City Limits - Reiner Knizia on My City

10 October 2020
What's so wrong with downtime?

Legacy games seem to be at the height of their popularity, so it’s unusual that Reiner Knizia is making one – after all, doesn’t he usually set trends? We discuss city building, legacy and what’s so wrong with downtime 

The city builder genre is one of contemplative fiddling for the most part. As you build and expand, you solve your original problems, but in the process, create new ones. It’s a genre of game that we have always felt is a little like a zen sand garden. You may be raking it into perfect curves, but the final curve can never be finished. It’s a metaphor for how progress is always tainted by what we’ve lost along the way. While there might be ‘glory’ in creating a large city, you may have paved over some of your own history, history that had previously been shared.

This is why city builder games fit well with the legacy mechanics that are popular and widespread today. Reiner Knizia, who doesn’t really need an introduction nor a mention of the 700+ games that he has authored, has taken on the task of creating a legacy city building game that is accessible. He introduces the blueprints of My City to us from the architect’s point of view. 

“Legacy games have been established for quite a while, but I don’t think there’s been a real legacy game which is for the general public. Which is what My City attempts to do,” says Knizia, and he’s right. While there have been legacy games that are accessible, Zombie Kidz for example, they don’t contain the depth of something like a good gateway game. Games like Charterstone, while also in the ‘builder’ genre and somewhat accessible, still sit on the heavier side of the argument.

Knizia suggests that legacy games should be more accessible by their nature. They have a natural learning curve built into them by default, “the legacy game has the advantage that you can introduce rules step by step.” Aside from this My City boasts simple, short rules, and a play time of around 20 minutes for each round.

“We join three games together into one period. First of all we arrive as the settlers and build our city. Then they get more structure in there, with administration, and then nature gives us some ‘obstacles’, some challenges,” he says smiling. There’s plenty to be planning for when it comes to your personal urban development. After three games of around 20 minutes, another envelope is opened, adding more rules and more aspects to consider for the next round.

One envelope might introduce churches in a round, another might introduce a factory type – it’s like putting together a particularly obtuse jigsaw puzzle where pieces are revealed after each opening. If only you’d known what was in the envelope coming up, you might have planned differently. This is where the over-the-board discussion and contemplation comes in – while there’s no direct conflict between players (this is still a Eurogame) – there is a very natural buzz created.

“People can then compare, ‘how did you actually deal with these circumstances?’ or ‘how did I deal with my circumstances?’ But because after the first game, or after the first twist, everybody’s situation is different so you cannot really copy what the others did,” says Knizia. The game is full of these ‘I wish I had done that,’ moments – akin to that very Eurogame feeling of ‘I’ve just realised what I should have already done’. Except here you’re comparing against your friends, rather than the mechanics of the board’s puzzle unfolding like an M C Escher designed puzzle box before you.


No downtime in the city

There is the danger, in a game like this, with so many blind corners coming up for players, that they will get caught out with nothing to do on their turn. Or ending up at a dead end with a city that can’t expand or even be enjoyed. 

“The boards are different but not radically different. You’re also keeping people from doing ‘nonsense’,” Knizia says, doing bunny quotes with his fingers, “because they don’t know what’s coming in the future.”

The balancing here is key – and as elegantly implemented as you might expect, “very early you will have a few wells coming up to get fresh water. We actually give you some options in an area of the board, where the wells go on one side of the river because people don’t know that the flood will come on the other side of the river. And then if you have no wells, it’s very bad. So, we guide people a little bit because we know the events to the end, we help people to not to be trapped by unlucky decisions. So, there’s some guidance here.”

If the thing that some people fear about legacy games is the permanence of choice – because that choice might be a mistake – then this is one way for the designer to say ‘trust me’. And we do trust Renier – when was the last time he led us astray?

The central, shared board also doesn’t change. Or at least, not dramatically, “You might take down a little bit more of the woods. You might mine a little bit more on the other side. But the basic building activities all the same,” says Knizia, of what sounds like a game set apart by its fairness, “everybody plays at the same time, there is no downtime. Everybody has their own city in front of them.”

This inclusiveness and lack of downtime is designed to make the game accessible without losing focus. There’s a temptation in legacy games to always be peaking at the envelopes in the box, wondering what’s coming next. Here, there’s no time for that. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but your city will be built in 20 minute sprints.

