Review: 20th Century

Review by Doug Garrett of Garrett’s Games and Geekiness
Designer: Vladimir Suchy
Illustration/Graphic Design: Milan Vavron & Filip Murmak
Publishers: Czech Games Edition, Rio Grande, IELLO, Heidelberger Spieleverlag
Players: 3-5
Ages: 13+
Playing Time: 90-120 minutes
Times Played: 2 (once with 4, once with 5) with a Review Copy

City Growth and Pollution Control in an Expanding World

Image Courtesy Rio Grande Games

The 20th Century was known for two world wars, the growth of the US as a world power, civil rights movements for women and minorities, and an explosion of new technologies.  Vladimir Suchy’s 20th Century takes this last idea – technology growth – and has players build different cities of the world while grappling with the inevitable pollution that comes with such growth.  As the flavor text says, “Growth produces waste” and that waste must be dealt with as players develop their own areas.

After receiving initial seed money and science points, players begin the 6 game rounds with an individual player board that establishes each person’s current state of development.  Coupled with this board is the Carcassonne-esque starting tile placed in front of each player that represents each person’s country that is ripe for expansion.  This tile includes 3 cities connected by rail lines, two of which are marked as ‘inhabited’ by the players with a small circular ‘citizen’ token in the players’ colors; the symbols associated with these cities then provide resources that are recorded on the tracks of each player’s individual board.   These tracks include money, science, victory points, and pollution.  Given the initial cities, everyone begins with 3 money, and 2 science points marked on his/her board which will be what players earn at the end of each round.  But along with those cities comes a garbage token, a symbol of the pollution players must deal with.  Part of what one wants to do, therefore, is advance the tracks on one’s individual board in order to set up income streams that also provide victory points, while avoiding too much garbage or pollution which subtracts points from one’s score.

In order to do this effectively players vie for the best pieces of land through auctions rather than wars.  Each round land tiles are placed on a central board (in varying numbers depending on the number of players) and the starting bidder must bid at least the minimum bid level for one of the tiles or drop out.  The bid continues around the table until everyone has passed except the highest bidder.  But what do these tiles depict?  All have a number of those cities on them like the initial tile and are possibly connected by rail lines.  The cities also have easily understood symbols associated with them representing money, science, recycling, and victory points.  Each purchased tile comes with 1 citizen token and at least 1 garbage token.  Purchasing more than one tile in any given round – synonymous with rapid city growth – adds to one’s garbage problem as subsequent tiles have more initial garbage (2, then 3, etc.).  Later in the round the player must a) decide where to place the tile in his/her city (rail lines do NOT need to meet up, but mean that citizens can’t travel to unconnected cities) and b) decide which of the cities on the tile will receive the citizen token, thus increasing particular resources available to the player by adding to his/her resource tracks.

Image Courtesy Czech Games Edition

The land tile auctions continue, but players have the option of ‘dropping out’ of land auctions completely (rather than just passing and waiting to bid on the next tile) and getting an early choice of the other type of tile present in the game – technology.  If a player is the first out of the land auction, then he/she can spend science points to buy more workers, a locomotive to move citizens, make positive strides on the pollution track, or obtain special land tiles that provide money or science, but may come with a pollution or garbage costs.  There are as many technology tiles in a round as there are players, and the cost in science points drops with each person’s choice, so a player may need a particular tile and jump out quickly in the land auction, or may realize that any of the tiles would be beneficial and therefore might hang back and get land cheaply, then spend less for the tech tile as well.

After tiles have been purchased – and if a player was unsuccessful in obtaining any land tiles he/she receives ‘Consolation’ from the bank – the game moves into its most deliciously painful phase: preventing catastrophes!  Each round a catastrophe card is turned over and players will bid using SCIENCE POINTS to prevent the worst from happening.  Usually there is one column that, if won, causes no harm.  That column, of course, is highly contested.  Other columns will cause your pollution track to adjust negatively or add garbage to your city.  And here’s where that need for management of finances becomes most apparent.   You really wanted that technology tile one phase earlier, so you dropped out of the land auctions and smiled with satisfaction as you took the locomotive before everyone else.  However, now you only have 2 science points and realize the painful pollution problem you have brewing in your city because you can’t bid very much in the catastrophe area.  UGH!

