Dale Yu: Essen Preview – Capitals (Mercury Games)

Mercury Games is fairly new to the gaming scene, with two games coming out at Essen.  Their motto is “Fun by the Foot” as their logo is a winged foot of Victory.  I have received both of their new games (Captials, Infamy) but thus far have only had a chance to get one to the table.  I chose to play Capitals first as it involves a theme close to my heart – city building.  Having read the initial description of the game, I knew that this was one I wanted to try.


  • Designer: Thiago Boaventura
  • Publisher: Mercury Games
  • Ages: 13+
  • Players: 2-5
  • Time: 90 mins
  • Times played: 2 with  preview copy provided by Mercury Games

In Capitals, players try to construct the best city they can to be able to host the next World Expo. Each player’s city has the same humble start with only a hotel, City Hall and a basic power plant.  To this start, players will add one building tile each round.   The game is played over 3 eras, each consisting of 4 rounds.  Each of the 12 rounds is played following the same pattern and there is a scoring round at the end of each era.

capitals box

Building and managing a city is not easy, and there are many things to consider.  The gameboard is used to track progress on a number of different tracks.  Money is tracked on the outer edge of the board; money is mostly used for determining turn order as wel as helping to buy some builsing tiles.  Population and workers are kept on separate tracks.  Prosperous cities have high populations, and they also have low unemployment.  The other big focus in the game is the culture track to show how worldly your city is. Tourists will go visit the most cultured city in the game.  Public Services and Progress are also tracked on separate charts.

Each of the rounds in the game follows the same pattern

  1. Determine turn order via initative track
  2. Build tiles
  3. Tourism Phase
  4. Executive Phase (Tile activation)
  5. Cleanup

Turn order is determined by the initative track.  In the first round, it is done randomly.  For each round after, the players (in turn order from last turn) get to choose their position for the current round.  The catch is that you will have to pay more for your turn order in this round if you were better in the round previous.  If you look at the chart, there is a multiplier underneath your current position, ranging from x6 to x1.  There are costs located above each of the turn order slots, ranging from $3 to $0.  When you choose your new slot in turn order, you must pay the cost above the slot you choose multiplied by the factor determined by your position in the previous round – so your price for turn order will range somewhere between $18 and $0.  If you don’t have enough money (found on the board on the money track), the game will always let you borrow $3 for a VP given up.  Once turn order has been figured out, you move to the building phase.

In the building phase, players choose from at least (n+2) available tiles on the side of the board.  The newest tiles are all free, and any tiles that remain from previous rounds will cost $2 or $4.  When it’s your turn, you choose any available tile, add it to your city and then apply its effects.  In your city, you have two cross shaped pieces which are your construction tokens – this is where the game would like you to build your tiles.

When building, there are 2 general rules to follow.  First, you should build your tile so it is adjacent to your building token.  Second, the newly placed building should be adjacent (can be diagonal) to a tile of the same color.  You are free to break either of these rules, but if you go, you lose 2VP for each rule not followed.

Once the tile is placed, then you apply its effects – these are found on the right side of the tile.  There are a number of different types.  Immediate effects generally let you move on one or more of the different tracks on the board.  These changes happen immediately.  Other tiles are conditional – i.e. for every 2 Population you have, increase your Employment by 1.  Another example might be, each time you build a particular type of tile, increase on the Culture track.  Other conditional tiles might give you things when you activate adjacent tiles.  In any event, each time you build a tile, first look to apply any immediate effects on the tile just built, and then scan your previously built tiles to see if the new tile triggers any of the conditional effects on them.

Examples of tiles... Immediate effects are on the right.  For the top tile, you would get 3 Gears, 4 VP, but lose one space on the bell (Public Services) track

Examples of tiles… Immediate effects are on the right. For the top tile, you would get 3 Gears, 4 VP, but lose one space on the bell (Public Services) track

After all players have built a tile, the game moves into the Tourism phase.  The culture track is important here, because whichever player has the highest Culture will get the aptly named “Highest Culture Token”.  This token gives the player one extra activation to be used in the next phase.  Additionally, the token allows the player to take the tourist marker from the player who is lowest on the chart.  If the highest player’s Culture level is high enough, he may be able to take multiple tokens from players who are low enough on the track.

