Review of Between Two Cities (Stonemaier Games)

  • Designers: Ben Rosset & Matthew O’Malley
  • Publisher: Stonemaier Games
  • Players:3-7 Players (with 1-2 Player Variants)
  • Ages: 8 and Up
  • Time: 25 Minutes
  • Times Played: 7+

Between Two Cities English

I’m skeptical of Kickstarter: a disproportionate number of Kickstarter games I’ve tried have fallen into the “neutral” or “not for me” categories.  Many of the games I’ve tried off Kickstarter simply weren’t good game ideas to begin with.  Others had had promise but were ultimately underdeveloped.

But there are a few companies on Kickstarter that I really admire, and I basically auto-back them.  One such company is Stonemaier Games.  I like Euphoria (which I wish I could get it to the table more often), and I really like Viticulture, which is a go-to worker placement game in my game group.

I was intrigued when I heard about Between Two Cities.  This was a different kind of game for Stonemaier.  Viticulture and Euphoria are medium-heavy, but Between Two Cities looked more medium-light and family-friendly.  I was especially intrigued by the scoring mechanism, which I hadn’t seen in a game before.  When I played the game in prototype form, I was impressed.  But I knew there were several changes from the prototype, so I was eager to try out the final published version.

The Gameplay

Between Two Cities is a tile-drafting game where each player sits “between two cities” and helps build both of them: you work with the player on your left on one of the cities and the player on your right on the other.  Your final score is the lower of the scores of the two cities you helped build.  As described in the rules, “To win, you have to share your attention and your devotion equally Between Two Cities.”

The game proceeds over three rounds.  In the first round, you draw seven square (i.e. single) building tiles, secretly pick two, and pass the rest to the left.  After discussing placement with your co-builders, you place one of the tiles into each of your cities.  You then select two more from the stack of five passed to you and repeat the process.  You do this once more with the stack of three, and the last tile is discarded from the game.  Each city should have six single tiles in it at this point.  

The ultimate goal after three rounds is to build a 4×4 grid.  You must place all tiles so that your final city is a 4×4 grid, and tiles placed in the city are set and cannot move.  All cities must be oriented in the same direction.  

Between Two Cities Components

There are six types of buildings in the game, and each scores differently:

  1. Shops (yellow).  Shops are scored when connected in a straight line (row or column): 2 points for 1, 5 points for 2, 10 points for 3, and 16 points for 4.  (Each shop can only be counted once so an L or a T shape is not to your advantage.)
  2. Factories (grey).  The city with the most factories gets 4 points per factory.  Second place gets 3 points per factory, and all other cities get 2 points per factory.
  3. Taverns (red).  There are four types of taverns in the game, and having 1 is worth 1 point, having 2 is worth 4 points, having 3 is worth 9 points, and having 4 is worth 17 points.  A city can have duplicate taverns: each set is scored independently.
  4. Offices (blue).  Offices score 1 point for 1 office tile, 3 points for 2, 6 points for 3, 10 points for 4, 15 points for 5, and 21 points for 6.  Each office gets an extra point if next to a tavern.  
  5. Parks (green).  A group of one or more connected parks earns 2 points for one park, 8 points for 2 parks, 12 points for 3 parks, 13 points for 4 parks, and 14 points for 5 parks.  In other words, parks have quickly diminishing returns.
  6. Houses (brown).  Each house tile is worth 1 point for each other building type (excluding houses) in the city.  However, if a house is next to a factory, it is only worth one point.  

In round two, each player draws 3 rectangular duplex tiles.  (Put differently, these tiles have two singular tiles combined into one double tile.)  They select two and discard the remaining tile.  The then put one in each city.  At this point 10 of the 16 spaces are used.  

Round three is the same as round one, but with passing to the right.  Each player draws 7 square building tiles, secretly chooses 2, and passes the rest to the right.  They then put one tile in each city.  Repeat this process until you finish the 4×4 grid and discard the last tile.

