Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Unplugged Dilintia: Sim City The Card Game

I have a love/hate relationship with trading card games. I am completely in love with the idea of an expandable, customizable card game, but I hate the transparent money-grubbing nature of it all. The Sim City Trading Card Game is a perfect demonstration of everything I enjoy and loathe about the genre.

The game first came out in 1995, right around the time Magic The Gathering was starting to enjoy its breakout success and everyone else was like, "Huh, better get in on that!" So there was a flood of trading card games around that time, most of them in the same vein as Magic -- fill a deck with creatures, send them out to kill your opponent, and so on. The first time I'd ever heard of the game was when I was in high school, and one of my nerdy friends brought in a CCG magazine to show off to everyone. As I leafed through it, the words "SIM CITY" jumped out at me, so I read the little blurb about it. Basically, the reviewer just didn't get it; you play from a common deck, the cards are all pictures of buildings, the players work together on the same city -- how does that add up to make a CCG?

"Huh," I thought. "I wonder how that works."

Some fourteen years later, I finally found out.

I recently attended a convention where I found a table that was playing the Sim City card game. Finally, here was my chance to see what it was like.

And I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

There were five of us playing all together, and we all really got into it. The game went on well past the time it was scheduled for, and we basically ended up staying until the guy running the game had to do something else. I was a little sore when I ended up in dead last place thanks to three tornadoes that were unleashed, but other than that, I really fell in love with the game.

I talked with a friend of mine about how much I had enjoyed the game, and he surprised me by sending me all of his old Sim City cards that he no longer wanted -- eight factory-sealed starter decks. I found twenty-four booster packs on eBay to add to the collection, and now I find myself in possession of a trading card game for the first time ever.

I've had some time to myself with it to take a closer look. Here's what I've found.

How Does This Even Work?

The basic idea, of course, is that all of the players are building a city together. The surface you're playing on defines the "landform", and the cards represent a block of land. Everyone draws from the same deck and plays into the same city. Cards have information such as zone designation, how many sims they house or how many sims they employ, land value, crime, pollution, and which utilities they provide -- road, rail, and power connections.

Unlike in the computer game, players receive money for every block they play; it's more like the players represent land developers who profit from the city's development. So the object of the game is to reach a certain dollar value before your opponents.

The strategy of the game comes from the bonuses that blocks give to each other. If you add to a large group of zones (Residential, Commercial, Industrial) or to a large complex of interrelated buildings (Agriculture, University, Airport), you get a bonus based on the size of the group. On top of that, many blocks have bonuses (and sometimes penalties) that relate to other nearby blocks. For example, a Forest will increase the value of any Residential card played after it if it's within a two-block radius. Conversely, the Rhine Castle card states that you'll receive a one-time bonus if you place it next to a river (but not if you later place a river next to the Rhine Castle). Cards that employ sims, especially Commercial and Industrial blocks, must connect by road or rail (but not both) to Residential blocks that have a high enough population to act as a workforce; otherwise, they can't be played.

There's not a lot of "real" simulation going on in the card game, at least not in the same sense as the PC game; population is strictly a function of how many sim-providing cards have been played, the improvement and decline of each block is strictly a function of what the players choose to play, and so on. But the way the rules have been set up, with the dependencies between different city fixtures, you really do get this feeling of organic growth as the game goes on if players are playing intelligently and cooperating. Farms, universities, wetlands, residential sectors; all of these different regions sort of slowly grow and develop throughout the game. It's kind of satisfying to watch in the same way that the PC game is.

Progress in the PC game -- as far as the "level" of your city -- is generally judged by population. And while the card game uses population as one factor in determining how the city is growing, the rules seem to be more about the passage of time, and the cards you are allowed to play depend on what "era" your city is currently in. You begin with a Settlement, and most of the blocks are going to be low-tech -- farms, general stores, country schoolhouses, and so on. When you move on to Town, you start to get more suburban-style residences, some production industries, city services like police and fire departments. Then a power plant is built, which moves you into the City phase, which offers lots of opportunities for expansion and lucrative developments, until finally you reach Metropolis phase, where you can start playing the "long cards" that basically serve the same functions as the "Top" zone developments from the SNES game.

