This article originally appeared in Pyramid #15
Published by Mayfair Games
Sim City: The Card Game
Designed by Darwin Bromley, Louis Rexing and Tom Wham
Starter Set: $15.00; Booster Packs: $2.50
Sim City: The Card Game certainly took its sweet time coming out, but it turns out to have been worth the wait. This is a "kinder, gentler" card game, in which the object is not to remove all the life points from the other wizard, drain all the blood points from the other vampires or even to conquer the world. No, all you do in Sim City is build a city.
Not just any old haphazardly tossed together city (like the ones you and I live in), mind you, but an economically efficient, perfectly-functioning city. A thing of beauty. And to further highlight the non-cutthroat aspect of this game, everybody plays from the same deck and is building the same city. Each card played is worth a payment, and the winner is the player who gets to $250 first.
Open land and small improvements (like bridges) are usually just worth $1 or so, and residences and small businesses are usually worth in the $3 to $5 range. Larger industries and institutions - hospitals, stadiums, concert halls - are worth quite a bit more, up to around $15.
But there's a whole lot more to it than just slapping down high-paying cards. Businesses require people ("sims") to make them work, and sims come from those low-paying residential cards. And you can't just put stuff anywhere - all cards must be played adjacent to existing cards, and you have to trace a route by road or rail from where the sims live to the business, or you can't play the card. And there are bonuses to be earned by careful orchestration of the cards. An Office Center might be worth $6 normally, but it gets a bonus of $2 if it's placed within two blocks of a Post Office. Some cards give bonuses to other cards - a Golf Course gives a $3 bonus to all Residential cards played next to it. Cards can also be grouped into "complexes" for additional bonuses, and it can really add up fast.
Just like in the computer game, you start small. In Phase I - Settlement, only certain basic cards are played. Then comes Phase II - Village, where the first residences and businesses come in. (The cards are color-coded so you know which ones are legal to play during which phase.) In Phase III - City, the big guns come into play. Power Plants (in addition to road and rail lines on the cards, power lines also appear - and yes, they have to hook up once Phase III has begun) and the rest of the really good cards come into play, as well as politics.
Yes, politics. This is where the card game radically diverges from the computer game, and it's a very nice addition. Once Phase III has begun, somebody (the player who placed the final card during Phase II that kicked the game over into Phase III) becomes Mayor. There are also City Councilman cards that can be played that are not part of the grid, but still earn you money and count as votes in the City Council. What's there to vote on? Rezoning! There are eight zoning categories (determined by the color behind the title of the card), from Undeveloped through Residential, Commercial, Industrial, etc. Zoning is determined at first by the initial layout of the cards, but later in the game, cards can be replaced. This can be done automatically if the zoning is unchanged and the value of the block is increased (and rail lines, roads, etc. aren't cut) - just lay the new card over the old one. But if the zoning is different, or the value is going to go down (even temporarily), you need a majority of the votes on the Council. You may have to wheel, deal, negotiate. Bribe, even. Whatever works. It is this free-wheeling political aspect of Sim City that may appeal most to die-hard gamers. and is the most traditionally competitive part of the game.
In Phase IV - Metropolis, the really good stuff comes out. Each Booster Pack of Sim City contains one "long card," a double-wide card which can only be played in Phase IV and must be played over two existing cards (not in an empty space). The long cards are the most exotic in the set, and not only include land-intensive items like a Golf Course or a Large Hospital, but also famous landmarks. The half-dozen long cards I got included the Suez Canal and Ayers Rock. The Suez Canal card was the single biggest-paying card in my deck, at $16.
There are other things to keep track of. Each card also has a Crime rating and an Environmental rating, which comes into play when Disasters hit. The Disaster cards range from Employment Shortages to Droughts to Earthquakes. The Mayor must pay the cost of any disaster out of his own money total (the downside to power), so Disasters are a good way to slow down a player who's getting too far ahead.
The cards are fairly good-looking, and the decision to use photographs throughout was a good one. There is a version of the game where you use your own custom deck and duke it out with other decks, each trying to build your own private little city faster than everybody else, and there's a solitaire version that's interesting as an exercise in deck building and strategy. But is it a collectible trading card game? Just barely. The Starter Sets will all have the same 120 cards (in two decks), so there's no need to ever buy more than one unless you like volume. The Booster Packs have lots of neat cards (including the long cards), but unless you're a completionist freak, you don't really need that many of them, either. And let's face it - the best version of this game is decidedly non-collectible, since everybody plays off the same large deck.
But that doesn't make it a bad game, not by a long shot. Perhaps marketing it as a trading card game in the light of what I mentioned above isn't such a good idea, but that's not my call. One thing that will keep collectors interested is the huge number of special promo cards that are out there. Many game companies, distributors and retailers arranged to have Mayfair print special cards to put their businesses in the deck, and many of these cards are going to be of very limited availability. Some retailers will only give out their cards at their single location; Mayfair is making other cards available only to people who run Sim City demos (maybe there's a special card for writing a review? Huh? Please?). I even heard that one of the Bromley brothers is sending out a card as this year's Christmas card - but only to people who send him a Christmas card first . . .
There will also be expansions, of course, as well as 120-card special sets based on actual cities. Mayfair's home of Chicago is first, of course, and that set should be out before the end of the year. But the list beyond that is nearly endless - New York, Los Angeles, Miami, London, Tokyo, Paris . . . a potential gold-mine of specialty sets! If they need help designing the Austin set, I'm available . . .
This is a very sweet game. There are a lot of strategy considerations, but it's not dog-eat-dog competitive, either. One quibble is that as a city grid gets larger, it gets a lot more difficult to keep track of all the applicable bonuses and penalties to each card as it is played - plus continually tracing rail, road and power line networks can get to be a pain. The original Sim City gave you the luxury of letting the computer worry about all that dreck; in this game, you have to do it yourself. And I wish there was a more elegant way of keeping track of the money than by keeping a running total on a note pad - maybe some Monopoly money would work . . .
But those are minor problems, greatly outweighed by the positives. The game starts simply and gets more complex with time, making it perfect for people who don't usually play trading card games, or even strategy games in general. If you don't have to win at all costs and stab everyone in the back to have a good time, you and your friends will enjoy Sim City: The Card Game.
- Scott Haring
Article publication date: October 1, 1995
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