It's been a while since I've posted but it's good to be back at it. Recently, after a hard day's work at the fiendly local game store where I'm employed, a couple of friends of mine agreed to stay afterwards and play a game with me. One of them had just bought the game "La Citta" and was anxious to try it out:
It's currently ranked number 72 on BoardGameGeek and it's pulling a rating of about 7.5 out of 10 in its rankings. That seems like a pretty safe bet to make if you're going to purchase a game before playing it. Well, he opened up the game, read through the rules, and off we were.
After about 20 minutes into the hour long game, we came up against a fundamental aspect of the game's design that illustrated a glaring problem. Even though La Citta isn't a player elimination game, the mechanics result in quasi player elimination (you're not out of the game, but after a certain critical point, you no longer have any realistic shot at winning). This problem only became worse as the game progressed.
It's a simple matter of there being an inherent problem with any game (note: any game) where the possibility exists for more than two players to play the game and where the game implements a resource attrition mechanic that is dependent on direct player interaction as the main source of points. This is because of basic triangulation attrition issues that can take either one of two possible forms:
1. Player A and Player B beat each other up while Player C waits, remains strong, and then, once both of the other players are sufficiently weak, comes in and cleans up.
2. Player A gets an advantage over Player C. Then Player B joins in and beats up on Player C because Player C can't fight back now and it's more advantagous to pile on Player C than to attack Player A as Player A is a more formidable direct opponent, thus putting Player C out of contention at a certain point and making the rest of the game tedium for that player.
In games with only two players, resource attrition due to direct player interaction is perfectly fine. War games are all about resource attrition (the resources being troops). It's when you introduce a third player into the mix that it becomes a problem.
In La Citta, the second of those two dynamics I just discussed is at work. If player C finds his citizens being sucked out of one of his cities early by player A, player C becomes an easy target for player B as well. This is because limited citizens limits the number of colors that the city can develope and, thus, limits that city's abilities to suck citizens out of other cities. Because of these mechanics, there is no real incentive for player B to not take advantage of the situtation. Thus, the game can very quickly devolve into an exercise in pillaging the guy who got picked on early simply because there's no real incentive not to do it.
What this creates is a situation in which player C can never recover because, once you're down, there's not really a viable way to get back up in this game (assuming the maraudering players have taken steps to account for growth of their cities via markets, public baths, and having enough food to feed the new citizenry). This is because once a city has been robbed of citizens enough times early on in the game, it becomes nothing more than a source of easy citizens/VP's for the other players who will already have larger cities with multiple colors developed. Those larger cities will tend to suck away citizens from the smaller city consistently before that smaller city is ever able to reach a critical mass of functional competitiveness.
It's a classic case of the "rich get richer" while the "poor get poorer". This results in a broken game where the basic reward system inherent in the game design motivates me as a player to help contribute to a situation where another player is having to suffer through the game even though he knows after some early events that he has no shot at winning. Either that or it creates a situation where I'm the one suffering through tedium. These criticisms wouldn't necessarily apply as strongly in a 4 or 5 player game as there are enough other players to possibly "cannibalize" each other and keep one person from developing a massive city.
The problem might not be so critical if citizens were simply lost out of a city. (i.e. a player is having a net loss of -1 citizen when losing one). However, because a citizen switches places from the losing city to the winning city, it's a net swing of 2 (-1 for player A, +1 for player B). The game implements a food/feeding-your-people mechanic that should make it harder to accomodate a larger number of citizens but, if the player is savy, he or she can account for that somewhat easily and still keep their city sufficiently large to suck points out of the small city managably. Granted, you could "house rule" the game into playability by changing some of the basic aspects of the game play but that's not the state one wants a game to be in when one purchases a game.
None of us at the table could believe that a game that's been around for so long and was published by a respectable company like Rio Grande was so fundamentally flawed. Granted, the one who had purchased the game had read some feedback on BoardGameGeek about it and he indicated before we started the game that, in the past, it was noted that the game had a runaway leader problem that was supposedly fixed. Well, it wasn't fixed. It can't be fixed when the basic system of the game is the inherent problem. If points were awarded independent of resources switching hands, then you've got a game that might work - but this game's system simply isn't sound.
This issue of triangulation in relation to resource attrition is the same thing that makes Risk a game that is, in my opinion, a fundamentally broken game. It suffers from the first possible scenario I listed above: that of one player waiting while two other players slug it out and weaken each other - thus allowing the third player to more easily come in and clean up.
What defies my understanding is how La Citta has achieved such a high rating on BGG. As I glanced through the comments made by various people who had rated it, there were some comments acknowledging problems with the game even though the ones making those comments had rated it a 10.
Ultimately, La Citta was an exercise in tedium for one of the players and offered an unrewarding victory to one of the other players. I'm personally glad I didn't ever consider buying this game and that I was allowed to try it because of another player's copy. Unfortunately, that other player is now looking for a way to get rid of it (like Ebay or at BGG's marketplace).