Full disclosure: A review copy of Cape May was provided by Thunderworks Games.
I managed to get a few games on the heavier side played, recently, including (as of writing, hopefully) finishing up my Sleeping Gods campaign, so I’ve been excited to drop those reviews recently. Getting heavier games played is usually my sign of “resuming normal gaming progression”, which is something I’ve basically been looking forward to for two years. One such heavier title is Cape May, new from Thunderworks, which caught my eye because it has a big red lighthouse on the cover and my eye is naturally drawn to that. I assume it was on purpose. But let’s see how it plays!
In Cape May, players take on the role of real estate entrepreneurs, an ever-popular job in the Bay Area, where I live. You’ll use Movement Cards to take a pleasant stroll around town, spending money to build Shops and Cottages and subsequently upgrade them into Businesses and Victorians (and, in the latter case, ultimately Landmarks). Players are given Bonus Cards to help guide their progression, but should real estate not interest you, there are also Bird Spaces where players can go bird-watching for a set-collection component of the game. All the while, players will have to navigate events that change the prices and values of various parts of town and collect income as the seasons change in this economic game. Do you have the skill to become the most prestigious developer in Cape May?
Player Count Differences
I was actually pretty pleasantly surprised with this one at multiple player counts! At two, the board feels expansive; there are a ton of open and available spots and a lot of useful places you can go. Unless you really lost the lottery on the Bonus Cards you chose, you’re not going to be seeing a ton of player interaction. That changes pretty drastically as player count increases, even though the three- and four-player side of the board is larger. It’s not that the game suddenly becomes cutthroat, but there are really only so many more spaces available for players to take, and with four people going after them, suddenly waterfront property is in high demand, just like real life, you know? The player Bonus Cards tend to be somewhat mutually exclusive, however, so you won’t necessarily see a bunch of tension around certain spots, but there’s always going to be one spot you kind of wanted that another player blocks because it’s kind of convenient. I’d expect it to be worse at four players, but you really only see that fringe blocking at three, so your preferred player count probably depends on how intense you want the blocking to be in your game. With two? Hardly noticed it. So I’d probably most often play this at two or three players.
- Movement comes at a pretty steep premium, so make sure you’re making the most of the movements you want to do. Movement is expensive! Not only do the larger (and smaller) Movement Cards cost money, but you also don’t necessarily get them back all the time. Instead, you have to spend an action to reclaim them, which might mess with your action economy, if you’re not careful. There are also a lot of spaces on the board, so try to take care of things in your general vicinity before moving on, as it’ll be expensive to move back. Also, think about how to rebound most effectively; it might be worth moving 3, doing something over there, and then moving 4 back on a subsequent turn if you want to move to the space adjacent to you. Just watch out for one-way streets!
- Similarly, you really will only get 36 actions over the course of the entire game, so, make them count! I gently encourage players to try to avoid the “take $3” action, since that’s kind of there to bail you out if you run out of money, but really, it comes down to players just needing to make the most of what they’ve been given, action-wise. I still think it’s fine to spend an entire turn gaining Activity Cards, since sometimes they give great movement options (or the ability to Build / Upgrade twice in one action). If you get enough of those, it’s practically a second turn. So figuring out how to use your limited actions efficiently are going to be helpful.
- Early investments in income-generating properties will pay out big later in the game, but, there’s only so much you can do in a turn. You might end up with 50 income, but you really can’t spend all of that that quickly, so you might have overindexed on Shops. Sometimes it’s better to focus on upgrading Victorians and Shops so that you can get Landmarks and Upgrade Cards from Businesses instead of building more Shops. Plus, upgrading doesn’t require you to move, whereas there are only so many open spots on the board.
- The events are random enough that it’s not necessarily worth relying on them, but keep in mind that they can occasionally mess you up. Just don’t necessarily rely on every price staying the same. If there’s a fire, prices are going up. At least one Event Card just negates discounts from Activity Cards and Upgrades. If you’re running a tight game economically, you might find yourself short on cash if one of these Events comes up. Instead, try to always keep $2 – $4 more than you need for your plans so that you’re prepared in case the Event Cards don’t go your way. That said, sometimes Event Cards give you money, but you can’t always rely on those.
- Keep track of your Movement Cards! Here, I mean don’t waste them on frivolous stuff. For instance, if you can’t pay money that you’re required to pay for an Event Card, you’re forced to discard a random Movement Card per $1 you can’t pay. That’s awful (or, at least, worst case, it wastes an action on your turn). So don’t lose them doing silly stuff like that. Similarly, there’s an Activity Card that allows you to duplicate your last-played Movement Card, so keeping track of the top of your discard pile might work out in your favor, too.