After catastrophe comes Upkeep, and everyone attaches those tiles purchased earlier to their city, places the citizens, moves citizens with locomotives, removes garbage by activating a recycling plant, and then updates all of the tracks on their individual boards indicating new revenue, science points, victory points, and pollution.  Finally, all players receive money, science, and victory points at the current levels marked.

At this point, the even rounds add an interim scoring.  Players may get points for the amount of coin and science points they have marked on their boards, or points for land tiles without garbage on them, or points for functioning recycling centers.  These possible ways to score change from game to game as cards are placed on the round marker spots at the beginning of the game, providing a greater degree of replayability.

After 5 full rounds of play, the 6th and final round skips the land auction and catastrophe bidding (thank goodness) and goes right to Upkeep, Victory Point Production, one last chance to recycle, and a final bonus scoring.  Final points are scored for tiles without garbage, for money and science points remaining, and for having a good environment on your pollution track.  Points are lost if there is more than 1 garbage token on a land tile and if the pollution track is in the negative.

The game plays in 90-120 minutes and moves along at a nice clip.  Since everyone takes care of his/her own area, as long as you have trustworthy folks at the table, it is easy to do the Upkeep and dispensing of funds simultaneously and therefore quickly.  That said, you do have to enjoy auction games and must quickly get a feel for the relative merits of the items up for auction.  Thankfully, even though the symbols on the tiles are small, they are easy to discern and players can check each other’s cities to see if the money/science/VP tracks correspond to where a player has allocated his/her citizens.

I am happy to have 20th Century sitting on my shelf and see it hitting the table more in the future.  The auctions mean it isn’t possible to play as a 2-player game, but for gamers who like multiple working parts in a game where being attentive to growth’s effect on the environment is key, 20th Century is worth tracking down and trying.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Kris Hall: 20th Century hadn’t been on my radar, but Ted Cheatham picked up a copy.  It has been a hit with the Appalachian Gamers; we all seem to appreciate the tough choices that the game presents.  I don’t know if there is one killer strategy yet, but several winners have been guys who acquired more than one land tile per turn.  Paying a lot for your favorite land tile often seems less effective than waiting until other players have dropped out of the land tile auctions, and getting two or more less impressive tiles cheap.  Because each tile pays victory points at the end of the game (unless you’ve neglected to remove garbage) more tiles means more points.   An unexpected hit with our group.

Rick Thornquist: I seem to be in the minority, being just neutral (along with Joe Huber, which is pretty rare – I don’t think I’ve ever seen eye-to-eye with Joe on any game).  I can see why other people like it, though, for the most part it’s a pretty nice game.  My big problem is the upkeep phase where you have to place your new tiles and update your production indicators.  The problem?  There’s way too much tedious counting and, as I recall, it’s pretty easy to make a mistake.  If the game was on a computer which handled the counting, I’d play it again in a heartbeat.  Until then…

Dale Yu (5 plays): I like this one a lot.  There are plenty of good choices to be made in the game, and there seem to be multiple paths to victory – so each player can explore the game space in their own way and still have a chance to be successful.  That being said, I’m still trying to exploit the big pollution bonus score at the end of the game.  Any time I’ve been able to get to the 3rd positive rung or higher, I’ve run away with the game.

The rules suggest not playing with the interim scoring in your first game (the scoring at the ends of rounds 2 and 4) – I have managed to teach the game to veteran gamers including this scoring in their first game, and it seemed to work OK.  For me, having the intermediate goals of the interim scoring makes the game much more interesting.

The other interesting part of the game is the constant balance of pollution/environment.  You’re always worried about it, but it doesn’t seem to reach the sometimes negative levels that I’ve seen in In the Year of the Dragon or Balam where the constant pressure becomes unenjoyable.

I’ve played it 5 times thus far (with a review copy), and I’m still looking forward to getting it back to the table.  It has become one of my favorites from Essen 2010.

Ted Cheatham: I played Dale’s copy at Great Lakes games twice and immediately this went on my buy list.  This has probably been my most played game in the last 4 months.

