Full disclosure: A review copy of Happy City was provided by Gamewright.
Another Gamewright title! I’ve really appreciated how approachable these games tend to be, from the excellent MetroX to the perennial Abandon All Artichokes,. Gamewright seems to have a good grip on their audience and it’s, frankly, a nice audience to have. Pleasant, entry-weight games that are bright, colorful, and fun? Happy City seems like it might fall into that same crowd, so let’s see how it plays!
In Happy City, players compete as rival mayors, trying to do what most mayors never even consider: make their city as happy as possible. Fortunately, that can be accomplished with the right combination of buildings, rather than more complex zoning proposals, improving a city’s social safety net, and potentially rethinking the relationship between the police and the local population. Games are simple like that. Will you be able to build the happiest town around? Or will your mayorship just lead to a sad suburb?
Start by sorting the Building Cards based on card back into three decks, then place those decks in a column, leaving some space to the right for additional cards to be played (and a discard pile):
If you’re new to Happy City, you can leave the red Bonus Buildings in the box:
Otherwise, use the pink Bonus Buildings and reveal two more cards than the number of players playing:
Give each player two coins, setting the remainder aside to form the bank:
Also give each player a Happy Market Card:
If you’re playing with the Advanced Variant, players can flip them over to the non-white side:
Finally, set out the Resident Cards according to their type, making sure there’s one card fewer than the number of players in each pile:
You should be ready to start!
The core of Happy City is pretty simple. Your goal is to make the happiest city around by making the population as happy as possible! You have ten card slots on your board to do it, and your Happy Market takes up one of those. As soon as a player hits ten cards, the game ends at the end of the round. Better play well! A round is broken up into phases; let’s cover those.
During the income phase, every player gets coins from the bank equal to the number (and value) of coin symbols on the bottom of cards in their tableau. In the first round, every player gets 1 coin from the Happy Market, for example.
Starting with the first player, each player can take up to four actions on their turn. I’ll explain them.
On a player’s turn, they may optionally discard one card from the face-up Building cards, placing it face-down in a discard pile at the end of that card set’s row.
Players must then reveal cards from the various decks available until three cards are face-up across the three potential rows. This means if there are already three face-up cards, you cannot reveal any more.
Players must then do one of the following:
- Buy any face-up Building card, paying its cost in coins to the Bank.
- Buy any face-up Residence card, paying its cost in coins to the Bank.
- Take 1 coin from the Bank and gain no Building or Residence card.
If you gain a card, add it to any of the available spaces in front of you. You cannot get more than 10 cards, total, including the Happy Market you start with. You also may not take any duplicate Building or Residence cards.
Finally, if your city fulfills the requirements on one or more Bonus Building cards, you may optionally take one of those Bonus Buildings and add it to your tableau, as well. Keep in mind, however, that you can only ever take one Bonus Building in the game. If you do not want the Bonus Building, you do not have to claim it (and you can take it later). Note that once your city has ten cards in it, you cannot take a Bonus Building, even if you qualify for it.
After completing those actions, the player’s turn ends, and the next player takes their turn until the round ends.
End of Game
At the end of a round in which any player has ten cards in their tableau, the game immediately ends! All players calculate their scores by multiplying their population (green) by their hearts (pink), and then adding any bonuses from Bonus Buildings that aren’t population or hearts. The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
The major thing you’re going to see at different player counts is a bit more contention over the Bonus Buildings. The various Bonus Buildings scale somewhat with player count (adding one additional card per player), but there are still only so many buildings that work with so many strategies. With more players, you get more buildings, but you risk more players wanting the building you have your careful eye on. The one slight advantage of more players in Happy City is that other players can do a good job clearing up duplicate cards. There aren’t additional Building cards added with player count, so more players means you have less of a risk of getting a junk pull on your turn because there are too many duplicate cards in the play area. Beyond that, there aren’t a ton of differences at various player counts! Players largely can’t interact with each other during the game beyond taking cards, so having more players doesn’t do much beyond adding extra time between your turns and clear up the main play area a bit (or at least vary it). As a result, I tend to prefer Happy City at two; I like the tight gameplay of quickly flipping and taking cards, and more players kind of messes with that flow, for me. It’s not a problem to play with more players; I just prefer the lower end of the player count spectrum.