- Activity Cards are going to be your main non-Movement avenue for getting stuff done; make sure you have a somewhat-constant stream of them. It’s often worth stopping by the Pier Space (Draw 3 Activity Cards, Keep 2) or taking the Draw 2 / Keep 1 Action to keep a few in your hand. Some of them get progressively better as the game goes on, and others will just let you Build or Upgrade anywhere on the board. There’s no hand limit, so the more you have, the more you can do.
- Upgrade Cards can be a very useful way to get a few extra abilities. Some let you tweak your Movement (helpful) or ignore one-way arrows on streets, which can really bail you out in a pinch. One even decreases the price of Landmark Upgrades, which can be critical at the end of the game. If you don’t see an Upgrade Card you like, instead of not upgrading to a Business, you can just draw the top two cards of the stack and keep one!
- Bird Spaces are useful on a couple fronts. For one, Bird Spaces can get you Bird Tokens (and extra points), but also, Bird Spaces tend to be near high-traffic intersections, so you can often get a number of buildings constructed nearby if you have the right Activity Cards (particularly ones that let you build on diagonally-adjacent spaces). I wouldn’t go out of my way for one, but they’re occasionally useful places to invest in a lot of construction.
- Late-game, you’re gonna want to start focusing up on Landmarks to get those points (and claiming majorities!). The Gravel Majority is worth a ton of points, so it’s sometimes good to drop a few cheap Cottages up there before the game ends. Farther down the street, Sand Landmarks are worth a ton of points, so if you’ve invested in generating a lot of income, try Upgrading your Victorians to Landmarks to really cash in on those. Landmark Points and area majorities can really help tip the game in your favor.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The game looks great. Can’t go without saying that. I think Michael Menzel almost perfectly captures the look and feel of the time period, and the game looks great as a result. The game’s got a vaguely Thomas Kinkade-feel to it, which I think works really well for what it’s going for. Plus, the red of the lighthouse on the cover really pops with the beach scene. The game’s got a pleasant sense of realism in the art that’s tinged with a bit of nostalgia for the time period with bright and bold color work, and I love that. Just, all things being equal, a great looking game. Some of the birds are ugly as sin, but they’re authentically ugly as sin. So, like, well-painted; just the actual bird doesn’t look great in real life, either. The player tokens are nice, too.
- A surprisingly pleasant game, especially given its weight. I wouldn’t call this game cognitively heavy, in the sense that you need to be planning super far ahead and managing massive combos and strategies. Not at all. It’s a game on the longer side, but it’s pleasant at the same time. It’s the kind of game you could just play for an afternoon while talking with friends, should such a time ever return to us.
- Oh, this one thing: putting the dots on the edges of lots to indicate adjacency? That’s incredibly helpful. This is just … really good. It helps to be able to quickly scan the board and see which spaces are adjacent to which areas that your player token can move on. Honestly, the paths can be a bit confusing at times in terms of adjacency, so this actually makes the pathwork extremely manageable for me as a player. I can see exactly where I need to be if I want to build on a location, and that makes my life so much easier.
- I like the variance of the Event Cards! They’re very interesting. I particularly like their flavor, being newspapers and all, but I love that they sometimes have different effects depending on the Season, as well. It’s a great system and there are so many; you only use 11 in a game, so with 26, you may have to play a few games before you even see them all. I particularly like the Fire Events, though the images could be a bit larger to help me figure out where to put the four Fire Tokens that bound the area of the fire.
- The Bonus Cards do an excellent job of shepherding players through the game and giving them a good strategic foundation, even in the first game. This is something I noticed pretty quickly; the Bonus Cards aren’t necessarily super easy to complete, so you will likely spend the first two or three full Seasons getting them set up, which is really good. For a new player, that makes it very easy to figure out what you should be doing straight away, which is often the big hurdle in these more complex titles. I played this with someone who hasn’t played many complex board games, and she didn’t have any trouble with it whatsoever, which is nice. There are a number of things like this that make this game complex yet accessible.
- The rulebook is also pretty nice? Big font, lots of examples, everything you’d want. You get the impression that the game is dense because the rulebook is large, but thankfully it’s a gentle red herring; the font size is just pretty large, as well, making each page pretty easy to read and get through fairly quickly. Plus, the last two or so pages are just the solo mode.
- I kind of like that Thunderworks is thematically branching out again. Recall that my first exposure to Thunderworks was Blend Off!, a game from a while back that I love, my friends hate, and nobody will ever play with me again. Alas; the price of success, probably. They kind of went whole hog on the Roll Player franchise (to everyone’s benefit, I’d contend) for the last several years, so I’m kind of excited to see a theme that isn’t necessarily high fantasy for their latest game. I do kind of wonder how that pitch meeting went down, though. Maybe it was originally fantasy real estate development? Who’s to say?
- Given how the Income Track can run, I appreciate that it’s easy to reconstruct how much income you should be generating at any point. There’s never any mystery, since it’s calculated off of what buildings you built and upgraded and where you built and upgraded them. Players forget to update the Income Track all the time during the game, so I always force everyone to fully recalculate before the Income Step of each Season. That … helps. We almost always catch a mistake from someone, which is why we do it. And I appreciate that it’s doable.
