New York 1901 is one of those games that immediately strikes me as a perfect introductory game to modern hobby boardgames. In other words, a ‘gateway’ game. It’s not without it’s flaws though – mainly in the rule book. A while back this game made a huge splash but then the fervor died down and of course that’s when I got a copy. I think this is a good time to take a second look though – if you’re at all the kind of gamer that has newer players and would like to get them deeper into the hobby, you’ll want to take a look at this one. It’s also wonderful for a lighter evening of gaming if you’re not into burning your brain but are into a bit of strategic puzzle solving with this fairly forgiving title.
New York 1901 is published by Blue Orange games and designed by Chénier La Salle for 2-4 players, ages 8+ and plays in an hour or less.
How to Play
As you might have guessed, it’s 1901 and you’re in New York! A fledgling builder looking to take the city upwards towards a more modern day skyline. This game takes a little bit from Ticket to Ride, a little bit from Tetris, combines them with some card drafting and comes out with a nice, eminently playable game.
First, you set out the game board, which is divided into five Districts, each represented by a different color. Each District is divided into 13 territories which come in two sizes – 2 space territories and 3 space territories. Dividing all this up are five important streets, which will be relative at the end game for scoring. There’s also a scoring track around the outside of the board à la Ticket to Ride, which not only tracks scores but also shows when certain in-game things are unlocked.
Each player will choose one of four different colors and then get their 18 skyscrapers (cut-out cardboard chits), their 1 starter building, 4 plastic workers, their King token (which looks like a trophy) and their score tokens, which are decently formed little Empire State Buildings in the player’s color. Every player also gets three action cards – you’ll be able to use them once each during the game, or save them for one bonus point each unused card during the end scoring. Player’s skyscrapers come in three flavors, bronze, silver and gold. Generally speaking, they’re worth more points moving from bronze to silver and then to gold.
Each player gets or chooses a character card – this determines where they’ll place their starting building on the board. Each of those five streets are also represented on a card – three of these are dealt out at the start of the game. The person with the largest number of skyscrapers on each street at the end of the game will score five bonus points. There’s a deck of Territory cards that remind me a bit of the train cars in TTR. There’s one card corresponding to each territory on the board. These are shuffled and the top four dealt out in a line next to the deck, called teh Open Market. These are available during each players turn. Players will place their starting building, and remove one Territory card that matches the color/size of the territory that their starter building now occupies.
In the game there are also four Legendary Skyscrapers. These are put to the side of the board and will be available to all the players. Each player may build only one during the game and they’re worth extra points.
You’ll also have a chance to deal out one of the Bonus Challenge cards (if you’re not playing the beginner setup). These cards offer a chance to score additional points by completing the conditions on the card – either during the game or at game’s end, depending on the Bonus Challenge you draw.
During a players turn, they can do one of two actions.
Once you’ve chosen one of these actions, you then Build.
Again, you’re going to find a game that’s fairly simple at heart but has some complex strategies and thoughts going into it based off of these two actions. Let’s delve deeper.
Expand: As any good land baron is want to do, you’re going to expand your empire. If you choose this option, you’ll start with your four plastic workers. If you have one available (i.e. not on the board) you can take any one of the four face up Territory cards in the Open Market. You then place a worker on a Territory on the board that matches the color and shape represented on that card. The card then goes to rest on your character card for the rest of the game.
When you claim a territory, it becomes part of your estate and no one else can take or touch it.
Now you can Build if you wish to but it’s not mandatory (though you’ll often want to). To do so, take one of your available skyscrapers (again, available meaning not already on the board) and place it on a territory occupied by one of your workers. There are some rules you’ll need to follow when it comes to building. Skyscrapers must fit entirely on your estate, if you’re looking to build anything other than a bronze skyscraper, you’ve got to have scored enough points to do so. Six points is enough to unlock silver skyscrapers and eighteen points will unlock gold skyscrapers. These are also marked right on the scoring track so you can easily see when you’ve reached them. Skyscrapers must touch a street or a park, they may be built across multiple territories and districts and do not need to completely fill the territories they’re built on. You also can’t build one building on top of another.
As soon as you build a skyscraper, you score the number of points printed on it. You’ll then replenish any cards taken from the Open Market and your turn is over.
Demolish: Here’s where you replace one or more of your already standing skyscrapers with something newer and worth more points (hopefully!). To demolish a Skyscraper, you must build a new skyscraper of a later generation – that is, where bronze was you can build silver or gold, where silver was you can only build gold. You return any demolished buildings to the game box – they’re done for the game. Also, if your new building leaves any of the previously occupied territories completely empty, you must place a worker on those territories. If you can’t place a worker, then you can’t use the Demolish action this turn.
Now you must build – and that means replacing your demolished buildings with a new one following the rule above. Once you’ve done that, your turn is over.
Those four fancy Legendary Skyscrapers? They count as gold buildings and one can be built by each player instead of their normal gold buildings. Once you’ve built one of these, place your King Token on it so you can remember who it belongs to and know you can’t build any more of them.
Remember those three action cards you were dealt? They also can come into play during your turn. There’s the Construction Boom which allows you to build an additional building on your turn, the Market Shift where you can remove the four Open Market cards, shuffle the deck and then re-deal them and the Land Grab card, where you can gain two territory cards rather than just one.
That’s the whole game! The only thing left is to end it and score. As soon as one player has only four unbuilt skyscrapers or there are only 3 cards left in the Open Market and the deck is empty, the game end is triggered. The player who triggers this completes their final turn and every other player gets a last turn and then we score.
You’ve already been scoring your skyscrapers as the game moved along. Add to that one point for each unused Action Card, get any bonuses from the Bonus Challenge cards, and get five points for each player who’s got the most buildings on the three Streets of New York cards.
There are some alternate setup rules for 2 players but they’re not anything like some games where there’s a phantom third player or the entire game changes.
Why you should play
This game is, at it’s core a fairly simple gateway game. There are a few concepts in here which may be a bit challenging for those completely new to modern hobby board games but I don’t think they’re insurmountable at all. I realize after looking back at my post and it’s length that it may not seem that way – what is important to note is that there are those concepts and mechanics which take a bit of explanation. When the game actually kicks off and the players are building away, it flows quickly and smoothly, with each turn taking perhaps a minute.
What this game has to offer that other so called gateway games don’t though is a very tense, very strategic level of play for people more familiar with it. It can be a real challenge figuring out which of those two actions is the best for you right now and then implementing them without being blocked by other players. The Tetris-like puzzle aspect of the game, while not overwhelming or the entirety of the strategy, is also a blast. It’s hard to beat that feeling of actually building something in a game. In the hour or so it takes to play this, win or lose, you still feel like you’ve accomplished something and that’s a very rewarding feeling.
The game isn’t without it’s flaws but most of those exist in the rule book, not the rules or mechanics themselves. It took me three plays and three different versions of the rules to finally play this game correctly. Ultimately what saved me was this set of rules uploaded to BGG by the designer, Chénier La Salle. They make everything far, far clearer than the original rules and turned the game from a bit of a head-scratcher, kind of fun experience to a real, challenging, fun, tense game.
Now that I know how to play, the game is a heck of a lot easier to explain – I can teach someone to play in 10 minutes tops and we’re off and running. I do think like many games this one rewards multiple plays but it’s one I plan on playing multiple times with some of the same folks so I’m okay with that. This is, I think a great opening game for a game night, a great convention game and perfect for events like my Extra Life game day where I can show people how to play without actually playing myself. Not that I wouldn’t mind a playing! My nearly 11 year old daughter very much enjoyed this one as well so I suspect It’ll continue to see time on my table.