Downtime itself is almost as much a curse word in games as the dreaded ‘player elimination’ – but its removal from this game was simply a happy result of giving people their own playground. The original version of the game had a single city that players shared and built together.

“Removing downtime wasn’t a specific goal when we set out to do it. But nobody likes downtime. In the initial discussions things came up ‘Oh, but when you build a city, you build one city, you don’t have that much influence when people change things’ – and so we just simply said, well, why don’t I build my own city. Then we said, ‘why did we take it in turns?’” says Knizia, laughing, “we all get started with the same buildings, but the order in which we build them is unclear. That is determined by a pack of cards.”

What makes a good city

There’s no need to apply great philosophical city planning thinking here, there’s no room for that in a 20 minute game. If you’re hoping to test out the theories of Le Corbusier then you’re best off inflicting that nightmare somewhere else. There are two questions that remain however, what makes a good city? And how do we win?

“It changes throughout the periods. You have to stick with some standard building rules of course. You start at the river, as usually settlements do and then you have to be contiguous. So, you cannot just jump and build somewhere else,” says Knizia, “for the scoring, there are three major types of building. Factories – or industry, or business, depending on the age we’re playing – then the normal residential areas, and then the communal buildings. Then there are some special buildings like churches. If you have a church, then the church benefits from getting connected to many different parts of the population and therefore you get a bonus if all three of the different types of buildings are linked to the church. I mean they can’t do it in spiritual ways, but I think it is logical to do it by placement. And so, if you have the factory workers next to it, the government next, then you get more points for that city.”

A happy city then, is one that allows its connections to flow well and its people to move between the things they need to do and the things they want with ease. Of course, like any town planner, you can only control so much of your city – some things are demanded, and you must consider the greater good of those in your care, versus your victory in this round. Keeping your eye on the future is key to creating a great city. There are tools at hand for this, “you have also got the opportunity not to build certain buildings because you don’t like them. But some buildings, like churches, you cannot deny,” says Knizia, “If you waste resources and don’t build, you lose some points, and whenever you build a building, you get some funds. It’s a very simple thing”

There’s also a nod towards preserving what nature you can in these placement rules, “Most importantly you have trees scattered around and you want to preserve these. The trees are different from the woods. Build over a tree and you lose points. So, they work as obstacles.”

Not all of nature is there to punish players of course, some of the deforestation is designed to help players in the long run, “there’s woods on the other side. Initially you cannot build in the woods. But later, you get more resources and we take some of the woods away and therefore our play area gets bigger. And again, it depends then how do I do this in the best way? Which part of the woods do I take down? And we’ll put stickers on them so that later I have a good opportunity to build here.” 

Like all the best builder games, the problems you are facing are ones you have created yourself. You are solving something for the now that will effect future generations, which in this case, is you in the next round of the game. You get to change the map that can provide you with an opportunities – or, equally as likely – a new puzzle for yourself, “you see,” says Knizia of these challenges “if I make an awkward cut into the woods, how will  I go about getting my buildings in there? It essentially comes together in an intuitive way.”

The designer might be following a natural flow for city construction, but he is also rewarding the player for being what we want real city planners to be – forward looking. 

“We start with a few very, very simple rules,” says Knizia, “and so this is a little rule, and then we get the next rule. And then come to churches. And the problem is there’s a big casino and you don’t know when it’s going to be built. But you know you have to build it. You have to have a space left – because as soon as you cannot build a building, you’re up.”

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Here Knizia is referring to the final moves of each round of the 20 minute episodes. There is an option to – instead of taking the points hit for buildings you can build – tap out of the round. This allows you to stop building, and with that, avoid penalties. 

“In the last few minutes you may be out because you couldn’t build a second street. But everybody knows the concede moment to is coming, as you have it in front of you,” says Knizia, rejecting the idea that there’s any player elimination, or if there is, it’s only for a minute or so.

Returning to accessibility, we talk about the idea that crops up a lot in design – that theme is the makeshift bridge between the rules and the players when there is uncertainty. While there isn’t a particular town or city that Knizia is looking to emulate here, we know the kind of place he is asking us to build. Its accessibility comes from an intrinsic understanding of what we already know about towns and cities. 

