City of the Big Shoulders Impressions

January 21, 2020

by Ambie Valdés
Note: I received a free review copy of City of the Big Shoulders from Parallel Games.

It’s not really a secret that I’m into economic games and 18xx games. When I read the rules to City of the Big Shoulders, an economic game with stock holding, worker placement, and factory production, it sounded a lot like a mix between Arkwright and 18xx to me. Since I love both of those, I was excited to try out City of the Big Shoulders.

The game comes in a sleeve!

The game has five rounds, or decades, that each have five phases - the Stock Phase, Building Phase, Action Phase, Operating Phase, and Cleanup Phase. If you’ve played 18xx games, then the Stock Phase will sound familiar to you. You can start up companies and buy and sell shares in any company. Whoever has the most shares in a company is that company’s president and has control over what the company does. In the Building Phase, each player has a hand of 3 buildings and chooses one to place on the board as their action space. During the Action Phase, players send their partners (meeples) out to the different action spots to perform actions for their company, such as acquiring resources, hiring workers, or automating their factories. But if you go to a space that belongs to another player, then that player gets money. In the Operating Phase, companies produce and sell their goods. Each company has different rules for producing goods, but you generally need to consume resources and have workers in order to produce them. Then when selling goods, the company can either pay out that money to shareholders and have their stock price increase, or keep the money in the company and have their stock price decrease. At the end of the game, shares that players hold are worth the final stock price, and the player with the most money wins.

The game set up for two players

My thoughts:
Before playing City of the Big Shoulders, I had heard lots of opinions on how it wasn’t an 18xx game and how people were disappointed because of that. Also after reading the rules, it sounded very different from the 18xx games I usually play, since it doesn’t have any notion of train rusting. But it sounded like it would be more similar to Arkwright, another economic game that I really enjoy. So I was still excited to play it. Unfortunately, due to the timing of my giving birth to twins, it was difficult for me to get it played at higher player counts. I was able to play it a couple times at two players. Since we’ve played a lot of economic games, we went straight to playing the advanced version (which allows you to transfer ownership of companies and issue shares to fundraise in the companies).

There are ten different companies in the game, each with factories that produce in a certain industry

I like the building and action phases of the game. Getting to choose one new action to place on the board each decade makes the action phase more interesting. It was fun deciding whether to choose actions I wanted to use myself or more expensive actions that other people might want to use so that I would get more money. It reminds me of the action buildings in Le Havre, another game I really enjoy. And for the most part, the amount of actions scaled well with the amount of workers we had in the game at that time. I needed to think about which actions to take in which order, since I both needed to make sure I could get everything done that I wanted, and also make sure that the other player(s) didn’t take the spots I needed.

Some action spaces end up getting used a lot, which can get you a good amount of money if you placed it!

There is also a fair amount of planning ahead. You can save as many resources that you want, so you can buy resources ahead of time since you know exactly how many resources of each type you’ll need to operate your factories. This is both good and bad - I like being able to plan ahead and get the resources ahead of time, but being prepared also made the final decade not as tense as the rest of the game.

Factories need resources and workers (or automated workers) to run their factories and produce goods

In order to get resources, there’s a resource track on the board with a few cubes randomly placed in each of three spots - priced at $10, $20, and $30 each. When a company buys all the cubes in a spot, they shift over and refill. But if the spot isn’t empty, then there will be no refills. This makes for a tense two-player experience, especially in the first round. Whichever company goes first has the opportunity to deny the other company getting the resources it needs by buying all except one cube from the cheaper spots. This makes the appeal track (which determines the operating order of the companies) very important early on. It is also very important to note which colored resources are available when you start a company, so that you can have a good chance of being able to operate your factories. Since everyone has to start a company in the first round, your value is very closely tied to that company and you need to make sure it does well.

The $10 resource space doesn’t get refilled between turns unless it’s empty

One thing I don’t particularly like are the demand tiles. It’s hard not to compare it with Arkwright, since the manipulation of the supply and demand by the players is one of my favorite things about Arkwright. In contrast, players have no control over what the demand is in City of the Big Shoulders, so instead they make decisions based on how the tiles and resources have randomly been assigned. It’s a very different feeling that I don’t like as much. Also, in the games I played the demand fizzled out at the end of the game as the tiles ran out, which made it a little anticlimactic.

By the end of our first game, demand was completely filled

Another thing I don’t like is the stock market. To me, the game feels like an engine building economic game with a stock market pasted on. In my plays, the stock market didn’t make the game more fun for me, but it added a lot of extra time. In 18xx games, I enjoy the stock markets because companies have liabilities, and in City of the Big Shoulders this isn’t the case - the stock market is just for investing in companies that keep paying out. We did find reason to sell shares to start up new companies, but that didn’t add much excitement to our games, and I would have preferred the game to be shorter and not include a Stock Phase. Granted, with more players the cross-investing might be more interesting, but there is still the lack of liabilities.

Also, there are game end bonuses that didn’t seem to add much to the game in our two player games. In our games, the amount of actions in the beginning of the game was just enough to be running your companies, so we didn’t have time to go specifically for game end bonuses until the last round. By that point it just felt like doing actions for the sake of doing them, and it didn’t feel fun for me. Plus, the bonuses are all for having a majority of something, which means you’re already doing well because of that. So for me the bonuses don’t feel necessary.

The rulebook is a little confusing and it was difficult to look up rules, but I was able to learn how to play from reading it. There are also some confusing iconography choices on the board. The salespeople and manager meeple colors (light brown and dark brown) are very similar on the board and pieces, so it got annoying having to compare the colors each time one came up. But otherwise the components are very nice. The board and tiles are all really good quality, and the artwork gives a good feeling of factories and companies.

The game comes with paper money, but we used poker chips since there are so many transactions (similar to an 18xx game)

Overall, the game is a decent economic game. But since the game takes 2-3 hours to play, I don’t see myself playing it again. For the engine building feel, I’d rather play a quicker game like Imperial Settlers. For the 2-3 hour manufacturing game, I much prefer Arkwright and its supply and demand mechanism. And I can also play some 18xx games in 3 hours if I want an 18xx game. Unfortunately, although City of the Big Shoulders tries to put together parts of games I really like, the final product for me is mediocre when I compare it to the other games.

As a note, the copy I received was a Kickstarter copy and included the expansion. I did not play the expansion, but the expansion has some companies that each have special powers/rules, and it also comes with upgraded components (tokens and money cards).

Unboxing - really nice components

  • Very nice components
  • Player aids are really useful
  • Getting to choose the action spots in the Building Phase is interesting
  • The worker placement in the Action Phase is tense
  • Lots of planning ahead
  • Nice engine building

  • Random demand tiles and resources makes for more tactical than strategic gameplay
  • Potential for screwing over other players in buying resources

  • Rulebook is difficult to reference
  • The colors of the salespeople and managers on the board and tiles are difficult to differentiate
  • Some confusing reference iconography on the board
  • Lots of money handling lengthens the game time
  • Stock Market and game end bonuses don’t add much for me (but may be better at 3-4 players)

If you’re interested in City of the Big Shoulders, it is currently sold out but I believe another version will be coming out soon, so keep an eye on Parallel Games.

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