- Giving four AI options for the Solo Mode is also polite. Nice scalable difficulty level for players, which I appreciate. I’m all about letting players choose their level of challenge and engagement.
- I get a little nervous pushing the Victorians into the Landmark Bases, but don’t worry; nothing’s broken yet. Everything pops in and pops out, provided you work it … enough. It requires a bit of effort, sometimes, and that makes me nervous, so I don’t push on the small tower part of the Victorian. Thankfully, we haven’t suffered any casualties to any pieces, yet, so it seems like everything is sturdily constructed. The Landmark Bases are just … a little tight.
- Sometimes the distance you have to move to do what you want feels like a lot; thankfully, you can usually get an Activity Card of some kind to help out. This would be a Con if there weren’t a built-in fix for it. Unfortunately, the fix requires a bit of card luck, since you will sometimes get cards that can effectively teleport you to certain intersections, move you 10 spaces, or just let you Build / Upgrade wherever you want. They’re nice, but somewhat unreliable, so the alternative is just walking everywhere, and that takes a while. Seriously, you could spend an entire turn walking if you’re unlucky, so try to avoid it.
- Action Point tracking when you have three Action Points per turn is almost never particularly useful, and this game doesn’t make the case for it, either. Not a huge deal, but you have the ability to track how many of your three actions you’ve used on your Player Board via another player token. Your turn actions aren’t typically so complex that you … really need to, I’ve found, but the option is there. It’s better than having Action Point cards that you have to pass to the next player, at least; that was in some game I played a long time ago and it wasn’t great.
- There are a lot of numbers to keep track of, so you’ll be doing a lot of simple addition and subtraction fairly constantly, which can be a touch annoying. Mostly it’s that building Shops and Cottages and Victorians all cost different prices depending on where you are, whether or not an Event Card is affecting the price, and whether or not you’re using an Activity Card, so you’ll be referencing your player board for the price pretty much every turn, which is mildly annoying. It makes sense from a gameplay perspective; it can just be a bit irritating to have to continually refer back to it. But hey, it’s better to refer to the player board than the rulebook every time, so, at least they recognized the utility of having a quick reference available.
- Setup can be a pain, especially since it’s one of those heavier games where there’s a ton of stuff that you kind of just … dump in the bag. I’m an insert guy, myself, and while I can get the box closed every time I play this, it’s definitely more work than I sometimes feel up to. Even now, while I’m writing this, I just finished up the arrangement shot and I just have the pieces lying everywhere in my photo studio since bagging them is a pain. Here’s my trick: get some extra bags, and bag all the things that are relevant to one player (save the Movement Cards) together. Small bag for the tokens, medium bag for the Cottages and Shops, and big bag for the Victorians and Businesses. If you do that, then you’ve got (effectively) one-stop shopping per player, and it’s much easier for each player to put their own stuff away. This, sadly, doesn’t help you when you’re playing a game for Photography Reasons and have to do all the setup and teardown yourself, but, you know, that’s life in the city sometimes.
- It’s weird that the spaces on the board that are adjacent to churches aren’t … more clearly-indicated? It’s mostly weird because it matters for card effects, and I didn’t even realize churches were on the board until I looked more closely! I get that there are crosses on them; I was raised Catholic, but … putting something in the spaces or around the churches to more clearly indicate this would help, especially since at least one Bonus Card specifically depends on buildings proximal to churches.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I like Cape May! I think it’s a surprisingly accessible game, given its complexity, and it feels like a lot of care was put into making sure that this game was a game that even relatively new players could pick up and try out. How many of those new players are into turn-of-the-20th-century real estate management economic games, I couldn’t tell you, but while this game may be a thematic departure from Thunderworks Games’s recent Roll Player enthusiasm, no less effort was put into this game, and I appreciate that. For me, it usually comes down to art, and Cape May’s got fantastic art. The Event Cards are newspaper-themed, the colors on the board are engaging, and the box looks incredible! Even the lighthouse mini (for tracking rounds) is impressive. Despite the game being a bit on the longer side, I wouldn’t necessarily say it feels cognitively intense, if that makes sense? The length of a game and how much it hurts your brain to play are often conflated in board gaming as the term “weight”, and while this is a longer game, it’s not necessarily a “heavy” one. I don’t feel exhausted after playing, and I’m often not feeling overwhelmed by intensity as I play, which is good. This might still occupy a “Strategy” – “Complex” part of my brain’s game organization, but if you’re looking at getting into longer, economic games, and you don’t necessarily want to commit to something that seems intimidating, I think Cape May is a very accessible entry point to more complex games. If that’s what you’re looking for or you’re just actually into turn-of-the-20th-century real estate management economic games, Cape May might be right up your alley! I’ve enjoyed it.
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