Scoring then happens for each city.  Each player’s final score is the value of their lower scoring city.  The winner is the player with the highest score.

Between Two Cities

My thoughts on the game…

Drafting is one of my favorite mechanics, but many of the games that feature it (like 7 Wonders or Agricola) are a bit heavy for non-gamers.  A few games have recently tried to make the mechanic more approachable (Medieval Academy comes to mind), but Between Two Cities is perhaps my favorite attempt.  This game does the drafting mechanic exceptionally well, combining it with a fun theme and a novel and interesting scoring mechanism.  The end product is a high-quality, family-friendly game.  

This game is easy to learn, with a rules explanation taking less than five minutes.  I’ve played with gamers and non-gamers alike, and everybody seems to pick up Between Two Cities with ease.  The most difficult part of the game is the scoring mechanisms, but the well-designed player aids assists in this aspect of gameplay.  

But don’t be fooled by how easy the game is to learn: there are some interesting choices here.  In my plays I’ve seen about a dozen different types of cities with viable paths to victory, everything from a factory-heavy city to a city full of taverns interlaced with offices.  I’m sure there are several others that I haven’t yet encountered.

They key is to pick up on what your co-builders are doing, and to anticipate what tiles you’re about to give them.  There can’t be table talk during the drafting, but you can talk strategies during the actual tile placement.  And this talk during tile placement sometimes turns into negotiations: your two neighbors may want you to place one of your two tiles in the city you’re co-building with them.  This game is highly interactive, requiring communication with your co-builders.  

In the end you have to balance your two cities, since your final score is only as good as your worst city.  We’ve seen this sort of scoring mechanism before — perhaps most famously in Reiner Knizia’s Ingenious — but it is a fun addition to a drafting game, and I especially like how it combines with the team play element.  I hadn’t seen that before.

As is always the case with a Stonemaier product, the production quality is excellent.  The tiles are thick with beautiful artwork.  The scoreboard is well-produced, and the wooden city tokens used during scoring are a nice touch.  (Plus, any game that features the St. Louis Arch gets bonus points with me.)

I don’t generally comment on rule books in review, but I feel compelled to here: the rule book is exceptionally well written.  It is logically organized, and it conveys the flow of the game.  There are several excellent scoring examples, and there is a nice summary on the back.  (Note to publishers: we love it when you include rule summaries on the back!)  Coming off this year’s lead-up to Essen, when I encountered several poorly written and typo-laden rulebooks, I found the rulebook for Between Two Cities refreshing.

Will this be the sort of game you’ll want to play twenty times?  Probably not.  I don’t know that there’s that much depth there.  But I haven’t tired of it after 7 plays, and I don’t think I will after another 7 either.  This might be a bit light for the tastes of some gamers — there will be countless people who would rather pull out 7 Wonders for their drafting experience — but this is a far more approachable and family-friendly entry into the genre.  

In the end, Between Two Cities hits all of the right notes for a family game.  It features fun and approachable gameplay, well-written rules, excellent presentation and finish, plus a fair bit of originality.  I expect this to be a hit, and maybe even garner some praise come award season next year.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Dale Y (2 plays): Between Two Cities is a very intriguing game, and one that continues the line of solid designs to come out of Stonemaier Games.  The mechanics of the game are all familiar to me, but the semi-cooperative nature of the tile placement makes BTC stand out from other tile-laying (and drafting) games.

The three rounds of the game go by quickly – both of my initial plays have lasted less than a half-hour – though there are many interesting decisions to be made.  The first few tiles into a city may determine the overall strategy for that particular joint venture – but since the rules do not allow strategy discussion until the first tiles are chosen, you just have to roll with it from the start.

Once it’s clear that a city is going for a particular strategy (say houses or factories), then you can try to make sure that you pick tiles to match the plan.  You can discuss after each tile pick (per the rules), but it seems like the spirit of the rules disallows conversation at any other time – as well as prior to the game starting.