Knizia explains, “We are not terraforming Mars – there you are in an alien environment, and you need to explain much more. The more familiar we are with the environment the better the understanding. I understand that I cannot build a building over the river. And there are things which are still challenging but they are familiar, and therefore you need fewer rules because it’s just natural.”

Players then, should simply go with it, “just act in the role,” says Knizia, “many don’t even question it because it’s so clear from them. I mean, yes, there is a rule saying you cannot build a building over the river, but I think people shouldn’t even attempt it because if there is a river – and you cannot have a building half this side of half the other side.” 


Finding the gold in the flood

Being a legacy game, ‘events’ crop up when envelopes are opened – the gold rush being one. This will change the way players see their boards as the discovery of gold means that they will have to make a bee-line to it to exploit it. This is one of the ways the game plays with the development of your city, stretching it out of your planned shape, into something of a compromise between you vision, and what the game challenges you with.

“It’s a race for the gold. The point here is you have to start building along the river. Sometimes you’ll start in the woods, but if you start on the river, the river runs through the middle of the town or the city,” says Knizia, “And now of course you can make relatively quick steps because you have to have the city always linked together. You cannot have a separate settlement, and you start on the river, so while you can build the buildings very quickly to the gold mines. You can do that, but you screw up everything else because then the clusters don’t work and the churches don’t fit in anymore. So it is, it’s a race, it’s almost, if you go extreme, yes, you will make the gold rush you’ll win these points, but then you lose out and many other things until you need.

“What I wanted in some of the instances is that you don’t play several solo player games together,” he says, expanding on the idea that we have competition if not conflict in My City “so, I see what the other player does and may feel defeated if I see he’s going for the gold. If he’s building over there, I have to ask whether should I do this as well or should I give up on it.” Renier goes on to describe a back and forth happening in a kind of meta game between rounds. Yes – the other player may have been ahead for the gold rush before, but as they’ve become distracted with shorter term changes to the map you may find yourself in a better position to outpace them.

Floods are another part of the game, the river can burst its banks, causing a new puzzle of constraint for the players. 

“The flood eats a part of the map. So, on one side of the river you suddenly have restricted possibilities of building and that means you are now really, really short for space. And that now means you have the dilemma of you cannot get all your buildings down. It’s always a natural thing. Of course, when the flood subsides, then you suddenly have a bit of a bigger city space.” 

“So, fate changes sometimes. But this is what I mean, it’s interaction between the player, which is the gold rush introduces and it’s yet another challenge but within the theme of building your city,” says Knizia. My City is a game about everyone having to deal with the same problems, but through their reactions to it, facing different struggles in the future. 


Growing without failure

There’s something nice about constructing anything in front of you. It’s inarguable that the placement of a tile to form a greater point-scoring area lights up part of most of our brains in some ways.

“Seeing something grow constructively, having your little challenges of ‘how could I have done that differently?’– when it’s not a catastrophe – is nice. It’s just when you have a lot of flexibility and you are really in charge of your own destiny, it’s very nice,” says Knizia.

When asked about failure in this game, Knizia pauses before saying “I did not want to build in failure in here, but it’s a city. And why does a city continue and grow into a million city and the city suddenly a ruin? I mean, yes, if you have the gold rush, it’s quite clear you’ll get the ghost towns afterwards. That’s not the fault of the city.”

Here we’re asked to look at the cities we create as a creature in themselves, they are agnostic to the world around them, the people inside, they may be good or evil, but the city is just the city. While Knizia explored successful city state, the ancient cities of the Aztecs and so on, but this isn’t the path he decided to take.

“It was just inspiring to me, not just looking at the successful things. It gave me more options to build in. But essentially I followed the natural path –  you cannot fail with your city. Yes, the city will grow and yes, it will be fine,” said Knizia. Which says everything you need to know about the game really – you’re here to have a good time. 

“Initially you’re playing 24 games, and yes, you will score victory points as well. But is it really relevant?” he laughs, “I mean, for the general public, for the family, is it relevant if I after 24 games, win or don’t win? It’s about the enjoyment. It’s about everybody can have some success stories in each 20 minutes. And you have your own successes.” 


Words by Christopher John Eggett

You can buy a copy of My City Here

This article originally appeared in issue 42 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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