Full disclosure: A review copy of Cities: Skylines was provided by KOSMOS.
Still giving away a copy of Dale of Merchants Collection to a lucky reader in the US (or with a US mailing address) thanks to Snowdale Design. For more information on that giveaway, check out this link!
Now that I’m getting back down to four reviews in a week, I’m really appreciating these mini reviews as a way to reflect quickly on longer games. It probably would have taken me two to three times longer to review this game (both in terms of My Time Commitment and also in terms of Review Publish Date) if I had done the full review. But what do y’all think? Are these what you want to read? I mean, Mini Review is already kind of a misnomer since this is 2000+ words already and I still have a paragraph to go, but I’m nothing if not verbose, I suppose. Musings aside, Cities: Skylines is another recent release from KOSMOS, publishers of many solid titles, including The Crew, my current favorite game of 2020. And it’s like, February. That’s wild. I’ll review that one at some point, but in the meantime let’s dig into Cities: Skylines!
In Cities: Skylines, you’re teaming up with the other players to finally develop the city of your dreams! And since it’s your dream city, you get to plan every detail of it. How the zoning ordinances come into effect! Where garbage pickup is! How many crimes happen! The reach and nature of pollution! The state of your local education system! Wait, are you saying this sounds like a lot of work? Well, running a city isn’t easy! This one’s a cooperative tile-laying game of city construction and management. The tough part is, every time you place a tile, some resources go up, and others go down. Finding equilibrium is hard enough as it is, but you also would ideally like to make sure that your residents are finding happiness, too! Start from a small district and develop a massive metropolis as you buy new land, increase the size and scope of your development, and deal with policies, bad news, challenges, unique buildings, and special characters who can help your city blossom! The sky … line is the limit, effectively, so are you up for the challenge?
Player Count Differences
There aren’t a ton, strictly speaking. And they come with pros and cons. The major pro is that having more people working on an optimization problem might help you crack it. Heavy emphasis on might. You might also get a Too Many Cooks problem. Hard to say which way that’s going to swing; it’ll depend a lot on your group. Either way, you play with all your cards face-up, so it’s a perfect information game no matter how many players you’re playing with. Not that, in a cooperative game, there’s much benefit to hiding your cards anyways. Your benefit is that you get to see … marginally more cards. The problem is that if you need a specific card played, it might be pretty far away from you. That’s a couple more turns that you need to get through before you can build that Power Station or something, and that’s a bummer. The game knows that, too. It doesn’t care, but it’s aware of that potential issue. You just need to try and divide the cards between you as best as you can to hopefully avoid that pitfall. Either way, I think I generally like this one at two players; I appreciate the extra hands available and extra heads, but I think the quick turn turnaround is worth the lost card potential. But only slightly.
- I usually try to get through the first couple Milestones relatively quickly. I think it’s easier to work with a larger board, but I need to be able to afford it without completely wrecking my Happiness. Plus, it’s considerably easier to get some cards if your Happiness is already good, so, having one big Happiness funnel round means you might be able to better capitalize on those gains. Just watch out, because burning Milestones means you’re also burning cheap Exchange rounds and you still need some capital to buy additional land.
- Having Services is good, but placing them too early can limit their utility. You can’t go negative on Crime, Pollution, or Traffic, so placing Services that reduce them too early means that you’re losing the ability to capitalize on those reductions later in the game when you’ll actually need them. Just be mindful of that before you play.
- Utilities, on the other hand, are pretty much always useful to play. It’s rare to hit 5 on Utilities, so, I’d recommend playing them decently early and making yourself a bit of a buffer. You don’t want to be too in the red when you’re trying to end a Milestone. Utilities are also nice because you can play them in districts that are empty to allow you to finish the milestone. It works on both levels! You just … need money.
- Don’t go broke. Not just for Utilities’ sake! You need money to buy additional land sections. If you don’t have enough money for any, the game immediately ends. Which pretty much means that you’re screwed, especially if the last Milestone is when you were planning to do all the work, like it usually is for me. You don’t want to shut yourself out like that.
- Keep an eye on your jobs and utilities if you’re planning on ending the Milestone. They’re going to be penalties for you if you’re not particularly careful, and this isn’t a game where you can particularly afford egregious penalties all the time. Or pretty much any of the time. You really don’t want penalties, is what I’m trying to say.
- Communicate what you need, want, and are planning. It’s a cooperative game! You cannot afford to step on your partners’ toes, either. If you need a bus station in a particular district, tell them. You need to be synergizing well if you want to even break 20 points. Plus it’s just helpful to know what your partner is planning to do so that you don’t, say, take the tile they were planning on playing or spend money that they needed.
- Don’t build all the Unique Buildings just because you can. They take up a lot of space and may not necessarily synergize with your current strategy. They’re cool, agreed, but you need to be responsible about using them. Having the one that reduces Service Building costs and the one that increases Service Building benefits is an extremely good combo that I would overwhelmingly recommend. Just be careful you don’t overindex on that and make a bunch of districts without Services. That would be unwise.
- It’s nontrivially easy to get yourself trapped. Be extra careful. Remember if you can’t move the dial more, you either can’t play the card or you lose. Try to avoid both outcomes. It’s very easy to get stuck on certain cards if you lack the Services required to play them. Try to avoid getting into that mess, since that further limits your placement options, especially towards the middle- and late-game (when that hurts the most).