I’ve found that I prefer to keep my initial city size compact in the first round in order to try to maximize placement options in the second round.  The duplex tiles are unwieldy – and because you cannot change their orientation, you really need to leave yourself both vertical and horizontal placement options so that you can try to use both sides of the tile to maximum benefit.  

Remembering the turn order is also important.  While you want your own cities to do well, you really still want to prevent your neighbor from being able to improve his city on the other side of you… So, when I’m passing tiles, I do try to keep an eye on the city one space away – if I prevent good tiles from being added to that next city, I might choose to take them now if they fit into either of my two existing cities.  Also, you will always know what your partner later in turn order is getting in his new hand, so you shouldn’t be surprised with what he/she picks.  

So far, I have definitely enjoyed my first two plays of the game, and the short playing time ensures that we will keep getting it to the table. It looks like it will be fitting into a preferred super-filler slot.  There is a very well designed game with plenty of choices in a short playing time.  Unlike Chris – this is a game I could see myself playing 20+ times…  

However, this is still just an “I like it” because of a possible binding issue.  In my second game, we played with some of my son’s younger friends, and it was pretty obvious that one of the boys wasn’t very strong at tactical game playing.  The problem with this scenario is that the one solitary poor player essentially eliminated three people from the game because both of the cities which were built, in part, by this kid scored quite low – and as a result, this particular player, his LHO and his RHO all did not compete.  Sure, you could mitigate this by only playing with adept players, but you can’t always control that.  It would be unbelievably frustrating to know that you have lost a game prior to playing a tile simply based on the player randomization.  And, unlike most games, there’s nothing you can do to stop a neighbor from ruining your chances of winning.  

Dan Blum (2 plays): It works well and I have enjoyed my plays, but I am not sure that it will hold interest for long. The various kinds of scoring I think promise more depth than they deliver – they all maximize their returns at about the same number of points per tile, and it’s not too hard to hit the maximum-return level for anything except factories. This takes a lot of the interest out of the decisions. It also makes the city scores tend to be very similar. Admittedly, it doesn’t have any less depth than other simple drafting games such as Sushi Go, but Sushi Go costs less, takes up much less space, and is easier to set up and put away – and B2C doesn’t have much MORE depth than Sushi Go either.

Mark Jackson (3 plays): I share Dan & Dale’s concerns… but I’m a sucker for city-building games.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris W.
  • I like it. Dale Y, Craig V, Dan Blum, Mark Jackson
  • Neutral.  
  • Not for me.
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20 Responses to Review of Between Two Cities (Stonemaier Games)

  1. Thanks for sharing this review. I’m a little confused by Dale’s comment about the weaker player bringing other players down. I think that might be a little misleading to readers, because a weaker player’s partners are actually just as culpable as that player for the low scores of the cities they share. That’s kind of the entire hook of Between Two Cities—every decision is made in partnership with other players. In fact, Dale specifically says this, “there’s nothing you can do to stop a neighbor from ruining your chances of winning,” which isn’t true. Every decision is made together with another player, while that statement makes it seem like a single player can trump other players’ decisions.

    I appreciate the review, and it’s nice that it’s largely positive, but I just worry a little bit about people completely misinterpreting how the game works based on Dale’s last paragraph.

    • Dale Yu says:

      Jamey, thanks for reading.

      Let me clarify – my issue in that game was – the player to my left either didn’t grok the rules or had a very different (seemingly random) strategy of choosing tiles for our city. Well, actually for both of his cities. While we could discuss our strategy once the tiles were picked, there were plenty of times that we just had to make the best of it when dealing with (what I felt were) suboptimal tile choices.

      In this unique partnership-ish game, you end up relying on your neighbors to make good choices for the cities that you share. Per my reading of the rules, I cannot coach them on which tiles to choose while we’re in the choosing phase… Strategy discussions only happen after the tiles are revealed.

