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I had the pleasure of meeting designer Michael R. Keller at the very first Unpub Mini event at Redcap’s Corner in Philadelphia in April of 2012. Michael brought a fairly complex but utterly engrossing game called Municipality to the event. Fast forward several months, the name has changed and the game is better than ever.
City Hall is very unique hybrid of role selection, bidding and tile laying, set in a political climate and historically themed to the creation of New York City.
Players will use their influence to manipulate the growth of the city and the political offices overseeing that growth. The more people and business you can bring into the city, the greater your power will be.
At it’s heart, City Hall is about Role selection. There are several to choose from each turn, but the key is remembering that choosing the role does not guarantee that you will get to use the role. For me, this is where the game lives.
Each turn you will place your pawn on a role. This activates that role and starts the bidding. Players will use their influence to bid on actually executing the role. Players can pass or bid once. When you bid, you match or exceed the highest bid. Finally the player who activated the role gets to bid, either paying back to the bank influence equal to the highest bid and executing the role, or accepting the influence from the player who bid the highest and allowing that player to execute the role.
This has fascinated me every time. It’s a chance to poke your opponents and see what’s really worth it to them. I will often choose something I know they want and bleed them of influence. Not always…but often. The more influence I have the better my position in the next bidding round to get what I want. I often vary what I want from round to round to keep players guessing. With 7 roles to choose from, there’s always an option. I allow other players to pigeon hole themselves into a strategy, while keeping my options open.
So, for me the bidding is the real excitement in the game. It generates a fair deal of interaction and drama. The tension is palpable. The rewards are often great. The rest of the turn just builds to the bidding for me and is full of the head game I love.
The roles are how the game works. Each one helps to increase a player’s standing. The interactions between the roles are complex and intriguing which give the game a depth and intricacy that makes me want more.
The Tax Assessor allows you to gain more money. Your take when you execute this role is directly tied to your holdings: which buildings you own and the population of your districts.
The Campaign Manager allows you to bribe your way into a higher approval rating. Approval ratings are tied into how well you’ll be doing at the end of the game (and when the game ends.)
The Lobbyist lets your buy and sell influence to help you in your bidding.
The Surveyor lets you buy one of the available plots of land and the Zoning Board allows players the opportunity to build on the land they own. This is the tile laying portion of the game, which is the most openly strategic part of the game. You want to create pockets of development to increase your populations or potentially block your opponent’s growing populations.
The Health Commissioner increases everyone’s population based on the neighborhoods they’ve built. Be careful in executing this role. You could help someone else get a leg up. Population is one the main ingredients in a winning score.
The final role is the Deputy Mayor, otherwise known as your standard starting player role. As with every game of this kind, you need to know when someone’s had enough power. Find the right time to seize the throne and you’ll be golden. You probably don’t want this every turn, but knowing when you do and don’t is a glorious thing.
The game ends when a player (or the game) reaches the top level on the approval track. Winning is determined by adding your approval rating and population #. Into that mix (which is visible information,) players will add endorsements they have earned (10 points for each endorsement.) These are achievements a player can make during a game.
I’ve enjoyed City Hall each time I’ve played it, even though I have yet to win. There’s a real adrenaline rush during the game (particularly in bidding) that I really cherish. There’s limited randomness (it manifests itself in the tile laying portion of the game; which parcels of land are available and what you may have the ability to build,) and the right amount of visible, track-able information. You know where you stand at almost every turn.
I have seen people pull themselves out of a hole with cunning play. Don’t be afraid to drop your agenda to thwart an opponent, but get back to what you need soon. If you let a player run away with the game, it’s on you. There are ways to combat that.
City Hall has just been a really interesting game for me. It’s grown so much since the first time I played it. It feels solid, interactive and tense. The theme is very appropriate for the mechanics. Players can really get the flavor of what’s going on as they play the game, but will probably not excel during their first time out. I think I have five games under my belt at this point, I understand it and love it, but there’s still nuance and strategy I’m discovering. The chance for deviousness, bluffing, and counter-playing is high and with such a small amount of randomness, the reliance on player choice and the opportunity to really match wits is so strong. City Hall just has a lot of what I like in a game.
In the interest of full disclosure, Michael R. Keller had City Hall at several Unpub events in 2012. He took the game to many major conventions including GenCon, WBC, and BGG.Con. City Hall attempted an unsuccessful run on Kickstarter in November of this year under Michael’s own company Visible Hand Games. During that campaign Unpub.net did a live play of the game with Michael in attendance. Since then City Hall has fallen onto the schedule of Tasty Minstrel Games and has just been launched for a short 10 day campaign, ending on June 29. I encourage you to visit the Kickstarter Page and the BGG Page for more information about City Hall.
Because of City Hall’s participation in several Unpub events, as well as the time I know Michael has put into play-testing and development of this game, it has earned the Unpub Seal which is a mark of confidence that the game has seen action in the public, has been played by people other than the designer’s friends, and is ready for your gaming table. We are proud to stand behind this game and look forward to it’s publication.
NOTE: This review is a re-edit and re-post of an article originally written in November of 2012. I have had it confirmed that the game play has not changed from then, but that some terminology has.