Dale Yu: Review of Helsinki


  • Designers: Daniel Skjold Pedersen and Asger Harding Granerud
  • Publisher: Queen Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 10+
  • Time: 40-60 minutes
  • Played with copy provided by Queen Games

Says the publisher: “The famous Senate Square in the center of the Finnish capital is surrounded by government buildings, the university, the cathedral and the Sederholm House. The players ́ task is to design pavilions across the square to protect pedestrians in the rain. Helsinki is based on the design of Copenhagen by the same design team, but with some added complexity. The center board depicts the Senate Square with 8 spaces (two per side) and 8 cards, with each card connected to two spaces. The player on their turn advances their pawn 1-3 spaces, then must choose to take cards or build a pavilion. Each space is connected to two face up cards, and the player may choose to draw these into their hand (making sure to respect the 7 card hand limit, a key challenge in the game). The cards are in one of 5 colors and show a shape of size 2 to 5. To build a pavilion, the player plays a card showing the piece they want to play, and then must play an additional number of cards of the same color to match the size of the piece. Finally, the piece must be “slid” onto their game board (which also represents the Senate Square) from the side of the Square their pawn is on on the main board. Covering certain spaces earns a coat of arms, which may be spent to use one of the 15 one-time special actions. Players score points for completing rows and columns, and the player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.

The central board is placed on the table and the deck of Pavilion cards is shuffled and placed there. 8 cards are dealt face up around this board.  The action board is put next to it and each player puts a marker on the 0 space of the score track.  Additionally, each player takes a player board and places their 8 coats of arms on the designated spots.  Their statue is placed in the central space on the board. 

Each player also gets a starting hand of 2 Pavilion cards.  The start player chooses any senate space on the Senate board, and in clockwise order around the table, the next player places their token on the second space clockwise from the last player.  Make a supply on the table of all the different polyominoes so that all players can see what is available.

The game is played in a number of rounds. In each round, a player will move their player token 1 to 3 spaces clockwise around the Senate board and then choose to either Draw Cards or Build a Pavilion.

If you choose to draw cards, you get the two cards which are to the direct left and right of the space you stopped on.  Add the cards to your hand, but note that you are limited to a hand size of 7.  If you ever draw more, you must immediately discard any card to keep your hand at 7.

If you choose to build a pavilion, you must have a card in your hand that has the specific piece you want to build (color and shape).  In addition, you must play as many cards as stated at the top of your target build’s card – this will be from 1 to 5.  There are some wild cards in the deck which can be used to support any build, but the wild CANNOT be used to determine what piece to build.

Once you have paid for the tile (by discarding the appropriate cards), you must then push the tile into your board from the same side that your player token is found on the Senate board.  You may rotate and flip it as you like, then you push it into the center of the board until it hits a central statue or another tile.  Your first tile must hit the statue.  You can get a bonus card if the tile you place orthogonally touches another tile of the same color.  If your target build card has a superstructure icon on it, you then place this wooden bit anywhere on the tile once it is played.  At the end of the game, you will score points if the superstructure is in a fully completed row or column.  If you cover a coat of arms with your piece, collect that coat of arms which you can use at any point in the game to take an action on the action board.

There are 15 possible actions on the action board, and you can take them anytime you have a Coat of Arms tile in your possession.  You are limited to taking each one once – as you must place your coat of arms on the action space you use, and you can’t place more than one on any particular space.  The actions are varied: some change how you move on the Senate board, some change how you place tiles, some change how you use cards, etc.  There is a full page in the rules which outline the different actions; though the icons on the action board are honestly pretty self explanatory.  (The rules suggest not using the bottom row in your first game; but man, those are the actions that give you the best options!  Just a word of advice there…)

The game ends when the final card from the draw pile has been drawn or revealed.  Finish the current round so that all players have the same number of turns.  After that final round, calculate your score:

  • 2 points per completed row on your board
  • 2 points per completed column on your board
  • 3 points for a superstructure in the intersection of a completed row AND column
  • 1 point for a superstructure that is in a single completed row/column

The player with the most points wins. Ties broken in favor of last in player order (i.e. the Start player loses all ties).

My thoughts on the game

Helsinki is a reimagining of Copenhagen, a nice family level game from a few years ago.  That game also used polyominoes and rewarded you for arranging them efficiently.  Here, you are still trying to get your polyominoes in a pleasing pattern, but the game underlying it is a bit more complex.  You’ll be making a lot of little decisions, but they can each be a determinant of your final score – which, mind you, is a low number (mid 20s is the best we’ve seen).  So every point that you can eke out will be a meaningful component of the final score.

Now, you have to worry about having the right cards in your hand as well as  being able to place the piece you want WHEN you want to place it (because of the rule that the piece must be pushed in from the side that your meeple is currently on!).  And, if that wasn’t enough, if you have a coat-of-arms handy, you have all the extra actions available to you which can definitely change how you would best take your turn.