These tokens are used in the Executive phase.  At the start of the game, each player receives a basic power plant which comes with 4 power cubes on it.  Additionally, this power plan allows each player to activate one tile per round.  Later, as you improve your power plants, you may get the ability to activate more tiles per round.  Also, with each new power plant, you get a new supply of yellow power cubes.  New power plants are given through the Progress track (using the gear icon).  For every 6 gears you collect, you will pass the new powerplant space and you get the next level powerplant from the box.

To activate a tile, you look at the left side of the tile.  The effect can be seen in the box there.  Additionally, there are a number of yellow cubes that are printed on the tile.  To activate the tile, you must place a number of cubes equal to one more than the number already seen on the tile – both printed on the tile as well as placed in previous rounds!  Once the cost is paid, you get whatever benefits are listed under the activation cost.  If you have your tourist marker, you can use this to act as a cube to pay costs.  You can even move a Tourist marker from a different tile in your city to pay the cost of a different tile.  (Note that you can never move a placed yellow cube though!)

Activation costs are on the left.  For the top tile, if this were the first time activating it, you would need to place 3 yellow cubes on it.  In return, you would get $9

Activation costs are on the left. For the top tile, if this were the first time activating it, you would need to place 3 yellow cubes on it. In return, you would get $9

Each player activates as many tiles as they want up to their limit on their power plant (plus an extra one for the Highest Culture Token).  If they choose not to activate a tile, they take 1VP on the board or 1 yellow power cube from the supply.

In the clean up phase, the timing marker is moved to the next spot. Any unpurchased tiles are moved one row down (from $0 to $2, from $2 to $4, from $4 to the box and removed from the game).  Then, a new set of tiles from the current era is drawn.  You look at the board to see how many are still available, and then draw tiles to get to a total of (# of players + 2) from that era on the board.

If you are at the end of an Era, you have a scoring round.  There are a number of different city traits that are scored.  First, population and employment are scored.  Population is simply scored based on what is printed underneath your marker – ranging from -12VP to +24VP!  Then you examine the difference between population and employment, and you lost VPs equal to the difference between the two columns, to a max of -3 VP.  Your employment can never be higher than your population, so it’s only looking at how much lower employment is.  Finally, you look at the Publiand c Services track (the bells).  Based on your position on the track, you get a small bonus or penalty that is printed on the space.  Then, more importantly, you lose 2VP for each player that is ahead of you on the track.

The game continues through all 3 eras.  After the third interim scoring outlined above, there is a small amount of final scoring.  You get 1VP per 4 cubes remaining and per $4 remaining.  You also get 1 VP per every 2 spaces on the Culture track and 1VP for each space on the progress track you are past the new power plant space. Whoever has the most VPs wins the game.

My first impressions on the game

This is definitely a preview piece, I have not yet played the game enough to give a full review – but here are my thoughts thus far.  Overall, the game is well constructed. All of the mechanics fit together well and the game itself is easy to pick up.  It has taken the better part of 2 games though to get a good feel for the icons on the tiles and the distribution of tiles, but I think that is to be expected of any game in this genre.

The components are of high quality.  The game comes in a substantial large square box (think Kosmos square) which is filled with bits.  Tiles are thick and sturdy, and while the punchboards do not have full depth cuts all around, the pieces come out nicely and cleanly.  The graphic design of the tiles (icons and layout) are easy to follow, and most of the tiles can be understood from the icons alone – though there is a fairly comprehensive summary on the last three pages of the rule book in a narrowly kerned, closely spaced small point font if you need to look something up.

The board looks beautiful and evokes the city building theme, though my group did find it hard to read at times from the artful slanting of the tracks on the board which help give it a three dimensional feel.  The spaces are also a bit narrow to keep the tracks to the width of the streets of the printed cityscape, but I wish the spaces had been made a bit bigger to accommodate all of the pieces AND allow you to see what is printed on the space underneath without having to move said pieces to do so.  I would say that over 60% of the board space is simply background art, and while it looks very good, some of the functionality of said board has been given up for the appearance.