- You should try to avoid any circumstance that requires you to take coins instead of taking a card, unless all the card options are truly terrible. Recall that the game ends after ten cards have been played by any player, so taking a coin means that you’re only getting one coin where your opponents are often getting high-value buildings. If you do that one time, it’s probably not too bad, but if you’re doing it regularly, you’re going to be down a few buildings by game’s end (and consequently, several points).
- That said, I would recommend doing it at least once early-game. If you pass the first turn, you have decent odds of ending up with 5 coins, which can usually get you a 2-income card (with a heart or a population). That means your income then moves to 3, which means you can also usually get a pretty decent first-deck card on the next turn. That sets you up nicely for gradually improving your income over the next few turns (so that you can start affording the high-value cards quickly without taking on too many junk cards).
- If you already see the card you want to buy in play, draw from the least-helpful deck for your opponents. If it’s early in the game, drawing from the 7+ deck means that they won’t be able to afford any of those cards; if it’s late in the game, drawing from the 1+ deck means that the cards you put out aren’t going to be generating enough points for your opponents to use them to score big. Half of the strategy of this game is just putting undesirable junk into the center so that your opponents may have nothing good to buy.
- Remember that scoring is hearts times population, so you want to try and build both up equally rather than focusing on one over the other. Often, players get caught up in “buying the ‘best’ available card” and forget that there’s a balance to be struck between hearts and population, so they end up with 7 hearts and 2 population (as opposed to the more-optimal 4 hearts and 5 population or vice-versa). As you scale your tableau, those losses become increasingly profound and can often cost you the game, so stay balanced!
- Keep an eye on your opponents’ tableaus; they might be targeting a bonus building you want. This is pretty critical and can occasionally determine which card you discard or what you want to take. If you suspect another player wants the bonus building that you have your eye on, try to keep them from getting it or hope that you can get it first. With the Expert Bonus Buildings, your strategy may hinge on getting this, so be careful!
- If you’re playing with the bonus building abilities, make sure you’re building towards one that works with your tableau. There are a few that specifically only give you a benefit if your tableau is missing certain card colors or discount the cost of other cards, so keep your strategy in mind. You don’t want to take a card that discounts other cards too late in the game for that to matter, and you definitely don’t want to take buildings that actively lose you points or are functionally worthless.
- The game becomes much easier, choice-wise, if you can make it to 8+ income per turn. Once you’re making enough income that you can easily afford most high-tier buildings, your options are only restricted by which cards you can get in play on your turn. At that point, you’re difficult to block, and your opponents know it, so they’ll just start junking up the main play area to reduce the number of useful cards you have access to. That means you’re usually in a pretty good spot, so just hope that you can get cards that work with your strategy that aren’t duplicates of things you already have.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Love the theme. I’m just a big fan of city-building games. It’s fun and approachable, thematically, and I think a lot of people find the construction of cities to be interesting, so it’s a perennial theme in board gaming. This particular game is going above and beyond on trying to make city-building fun, and I doubly appreciate that. The game does seem targeted to a relatively younger audience than some of the other city-building games I’ve played, so, this all scans.
- Some of the art / buildings are, in particular, delightful. The Bonus Buildings work a bit overtime to deliver on this, and I love them for it. One of them is a giant ball pit! What’s not to love? I think the buildings are all very fun in their designs and color schemes! That works super well for this game; it’s bright, colorful, and inviting.
- Multiplicative scoring always appeals to me. I think it makes me feel like my actions all matter a lot (and I suppose, to some degree, my actions increasingly matter since subsequent actions are worth even more points, depending on how I land them). I end up liking the scoring style a lot, but I think it’s best suited for quick-and-simple scoring.
- I like the abilities on the bonus cards, and I think keeping them out of the cycle until new players are used to the flow of the game is a smart idea. They’re also different enough that I don’t necessarily always want to use them; sometimes I want to use the basic Bonus Buildings instead of the Expert ones, and I think that’s good! Both sets are interesting enough and do enough different things that I wouldn’t necessarily prefer one over the other. If I strongly preferred one, I would kind of question why the other one was there.