There are a few levels of planning here.  You can always see what cards are available, but in a 4p game, as many as six cards can be drawn between your turns, so you often can’t do too much planning in that regard until your turn comes around.  But… you can still try to put yourself in a position to be able to draft cards you want, just hoping that someone doesn’t take them from you.

Be sure to keep an eye on the supply of tiles; there are 3 each of the 2/3/4 square tiles and only 1 each of the 5 square tiles.  While you would like to wait for the optimal tile to come along; you could be out of luck if someone beats you to your tile and builds the final one before you can get there.  Watching what cards your opponents are drawing can help you figure out what they might be wanting to build.

Getting enough cards for the smaller tiles is pretty easy; usually it’s just a matter of picking up the card that has the actual piece you want to build.  Getting to the 5-square tile is another matter though as you do have to work a bit to get 5 of your maximum 7 cards in the same color!

Another thing to consider is the bonus from placing a tile that ends up touching another tile of the same color – getting a bonus card is a nice bonus, as that’s essentially a free half-a-turn.  Getting a few of these bonuses over the course of the game that can give you a nice advantage over your opponents.

In addition, a half of a turn can be a pretty big deal.  In a 3p game, the deck starts out with 81 cards, 8 of which are dealt to the table.  So 73 in the deck.  So far, I’d guesstimate 7 to 10 bonus cards handed out (between tile placement and bonus actions) – so say 64 cards to draw.  That’s only 32 turns of drawing, split up amongst 3 players, so maybe 11 each?  Sure, you’re going to build as well.  But on average, you’re only going to have maybe 25 total cards in your hands for the entire game.  You should be mentally prepared then to have 25 squares at most occupied on your board (which is 49 squares large) – so only 30-40% the surface area.  Knowing this will help you plan for completed rows/columns.  The reason I saw 30-40% is that the cards with the superstructures on them cost an extra card for the superstructures; so if you use 25 cards to build buildings, it might be 18 squares worth of buildings and 7 superstructures…  As you can see, each card is important, and thus, getting an extra random card is really kind of a big deal.

The other way to get a leg up is by efficient use of the actions on the action board.  You only have 8 coats-of-arms, so you’ll rarely get to use even half of the possible extra actions; but using the right action at the right time can make for a powerful play.  It does take a minute to figure out how they all work, but certainly after your first game, you’ll be aware of what each can do.

Don’t let the possible complexity scare you away.  The extra actions on the action board are all pretty simple – most gamers haven’t even needed a reference sheet to be able to understand them.  This game still is firmly in the superfiller category.  I’d say that if everyone is familiar with the game, finishing this in 30 minutes would definitely not be out of the ordinary. For me, that’s a good fit. I like games that give me a fair amount to think about while keeping the game length reasonable.

The quality of the bits is up to the usual Queen standard.  The punchboards are nice and sturdy and they are pleasingly double cut so that they neatly pop out without risking any tearing of the paper.  The rest of the bits are the turned wooden pieces that used to be standard in Eurogames, but are now not always found.

Ergonomically, there are a few things to mention.  The actual coat-of-arms chits kinda get in the way.  The game wants you to slide your polyominoes in, but you only get credit for the seal if you actually cover the seal space.  And, of course, if you’re actually pushing your block in, you’ll push the chit.  It’s kind of annoying.  Also, I’d recommend a separate discard pile.  The deck and the discard pile are supposed to fit on the Senate board, and there is just barely enough space to hold these two decks.  Rather than obscure the meeple spaces (and/or have one of the decks obstruct the view of the cards on the other side) – we just chose to move these two decks/piles off the board.

As I thought when I first heard of Helsinki, I like it a lot; and I like it more than its predecessor, Copenhagen.  For me, the added bit of mental gymnastics needed for this game puts it right in my sweet spot.  It’s probably too complicated now to bring out with casual gamers (for that group, we’ll still play Copenhagen), but for a more gamer-y crowd, this will do nicely.  It’s still a super-filler in complexity; but one that has a bit more meat on its bones than its predecessor.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Dan B. (1 play): I thought Copenhagen was OK but dull, so I was looking forward to this game which in theory would be more interesting. Unfortunately, it just adds some complexity without really making it better. Having to collect so many cards to play so few pieces (relatively speaking) just strikes me as repetitious – more so than in Ticket to Ride, which it superficially resembles in this aspect. (The fact that the board play is competitive in TtR probably helps.) Helsinki doesn’t change that. I also didn’t particularly care for the scoring in Copenhagen, and Helsinki is if anything even worse there – the scoring was really boring and anticlimactic. If I play the game again I will use the mini-expansion that adds another way to score, which I doubt will make it great but might help. (The big expansion just adds different tiles, which is fine but isn’t going to change the feel of the game.) That all being said, it’s short enough I wouldn’t object to playing it occasionally.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it.  Dale Y
  • Neutral. Dan B., John P
  • Not for me…

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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