- Remember that jobs eat into your money between Milestones, and utilities decrease your happiness. You should try to shoot for 0s across the board. That said, it’s overwhelmingly unlikely that you’ll be able to do that, so just try to minimize the damage.
- I wouldn’t recommend spending a ton of time getting Level I Cards. I go for them a bit more towards the end of the game when I need small tiles to build, but I usually try to power through Level II cards so that I can get those District-wide Services up and running (especially in my larger districts). The one problem is that the tiles are a lot more expensive, so, hope you’ve been making some serious money.
- Exchanging Cards is good, but expensive. Always take the cheap exchanges between Milestones, if you can. Between Milestones, rather than $2 to exchange 1 card, you can pay $1 per card and exchange as many as you want. It’s an excellent way to slough off garbage between rounds. Just make sure you don’t run out of money for your future land purchases.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I love city-building games. It’s just one of my favorite like, gameplay / mechanic intersections. I think it’s because it leaves you with a very clear progression at the end of it. I mean, you literally built a city! You can see buildings and such. In a way, this really is a much larger and more complex Sprawlopolis; I liked that one, so I’m likely to get hyped for this one, too. Even Sorcerer City, which is a bit more abstract, still scratches that city-building part of my brain. I’m here for all of them. Nine Tiles Panic, even.
- I also like tile-laying games a lot, so this is kind of ideal. The polyomino puzzle in this game is really satisfying, especially given that the Service and Utility Buildings are sized by their tier, so you have to kind of dig through the deck for certain ones. The zones are also really strange shapes, so there’s an optimization aspect as you try to get the zones aligned.
- I like the escalation of Service Buildings’ utility. At higher levels, the buildings’ coverage extends to the entire district, allowing you to make more combos emerge, which is nice. The smaller ones must be adjacent, which are good starts, but they’re ultimately insufficient if you want to pull off big wins. It’s a cool conceit, and I think the game sells it well.
- Lots of modular variations can really add to the gameplay. It’s got really 5 variants along with the intro game, and the final variant allows you to customize the layout of your board to switch it up even more. I like those sorts of things, and it’s nice to gradually learn new concepts as you play more games. It lets you feel like it’s a pseudo-campaign, which is nice. Progression as its own gameplay mechanic is always cool.
- Surprisingly, for a game with as many pieces as this one has, it came with enough baggies. A lot of games have been doing a lot better in the bag space than previous years; maybe we’re finally approaching Peak Bag. Either way, if you’re not going to have an insert, at least give me enough bags to put everything in. And this game does!
- The random card draws can really help buff you or mess you up if you’re not careful. You need to be very thoughtful about how you’re skimming the deck, lest you end up with a bunch of unusable cards. And I do mean unusable; like they cannot be played, if you’re not careful. It’s just a bit frustrating when you need the Police Station that’s very clearly on the bottom of the deck and you either have to dig for it or hope you can find it in the II or III stack. Neither option feels particularly great.
- Setup can take a hot minute. You have to lay out a lot of tiles if you want to do this thing optimally.
- Heck, this game is hard. My best score is like, 26. And I was really proud of that one! I’d love to see how people are getting in the like, 50+ range. I think this one tilts towards the more intense of cooperative game difficulties; I’ve done better on Spirit Island. I know there’s an introductory mode, but, it may be worth adding in an “Easy Mode” or something so that I can score a ton of points and feel good about myself. Validation, while not always strictly necessary, is much appreciated in this instance. In general, though, I think even cooperative board games should have a “barely challenging” setting. It can be a nice way to introduce newer or less experienced gamers to the concept of … whatever you’re playing. Then again, I’m kind of anti-difficulty in games in general; that’s a longer post for another time, though.
- I’m also not totally sure where they got the 40 – 70m on the box. I’ve never played this game in less than an hour, even if I’m playing by myself. It’s a pretty significant time investment, especially since setup and teardown are nontrivial. I’ve just got the game sitting on my photography table right now while I write since I’m planning to take it down tomorrow.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think Cities: Skylines is a lot of fun! I think, that said, there are things I’d love to see from an expansion, but the current game is solid enough that I have enjoyed all my plays of it. The big one for a follow-up would be, just, an Easy Mode. I complain about this quite frequently in cooperative game reviews (Sensor Ghosts), but I think there should be a sliding scale of difficulty such that, if a player wills it, they’ll likely never lose. I secretly (he said, writing it into a public review) tend to use those difficulty levels when I’m introducing a game to new players; it helps get people hyped about a game if they win it on their first try, and then you can add more complexity to make it more challenging. Note that it’s also possible I’m just really bad at the complex optimization puzzle this game provides, and I’m blaming the game for it. It’s possible, but that’s reviewing! Either way, I think that a wider difficulty range would be a really nice addition to the game. The reason why I spent like, half of a paragraph blathering about that, though, is that pretty much everything else in the game is solid! It’s got good component quality, nice modular boards, and a really cool schtick. It’s even going after me personally with just a high-quality city-building experience. I love building cities! And it’s cooperative! This is the exact kind of game that I’m going to really like, but I’ll freely admit that the time investment, difficulty, and complexity are a bit more than I’m regularly looking for. Doesn’t mean that it won’t ever hit the table; it just might be a while in between plays. I’d be down for an expansion, though, and if you’re looking for a city-building game that challenges your spatial reasoning, your teamwork, and your optimization skills, I’d definitely recommend checking this one out! It’s a doozy, at times, but it’s got a lot of cool things going for it.