It’s not often I write about a game that is nigh on impossible to get your hands on, but I’m afraid to say that today is one of those occasions. There are so few boxes of Alban Viard’s Town Center out there that digging up a bucket of rocking horse poop would probably be an easier task than sourcing a copy of your own. Originally released in a ridiculously limited format in early 2012, the second edition of 100 was released at this year’s Essen fair. Replacing the teeny 8mm wooden cubes of the first version with much more stackable Lego 4-blocks, copies were already changing hands for decent money during the event; within twenty minutes of picking mine up (#43, fact fans!), I’d been offered hard cash and enticing trades three times, but there was no way I was letting that box go.
As it turned out, my first play of Town Center (in the lobby of the Motel One along with some other attendees of Spiel) didn’t go well. The rules weren’t spectacularly clear, we were all pretty tired after the long day… it was met with a general feeling of ‘is that it?’, something I really wasn’t expecting. Thankfully I had an interview scheduled with Alban the following day and he was able to clear up some questions I had regarding play. Now, knowing what I’m doing – and more importantly, I can explain it simply to others – I can see why this little game was stuck in my mind. Whether you’re playing it solo or with friends, Town Center is a ball of mathy, thinky joy.
The premise is simple, with players drawing cubes (or in the second edition’s case, those Lego blocks) from a bag. Everyone starts off with a single pinky-purple Town Hall. Green ones are residential, blue ones represent shops and offices are the red ones. Electricity is generated by yellow blocks while black ones serve a dual purpose, either on their own as a parking lot (earning you money) or in a stack that makes an elevator. Having one of these in your little town is important as it allows you to build and expand upwards, not just all over the ground floor.
Town Center shares many aspects with its baby brother, Card City from Ludibay – not surprising as they’re the first two parts of a trilogy of games from Viard. Where Card City works solely in two dimensions, TC adds the third, but the gameplay between the two actually share many elements. At the start of each turn, two blocks are pulled out at random for each player. The puller (technical term) decides how they will be paired up, placing one on top of another, then going round the table the players will grab the blocks they desire, assuming that they’re available. These are then placed into their town, and if certain criteria are met there is the potential for expansion. Blocks will generally have an effect on those that are around them, and it’s this evolution that will hopefully see you pull in big points at the end of the game.
It’s pretty quick playing, especially during the early rounds. When your town gets that bit bigger and you have to start thinking about block placement in three dimensions… well, that’s where things get a bit trickier. A major rule is that you’re not allowed to place blocks next to those of the same colour, including above and below; combine this with the fact that only the centre spaces of your town can start reaching for the skies and you’ll soon realise that you’re limited in where you are allowed to place things.
After ten rounds, the points are tallied. The higher and more expansive your buildings, the more likely you are to take first place, but there are plenty of things in the game that will knock you down a peg or two. Town Center requires a high level of concentration; even a momentary lapse during a round can see you screwing up quite badly, so paying attention to every move you make is a must. Along with the not exactly straightforward and clear rules, my only other issue with the game is that it’s far too simple to make a game-ruining error, especially when you’re working in 3D space. Watch out where you’re putting stuff, particularly in early plays; then you should be grand.
Town Center is not a game for those who love light playing experiences – despite its cutesy look and all those lovely Lego bricks, Viard’s design is deep and wonderfully cerebral. I find myself going back hours after a game, wondering where I could have done better and what errors I made – it really is the kind of game that I can’t shake, and for me that’s an excellent sign. Sure, the rulebook could do with a bit of a run through and a few clarifications would be very helpful indeed, but if you’re unafraid of using your brain in a game, I’d recommend it highly. It’s definitely not a game for everyone, but for fans of number-heavy efforts requiring lots of forward planning, it’s a grand little game. Well, it would be if you could actually buy it, of course.
Town Center was self-published by Alban Viard through AoS Team in 2012. Between one and four people can play and games take around 40-60 minutes. A third edition of the game is potentially on the cards (according to this BGG thread, anyway) along with a mini expansion, so if you’re interested in either keep an eye out on the game’s entry or contact Alban via geekmail!