      So the statement of “every decision is made in partnership with other players” is not 100% true – unless I have misinterpreted the rules. Every decision EXCEPT the actual choosing of tiles in the secret and simultaneous choice is done in partnership. If we’re allowed to talk about what sort of tiles to choose, then I retract any misgivings I have about weaker partners. However, otherwise, I think it would be completely true to say that a weaker partner would put me at a disadvantage to a player on the other side of the table who does not have a weaker partner.

      To be clear and fair – I am not saying that “a single player can trump other players’ decisions”. But I am saying that a single player can make decisions that directly affect my score, and that player can do so in a way that does not affect all players at the table equally. So, if my comments came across that way, I did not intend them in that manner.

      Any clarifications on when it is permissible to discuss strategy would be appreciated.

      • Dale: Ah, I see–that’s a fair point, though I think it may be quite close to 100%, as players have completely freedom to talk in any stage other than the tile-choosing stage. So if there is a weaker/new player, when I pass them my hand of tiles (putting it face-down on the table), I can say, “It would be great if you chose the Shop tile out of this hand.” That’s perfectly legal, and it’s a nice way to guide them if they’re struggling to make good decisions (and if they’re open to that kind of guidance).

        • Dale Yu says:

          OK, that reduces my anxiety somewhat on the issue.
          I will say, then, that my rules reading made me think that we could only talk in the phase of placing the tiles. i.e. the only place that the rules talk about openly discussing strategy is in the “place” sub-phase of each round. Since the Choose phase tells you to do it “secretly”, we assumed that this meant no talking at that time.

          In any event, thanks again for giving us a chance to play the games, and thank you so much for developing and producing good games!

          • Right, that’s correct. It’s just that during the Place phase you can talk about anything…including what you previously passed to that player. :)

            Thanks for taking the time to review Between Two Cities!

          • Dale Yu says:

            And to be clear – what was lost in this discussion was the fact that this issue dropped my rating from “I love it” to “I like it”. It is clearly not a gamebreaking thing for me, and not something I expect to see often.

            I just felt it was fair to mention it in my review as it was something that I experienced in my first plays of the game. Since the writing of my comments, we have tried the game again (with the same players), and it was much better. I think that he was better able to understand what he should try to play.

        • Dan Blum says:

          I’m afraid that lowers my opinion of the game. If a more experience or more overbearing player can basically dictate everything that the next player in line does it removes most of what I find interesting.

          • Dan: I understand that, but just because I tell you that you SHOULD take a specific tile doesn’t mean you have to choose that tile. You have no power over what the player actually decides to choose from their hand.

            • Dan Blum says:

              Sure, but allowing too much communication is often a problem in cooperative or partnership games. I don’t see much benefit from allowing it here and certainly don’t want to play that way.

              • That’s fine–you don’t have to play that way. But this discussion was about how a player’s partners can be an asset to them if that player is new or weaker. It’s a built-in mechanism to make Between Two Cities accessible to new gamers, not a loophole for quarterbacking.

  2. seisyll says:

    The criticism here seems like a weakness of any partnership game – Tichu or Bridge, for example. Weak partner means you will lose. But I don’t think that means we toss out all partnership games. Either play with competitive partners or enjoy it for what it is. The strategy of cluing in your neighbor is employed in other partnership games – it actually seems a bit more elegant here because all partnerships are neighbors (as in Magic’s Two-Headed Giant) rather than sitting across the table.

    Looking forward to this and wish I would have backed it!

  3. Thomas Wells says:

    As a past professional reviewer of concerts and CD’s for over a decade, I find it bad form for the designer/owner of the game/company to continue responding to his own product reviews in several forums (BGG, OG, etc). Whether positive or negative, press is press and publicly questioning a reviewer or even complimenting a review never happened when I wrote reviews in the 80s and 90s. Even now as a research journal article editor the author of an article would never publicly confront or complement a critic and expect positive results from the research community. I understand Jamey that you are enthusiastic and this is a new dawn and new age in terms of open communication, but many of us find this behavior extremely unprofessional or at the very least tacky unless you were specifically asked for feedback or clarifications by the reviewer. I am sure there are others that will disagree with my position but since Jamey publicly asks for feedback…here it is from a past professional reviewer.