- The ability to junk up the central area to reduce your opponents’ chances of drawing a useful card is excellent, from a strategy standpoint. I just really enjoy it. It’s a particular kind of passive-aggressive player interaction; you’re not explicitly destroying or taking away anything; you’re instead adding things that your opponent probably won’t like or want or need, especially if you’re pulling from the too-expensive or too-cheap piles, depending on where you are in the game.
- It’s a very quick and easy game to play. You’re really just drawing a card or two each round and choosing one to buy. As a tableau-building game, Happy City is an excellent first entry with that mechanic for a lot of players. Honestly, it might be a game I’d give as a gift. Should I do a gift guide some year? Maybe. Maybe when I have all that free time I keep hearing so much about.
- Relatively portable, as well. It’s a smaller box, but you could just as easily fit a bunch of the cards into a Quiver or some card transport device. It’s usually a Quiver, for me, just because I like mine.
- The “no duplicate buildings” rule is a very easy one to forget, and can really mess up your planning if you do forget it. Worth reiterating to players before the game starts. This snagged me a few times; I really wanted a building that I couldn’t grab. Props to the Board Game Arena implementation, to be honest; this is actually something I didn’t realize when I was playing the standard card game but BGA blocks you from doing, which helped … gently push me in the direction of the actual rule.
- I do always wish I could take more than one bonus building, which is a good sign that they’re generally useful and a good addition to the game (even if that tension makes me feel bad). It’s a Meh because the tension makes me feel bad! It’s a very soft Meh, but this section is mostly for me whining and nitpicking, anyways, so we’ve got that. But a wise person once told me that a good sign of well-designed player powers is players all wanting each others’ abilities. I have to assume that somewhat applies to these bonus buildings as well. If you’re wanting multiple, then they’re probably all appealing in some way.
- A nontrivial amount of the game feels like it hinges on getting an early income card. A relatively good one, too; just getting the 1-coin income cards don’t feel worth it; I’d almost rather just pass my first turn and bank on getting a decent 4- or 5-coin card on my second or third turn. This has been a fairly deciding factor in the games I’ve played, which irks me a bit, but that’s also the hazard of having a game with such a tight tableau.
- Similarly, I almost never take any of the cheap “lose a heart” cards, given how limited the tableau is. They just seem like true junk. I suppose they might be an easy way to make some quick progress for a Bonus Building, but you only get 10 cards in your tableau (9, if you don’t count your starting card); it seems short-sighted to take a junk card under any circumstances. And if there are cards you don’t ever want to take under any circumstances, you start to wonder why they’re in there in the first place. Like the Woodcutter in Dominion, my go-to card to dunk on for this specific complaint.
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, I think Happy City is a great little game! I’m not necessarily convinced this is going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I really like this as a way to introduce players to simple economies in games with a bit of tableau-building. The multiplicative scoring is simple enough for players to quickly understand, the simple income aspects are straightforward, and the art and theme are inviting for a lot of folks. As I’m kind of in a rebuilding phase post-pandemic with respect to many of my board gaming friends (lots of folks moved out of state), having these simple and pleasant games to fall back on is great! I can put them in front of a group, try it out, and they don’t hate me for bringing something overly complex. As I play more games, I find that I gradually start tilting a bit more complex, and games like Happy City bring me back in the direction of approachability. I think in particular for my collection, it’s important to strike a balance between those two often-competing interests, and I’m glad that I have the opportunity to do so. There are ways to add more complexity to this (via the Expert Buildings), but frankly I prefer the basic ones. They keep the game streamlined, whereas the more complex ones add more dynamic strategy that you suddenly have to account for when you play. While that’s definitely fun, I prefer the simpler version of the game that’s immediately presented to you during your first play. Plus, I’m a sucker for city-building games. Pretty much every time. If you’re much the same way, or you just want a colorful, simple, and quick little game, I’d recommend checking out Happy City! I’ve had a lot of fun with it.
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