The board and its slanted tracks

The board and its slanted tracks

Make sure you’re comfortable with the rules with a good read through before you start.  There are helpful player aids, but they are not 100% comprehensive – though everything can be found in the images in the rules.  Additionally, there are some inconsistencies on the player aid which can confuse you.  For instance, the turn order determination is called the “Political Phase” in the rules, but on the player aid, it is called Initiative Phase.  Not a big deal once you are comfortable with the rules, but for a newbie – these little inconsistencies can slow you down as you have to double check things to make sure you’ve got the rules right!

Player Aid

Player Aid

The rules are complete, with the rulebook coming in at a hefty 24 pages, though a lot of this page volume is taken up from very large illustrations and examples which have come in very helpful in our first few games – so the length of the rulebook should not be seen as a bad thing.  Most important rules are highlighted in tan boxes so you can quickly reference them – and the big rule we missed was not found in one of those boxes…  (We missed the rule that you get your tourist token back if you aren’t continually in last place.)

Game length is acceptable for the complexity of the game.  Right now, we are still over 2 hours for a 4p game, and I’m not sure that we would ever get under that… There are plenty of things to track each turn, and the way the game is setup, there are plenty of things to think about.  At the start of each round, the players really need to look at the tiles to try to get a feel for where they want to be in turn order, and figuring out how much you’re willing to spend that round on that turn order.  Then, once turn order is figured out, you might have to reconsider the tiles on your turn depending on what is left from you to choose from.  Placing the tile is easy in the earlier rounds, but you will have to take a second to make sure you aren’t missing conditional actions once you’re in the second half of the game.  Finally, the length of the tile activation phase can take awhile, especially in rounds closer to the interim scorings… There are plenty of tracks to compete on, and each affects scoring, so you make have to make tactical decisions on which tiles to activate based on what other players have done earlier in the round.

That being said, the game doesn’t feel long.  Each of the individual decisions can be short – the game length is more a reflection of the repetition of small actions x 4 players x 12 rounds.  Add in some time to explain and grok the tiles, and it’s no wonder that you’re looking at a 120 to 150 minute game in your first few experiences.

Thus far, we have only played the basic game – which is the three eras of four rounds each.  In the advanced game, there is an entire other set of tiles, called Prosperity tiles, which extend the game a bit by adding 5 special Prosperity building rounds into the game.  At the start of the game, each player is dealt 5 of these tiles at random, and then after rounds 3,5,7,9, and 11, you get to build one of these tiles.  They are essentially bonus point scoring tiles.  Generally, they require that you have achieved a certain level on one of the tracks or that you have the most of some sort of tile.  Since you get all 5 at the beginning of the game, you should have a chance to shape your play to take advantage of your different tiles.  The rules suggest that  you leave these out with your initial games, and after 2 games without, I think that we would be ready for these extra tiles.  However, I can foresee that this will increase the game length, and we’re still at 30-40 minutes per player, and I’m not sure my group will want the game to be any longer.  Of course, our increased familiarity with the tiles should make part of the game quicker, and hopefully make the timing change be a wash.

And to answer the question that I’m sure people will ask – yes, this game is different than Suburbia.  The rules are more complex and there is a much different feel to the game.  I think this is due to the multiple tracks that you have to manage in Capitals instead of just money and VP in Suburbia.  This is more of a gamer’s game for city building.  Capitals is more like Sim City: the boardgame, though more playable than SC:TBG. [obligatory disclaimer – in case it wasn’t clear, I am the developer of Suburbia, and therefore have a vested interest in that game…]

While my final verdict still remains to be seen, I will say that after our most recent game, everyone at the table remarked that they wanted to play it again soon – and that’s a positive sign for any game.  After Essen, I’ll report back with how increased experience has changed the play time, and also on how the Prosperity tiles change the game, because we still haven’t even played with those yet!

Conditional Rating (still need to play the Full Game): I like it.

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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2 Responses to Dale Yu: Essen Preview – Capitals (Mercury Games)

  1. Jacob says:

    Something I did not get a sense of is what the city looks like. The board has tracks, but the city is built in front of you as you add tiles to it like in Suburbia? (not that it plays like Suburbia)

    • tboaventura says:

      Yes, the city is construct in front of each player. The board is used to mark the various aspects of the cities, making it easier to view your opponents. Best regards,

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