 4-6, the building is erected and its tile turned face up when one player is assured of a simple majority of the four rods round the plot. Gaining either of the two high-valued buildings is tougher: here all four rods need to be in place with you as the sole investor. Because of the way that rods represent investment in the districts on both sides of the street, this tends to mean that players find themselves working an area. Once you are established in a part of the board, the most efficient use of your resources dictates that your future investments involve districts where you already have an interest. As a result, you are likely to spread out from a base rather than have a set of isolated developments. Provided you get off to a decent start, this is something that you will see as strategy, but if you don't--which is quite possible if you are unlucky early on with the Hol's der Geier style guesses--it can also be a killer, with you finding yourself a crucial one step behind wherever you look. When we tried the game with the full five players, one player just never got started and was still on no points going into the last turn. And very annoyed he was about it too.
The final ingredient in the mix is a set of "action cards". At the end of a round in which at least one city district has been rebuilt, one of these is drawn. Some of them trigger auctions, offering the winner things such as further investment opportunities or the option of changing or moving some of the wooden rods on the board. Others are bonus cards giving all players the chance to boost their reserves of influence points or cash. (And it shouldn't come as a surprise to you that a spot more "mechanism borrowing" comes in here as well. When you are given the opportunity to boost your cash reserves, the card offers you up to a certain amount. You then draw cheque cards from the face-down discard pile until you either settle for what you have or go over the limit and lose the lot. Pontoon anyone?) The game ends when twelve of these action cards have been drawn.
The whole package is a workmanlike and above average game, but one which, as you will have gathered, I found something of a disappointment. The theme was so promising that I was hoping for a 8 or even a 9; what I have been given is a 6--one of those games that makes a bit of a splash when it first appears but which will have been largely forgotten about in twelve months time.
Numbers: I prefer the 3-player version to the 5. The on-board position is less tight and the guessing games with the influence cards are more forgiving. I haven't yet had the opportunity to try the game with 4 but suspect that this would be the best number. Components: There are no language problems and there is a good rules translation available at The Dumpster. The German rules themselves leave one or two questions unanswered and the graphics problems that delayed the publication have not been fully resolved--telling which district tiles are which when they are face down is not as easy as it ought to be.