Larry Levy: This is a very nice tile-laying game with a good deal of variety.  The different kinds of auctions keep you on your toes, with the Evo-style catastrophe avoidance being particularly tense.  There are a variety of successful strategies, but they need to be executed properly–I know, as I’ve messed most of them up.  The theme is attractive, although it’s not as strong as it might be due to the fairly abstract gameplay.  It can be hard to recover from a slow start, but that just means you need to be careful throughout.  I think 20th Century is one of the better titles of last year and it’s a game I’m always happy to play.

Joe Huber (2 plays): Rick, if it makes you feel any better, I’m neutral on the game for an entirely different reason, at least…

20th Century is a fine game – just not one I’m interested in playing further.  Everything works, and it’s reasonably well streamlined.  But the game just doesn’t excite me – my second game felt exactly like the first, and there’s not enough variety for me to see why that’s going to change significantly in the future.  I think it’s interesting that Dale brings up In the Year of the Dragon, as the comparison stands out well for me.  In 20th Century, bad things happen – but they’re fairly fixed.  Yes, there’s some variety in the deck, but it all comes down to garbage or adjusting the prosperity track; the catastrophes feel very similar to each other.  In contrast, the order of events in In the Year of the Dragon helps to give each play a different feel – and something of a story to the game.  This left 20th Century feeling too flat for me to wish to keep in my collection.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:

I love it!..Tom Rosen, Mary Prasad, Kris Hall, Ted Cheatham, Dale Yu

I like it…Doug Garrett, Valerie Putman, Larry Levy, Patrick Korner, Andrea ‘Liga’ Ligabue, Mike Siggins

Neutral…Rick Thornquist, Joe Huber

Not for me…

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5 Responses to Review: 20th Century

  1. Surya says:

    I like it, though not as much as Shipyard, by the same designer. It’s not as deep as that game and there’s less of a long term strategy involved.

  2. Paul Lister says:

    To say i loath this game might be a bit strong, but its the word that always comes to mind when i think of my two tries at 20th Century. The problem i have with the game is that outside of the auction players are fiddling with their own tableau – there can be a lot of down time and its a solitaire activity, if you take a minute to place and rearrange tiles and other playerss take more than five it makes for a boring wait. This leads into my problem with the interactive bit – the auction. Because other players ‘countries’ tile strategies are largely opaque I can only place a value on tiles according to have valuable they are to me – i have no idea how they might fit into another players tableau, espcially after another 10 minutes of solitaire tile optimisation. In addition the thematic nonsense and the one dimensional catastrophes make this a big miss for me

  3. Larry Levy says:

    I’m a little surprised at both Rick’s opinion and Paul’s comment, both of which have to do with the tableau of tiles. First, with regard to Rick’s comment, I think it’s actually very hard to make a mistake with the production levels, since all you have to do is recount them after each turn (which I usually do anyway–takes me 10 seconds). The only thing that isn’t recoverable is the pollution level and if you’re really concerned about that it wouldn’t be too hard to keep a record of the technology and catastrophe adjustments of that as well. But the counting is really low (single digit numbers for most of the game), so I’m surprised that he finds this an issue.

    As for Paul’s complaint, are the players in your games really taking 5 minutes to place their new tiles? That seems incredibly long. Most of the time, the decision was obvious when you bid for the tiles, so the whole process of placing tiles, garbage, workers, and adjusting your levels only takes about 30 seconds. In a complex turn, it might take me as long as a minute. But 5 minutes seems remarkable. Maybe some of your players struggle with their spatial awareness, so this procedure is a chore for them. But I’d be surprised if this is a typical problem with the game.

  4. Paul Lister says:

    Lary, my games were played with old hand gaming Counter readers at a con, there was no time pressure so it might of been the reason for the lengthy time taken. They were all also new to the game. It’s been a popular game at London on Board and I am most definitely in a minority in my dislike for the game

  5. Kevin O'Hare says:

    20th Century falls in the Neutral Zone for me. With a single play, it’s difficult to give it more than that for now. Am I loking for a replay? Not so much, though I agree completely with Doug’s description of the catastrophe phase. That’s exactly how it feels and is the one part of the game I enjoyed even as I was the one with little science to spend.

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