And in the City phase, politics start to become important to the game. One player becomes the Mayor, and players can play City Council cards that they draw to increase their voting power. Votes are typically called when players want to rezone areas of the city, which can be a big deal if you run out of room to play on your table. The downside of being the Mayor is that any time someone plays a disaster card, the Mayor has to pay for the damage.

There's also a single-player variation where you try to deal out your deck into a city with the highest score possible. And that's a lot more fun than I expected it to be. I'll play a solitaire game where the only objective is to get a high score if the way you earn it is interesting, and that's certainly the case with Sim City. You can build a deck for yourself and keep track of what kind of score you can get with it, then build a different deck and see what kinds of scores you can get for that one. I really get into that kind of thing.

So that's the game in a nutshell. It's fun. If you don't enjoy the PC game for whatever reason, the card game probably isn't going to wow you, but it's an entertaining take on the concept in a new medium.

There are a couple problems that are unique to the game. For one thing, just the cards themselves. They use a color code scheme to indicate some of a card's attributes -- zoning group and phase -- but the colors they chose are kind of dumb. Depending on the lighting in your room and your level of colorblindness, it can sometimes be difficult to tell commercial, industrial, and city service cards apart. Yes, you can figure it out from context by reading the name of the building and looking at the picture, but surely the point of a color code is to make it easy to tell cards apart at a glance. On top of that, they added green or blue borders to all of the cards which serve no purpose whatsoever. (Except, it seems, to really confuse people who are learning the game.)

And I sort of get the feeling that the rules didn't spend a lot of time in development. There's just little bits here and there, like in the descriptions for Solitaire and Dueling Suburbs variations, where they're just like, "Ummm... If you guys have any suggestions for how to improve this, you know, let us know." And reading some forum posts about the game, I see people suggesting work-arounds to try and make the game more playable. For instance, the idea of dividing the deck into cards by phase and letting players choose which part of the deck to draw from to alleviate the early part of the game where you keep drawing cards that you just can't play.

This Section is More a Complaint About Trading Card Games in General

See, I really get into the customization aspect of a CCG, and Sim City really demonstrates those strengths. Building a deck is fun. You can come up with a theme for your city and stack it with cards that reflect the theme you're going for: a sleepy farming town, a suburb, a university town, a metropolis -- there's a lot of variety in the cards and a lot of possible theme decks that you can make. I totally enjoy that.

But I just can't get behind the CCG distribution model.

There are so many cards that have bonuses based on their interdependency -- certain businesses improve other, related businesses in the area; some cards can only be played beside or on top of specific kinds of cards; certain cards fit together to form a Complex of related structures and areas. The problem is, if you don't have the related cards, it kind of takes the fun out of the ones you have. I have a couple cards that are designated as an Airport, for example, but I don't have enough to make an Airport Complex. Well, sucks to be me!

I totally get that the idea is to screw the customers over and make them fork out for some randomly-assembled booster packs in the hopes that maybe they'll get one or two new cards, but that's so unfair to your customers, and when you've got a game that turned out to be as unpopular as Sim City, maybe it would have been a better idea to be nice to your customers? I mean, you open up a Starter Deck, and there isn't even a guarantee that you'll have the right cards to play a game with it. For instance, the transition from Phase II to Phase III is marked by playing a power plant, but your deck may not even come with one! The rulebook has a placeholder that can act like a power plant in that case, but that's still kind of weak.

Here's how I would have wanted to see Sim City work. It starts with a Basic Deck, a sort of generic, balanced everytown-themed deck. And then you could add expansion packs to it -- the University set, the Oil Refinery set, the Agricultural set, the Residential set, and so on. You could still make an interesting, expandable card game and at the same time let your customers know exactly what they're getting. That's one of the things I really liked about Heroscape.

I guess it's all sort of a moot point by now. All in all, pretty cool game. It breaks the mold, and it manages to capture a little bit of the magic of the PC game in a fairly unexpected format. Kudos to Mayfair games; sorry it didn't catch on.


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