    Dale made clear he liked the game but it is implied that Dale’s perspective is valued and trusted by his readers (it is for me) and I clearly understood what he meant. A good reviewer will point out the strengths and weakness of a product as they see it from their perspective and it is up to the readers to be able to interpret whether that information is valuable or important to them.

    • Thomas: Thanks for your feedback. I actually expressed to Dale in private that I was uncomfortable with the idea of commenting on a review, but this wasn’t a case of me challenging his opinion. It was my concern that the way a specific part of his review was worded was misrepresenting the nature of the game itself. Dale obviously didn’t do this intentionally, nor would he want to misrepresent any game–whether he liked it or not–but I think it was completely fair and not unprofessional for me to point out to his readers (nor is it related at all to my enthusiasm for the game). It’s simply about an accurate representation about the rules of the game.

      As I’m sure you learned as a reviewer, if you say something inaccurate about how a game is played, it’s really not fair to the people who read that review. Intentional or not, you’ve misled them by explaining the game incorrectly. Maybe that was different back when you were reviewing games, but these days I think accuracy is paramount.

    • pse says:

      I’m very surprised with this comment. I’m so happy to see the old review paradigm of the 80s/90s disappearing. Internet has introduced the opportunity to react much more easily and I just find awesome when the author/designer can reply directly and clarify with his own point of view. Especially when it’s done honestly and without any acrimony, as Jamey is used to do. I think this really helps readers.

      As you mention times have changed, and on my side, I would consider now this involvement in the communities as natural and “professional” instead :) Although I do understand the risk you mention, I find this is a shame to blame Jamey in this specific case.

  4. jeffinberlin says:

    It probably would have been better, then, to keep the discussion with Dale private, and he could amend the review himself if he saw that there were any inaccuracies (but I understand how difficult it is to hold back when you perceive that someone is misrepresenting your game–been there). I’m with Dan in that your rules amendments (because it does not sound as though they were explicit in the original rules) actually make the game less attractive to me.

    That said, the majority of multiplayer games that are also interactive (excluding multiplayer solitaire games) have, by their very nature, some level of this weakness: poor bidding, setting up the left-hand neighbor, king making, etc. I think it’s fair to mention this criticism here, but I also think that most gamers will see that weakness in the broader context of interactive, multiplayer games.

    • Jeff: It’s not a rule amendment. We were very clear about what we wanted to convey in the rules about communication. If you’re interested, you can read the rules here: http://stonemaiergames.com/games/between-two-cities/rules-print-play/

      • Dan Blum says:

        You unfortunately weren’t very clear. The only statements about communication that I see in the rules are these:

        You may now openly discuss strategy with your partners to determine the best location for your chosen tiles.

        and

        Just like in round one, when placing your tiles you may openly discuss strategy with your partners to determine the best city and location for your chosen tiles.

        I agree that “strategy” could in theory cover anything, but context matters. In the context of these sentences, with the specific mention each time of choosing the best locations, I did not take it to mean that you could discuss what you passed and what should be chosen next turn out of what you passed. Nor did anyone else I have played with.

        • There is also the sentence: “Secretly choose two of the tiles from your hand to play.” It was an intentional choice in the rules to only use the word “secretly” in that instance.

  5. DLE says:

    Win, lose, or draw, people are always more important than games. The best part of any game session, and perhaps the metagame most worth playing, is not the final score but maximizing the positive experience of the game for every person involved, even less skilled players.

  6. Pingback: Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots – June 2017 (Part 2) | The Opinionated Gamers

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