Review – Cities



Designer Phil Walker-Harding, Steve Finn

Artist Jorge Tabanera Redondo

Publisher Devir

Category Tile-Laying, Family Game

Length 30-75 minutes

Release Date Summer 2024

Player Count 2-4

Price $29.99 MSRP

Phil Walker-Harding has become the king of family-oriented board games the past decade, with hits such as Sushi Go!, Barenpark, Gizmos, and Summer Camp. He’s designed quite a variety of games, but has put the most effort towards tile-laying games. And now he’s teamed up with Steve Finn, famous for the game Biblios, to create the very cleverly-titled tile-layer, Cities. How does it stack up to these designers’ legacies? Let’s take a look!

The central system of Cities is incredibly clever, if not that original. Players have four workers each round, and four areas in which to work, but a player can assign only one worker per area. This means that you might be the first to take a scoring card or tile you really need, but you’ll definitely end up last to take something, and the game is all about these trade-offs. The areas are: a place to take tiles, a place to decorate the tiles with parks and harbors, a place to take stackable building pieces for the city regions, and scoring cards. You need the tiles as the foundation, and the decorations and buildings placed on tiles are most of what score on the scoring cards, as well as on the central achievement board, which is associated with a real life city (and there are several options in the box). I can’t emphasize enough how clever the system is; it’s easily explained yet offers tough choices.

And while the system is great, Cities has some problems that bring it down. First, the 16 available options at the start of the round is a problem for players prone to analysis paralysis, and I found the game took much longer than it should have with four players. Second, while the pieces are clear and functional, the color scheme is somewhat drab and unattractive. But even if you think it’s beautiful (and maybe you do!), the third issue is the biggest: the scoring cards.

I have said for a long time that a card-driven game system hinges not only on the rules setup, but the text that’s on the cards. Ideally, you have a very simple ruleset where the cards work together to bring the fun (I’m thinking of card combo games like Dominion and Res Arcana). Of course, here we are just talking about scoring cards, but Cities could learn a lesson from these other games. The best design is when the cards are distinct, but work together in ways that are “slant” to each other, not directly opposed nor identical. For example, if you had a card that said “score for every tower of 3+ green pieces” and “score for every set of pieces, 1 of each color,” you could work on those at the same time, and I think those are actually both in the set of scoring cards, which is good, for the most part, the scoring deck is a huge disappointment in this regard.

Many of the scoring cards are completely opposed to each other (“score for exactly 2 green pieces on a building tile” vs. “score for 4 pieces on a building tower”), or they are duplicates that completely align. And with one scoring card face down each round, a lot of it comes down to luck of the draw. I don’t mind luck in general, but the issue is heightened by the fact that the scoring cards are either amazing together or terrible. It also just eliminates opportunities for clever play, by trying to combine goals in unexpected ways. I understand that they likely wanted to make the game accessible for new players, and you can also score in other ways like the achievement board, but this is still a huge design oversight.

Cities is a tight enough design with a strong enough pedigree that it will probably sell okay, so it’s useless for me to imagine some sort of future reprint or re-implementation. I can get past the analysis paralysis issues by playing with the right people, and I can tolerate the color scheme. But I would hope to see an expansion with a much better scoring card deck before I thought it was worth going back to this one, but by then, it will be out of my mind. There are much better tile-layers out there, such as this year’s Harmonies. That game, by way, has the “slant” goal card design with its animal cards that I am so frustrated not to see here, letting your tasks overlap in surprising and unique ways. Perhaps Cities will learn that lesson in future content, but I’m amazed that it wasn’t already learned. 

The Bottom Line

A very clever concept, poorly implemented.



Author: Derek Thompson

I’ve been a board game reviewer on Geeks Under Grace since 2011. I love card-driven games and party games. I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics and teach the subject at Taylor University in Upland, IN. My wife and kids are my favorite gaming partners.