Hmmm… what’s this? Big card board tiles? Top down imagery of buildings? Rules for what should go next to what? Sounds like we have a city builder on our hands! Wait. Impossible to pronounce (for an ignorant English speaker) polish names? Well that’s different!
Oh, Capital! The city skyline captured on that glorious box cover speaks of time as well as space. The old townhouses at the bottom give way to the tower blocks and skyscrapers of a modern city at the top. It is a journey that cities across Europe will be familiar with. This Capital, though, is Warsaw, a city that has seen a great deal more change than most and, with this game, you get to experience that change too.
Capital will be very familiar to those of you who have played Among the Stars. You will be drafting square tiles, representing either city districts or famous landmarks, and from those constructing your own little city district. You need to pay for those tiles too, so that managing money is of vital importance, as well it should be for any aspiring developer. Though when you inevitably overspend on those beautiful cultural artefacts, you can always trash the tile you drafted to gain a few more coins.
It is there that the similarities end though. The majority of the tiles show a mixture of city districts and in the way of city builders the world over, adjacency is what matters most. Connected areas form single neighbourhoods which is exactly what you want for parks, but not what you want for your houses and shops! Indeed, often the smaller the better. People prefer quainter nuggets of characterful shops to giant sprawling malls and housing estates.
The reason why this is better is because of how these things score. Following the Lonely Planet’s Guide to Rating Cities, you score points at the end of each round for the number of housing districts you have adjacent to a single park. That is you only get to pick one green space, so you’ll probably pick your biggest and try to surround it with as many little housing clusters as possible (the ones with the red roof). Likewise your yellow-roofed shops will earn you one coin for each adjacent housing block. So trying to obtain little areas and arrange them all perfectly is a wonderful little puzzle that will have you rotating things in all directions to find the best fit each and every turn.
That’s not all you’ll be offered though. There are cultural areas which feature purple roofs, the most cultured colour, and big victory point shields in the middle of the area. These just score victory points, each round, regular as the guided tours that no doubt stalk their cobbled streets. The blue districts are the beating heart of industry and do the same thing, but with coins. Don’t build them next to your houses though! No one likes smelly noisy factories.
So far, so classic city builder. But the next thing you can get will drive us towards one of Capital’s most interesting innovations. And appropriately enough that thing is trams, or trains… It’s travel anyway. A selection of the tiles feature little transport hubs which you want to build across your district for lots of lovely points. Everyone likes a good metro system after all. But because neighbouring types form single regions, you don’t want to place these hubs next to one another. Ok, you’re thinking, so I’ll spread them around the edge. But no! You see, you only have a maximum 4 by 3 grid to work with here! Which brings us swiftly to our real destination. Overbuilding! All change!
With only 12 possible spaces you quickly run out of room. Potentially you could place 24 tiles in this game (6 rounds, 4 tiles each), although financial constraints will see you ditching some of those. So what do you do? You overbuild. The new tile gets placed over the top of an existing tile, changing that bit of city forever. It results in some dramatic changes. It also makes building cheaper: you subtract the cost of the covered tile from the new one. This gives you a load more options with every tile. You’ll be examining every nook and cranny of your city looking for where a new tile might best fit.
This spatial constraint is a lovely challenge. It forces you to be much more careful with where you place your tiles, and combined with the overbuild mechanic keeps you interested in your entire city throughout the game, rather than having your attention drift to the edges as you expand. But it adds a wonderful thematic touch to proceedings too! The old makes way for the new. Where once were stone houses, now stand glistening towers of steel and glass. Your capital doesn’t just grow, it evolves.
Nothing drives that sense of time passing like the content of the tiles themselves. You’ll see above that the game’s tiles are carefully separated into 6 different piles. At first I thought this might be overly fiddly but it allowed a careful tailoring of how Capital develops over the course of the game. At the start you have simple, large regions taking up entire tiles, by the end you have complex, multi type tiles segmented into different quarters. Factories don’t become available until the Industrial Age of round 3, onwards. Similarly, public transportation just isn’t a thing at the start. In round 5 there is a dramatic shift in architectural style as you enter the post war soviet era. It’s only an artistic touch, but it is a startling reminder of the change in Warsaw’s circumstances. Oh, and yes. War.
Even your little cardboard districts will not be spared the ravages of the first and second world wars. After the 3rd round each player must trash a single block from their city. After the 4th round they must trash 2. These events force upon you a purely thematic decision that in many ways dominates the central part of the game. You find yourself desperately adding tiles that you can afford to immediately lose, to protect the structures you’ve been building over the preceding rounds. It’s an unusual experience, being forced to confront what you want to save. The joyful frivolity of building in the opening rounds switches to the painful task of, sometimes quite literally, sacrificing your dreams for the future.
Loss is, in many ways, a strong motif in Capital (and not because I keep losing when I play, shut up!) You lose tiles in war, but you constantly lose tiles to overbuilding too. While you hope to improve with those overbuilds, it is only sometimes a perfect replacement, and deep down you still feel the loss of what you had before. But you come out the other side with a capital that is stronger, brighter, and certainly worth more victory points. Just as we hope our own capitals do.
Capital is, mechanically speaking, a fine extension of some well tested gameplay elements. The art is ok, with some nicer pieces on the landmarks and milestones (which I’ve basically neglected. They add a load more strategy by offering new ways to score points or mixing up the existing rules, which is very nice!) But where Capital excels is in its theme, in its meaning. It doesn’t just feel like you’re building a city, though you are, it feels like you are a part of it. The game is imbued with history and its mechanics perfectly capture the changing force that history applies. The featured locations might all be from Warsaw, the score markers might all be mermaids, the symbol of that city, but the story Capital tells is that of any capital, every capital. And that is just magnificent.
Rating: Capital Idea!
This copy of Capital was provided for review by Coiled Spring games.