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[Review] San Francisco

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Joined: 03/23/2011

When I first saw San Francisco (Amigo, 2000 – Andreas Wetter and Thorsten Loppman), it was in a review in GAMES magazine, and I wasn’t really that interested. There was nothing about the game that looked spectacular, and subsequent comments on the web cemented my opinion that the game probably wouldn’t be that much fun. Nevertheless, I read a positive review on the game, and it was on sale (a sure fire way to get me interested in the game), so I picked it up and tried it out.

And I was very, very surprised, because I really, really liked this game! I’m a big fan of auctions, and those in this game really please me. There was one glaring component problem, but the remainder of the components were nice, and after one playing, I was quite eager to play again. In subsequent games, I found more and more strategy in the game, and it has become one of my auction games of choice, and one I will often bring to the table. Those I’ve played it with have all complained about the component issue, but also have said that they enjoyed the game and would gladly play it again.

The game comes with a plethora of pieces, but the setup isn’t really that bad. The theme of the game is the rebuilding of San Francisco after the earthquake in 1906. Each player represents an investor (oil, steel, etc.) who is interested in using their support to build the most prestigious districts in the city. The majority of action takes place on a five by six grid of squares representing city districts on the board. Each player receives 15 wooden sticks, 10 influence cards (numbered from “0” to “9”), and three option tiles – all in their color. They also receive 12 checks (cards) worth a total of $590,000. A deck of action cards is shuffled and placed face down on the board, along with a deck of “Request for Bidding” cards. Each player puts a token of their color on two tracks – one at “0” on a victory point track, and one at “30” on an influence track. A pile of district tiles are shuffled and placed randomly around the board, with their number sides facing up – except for the city hall, which always goes in the middle of the board. There are two parks in these tiles, and both have white (neutral) sticks placed on all four sides of them after setup. The oldest player begins, and then play proceeds clockwise around the table.

On a player’s turn, they must turn over the top “Bidding” card, which will then be auctioned off. They may choose to refuse the card, in which case a second card is drawn, which then MUST be auctioned off. The top of the card tells how many districts are being auctioned off, the middle of the card tells what kind of districts, and the bottom reveals what type of auction it will be. Each auction is handled differently:
- When an auction uses checks, each player, starting with the active player, lays a number of checks in front of them, each higher than the player before them. Once a check is bid, the player cannot change it. They can add to their previous bids, or can drop out (a player does not have to bid). The winner (only) pays the checks they bid to the bank.
- When an auction uses influence, each player secretly places one of their influence cards face down on the table. All influence cards are revealed at the same time. Players whose influence numbers are the same cancel each other out. The players who are left win the auction(s) according to influence bid, and must move their influence marker down the track accordingly (players can’t bid more than they have.)
- When bidding with option cards, each player secretly places one of their option tiles face down on the board – and then all are revealed simultaneously. If only one player has shown a certain type of tile (office, industry, or residential), they win the auction for that type. If two or more players put down the same tile, they then place 1-5 money checks in front of them, face down, all of which are revealed at the same time. The higher bidder (both lose in a tie) pays the money and wins the auction.

Depending on the auction, each player who has won places one of their sticks on a road that borders the type of tile shown on the bidding card. It is possible that this gives a player a majority of influence on a district(s). If a player has the most sticks around a block (2 of their color, and 1 of two other players; 3 of their color, and 1 of another player, 2 of their color, 1 neutral, and one of another player, etc.). That tile is then flipped over, and the player with the majority gets the points for the tile. (4, 5, 6, or 10). They then move their victory point token accordingly. If no majority is formed by the placement of sticks, then the next player draws a bidding card, etc.

Whenever a tile is scored – an action card is turned over, and placed on a “year” space on the board – of which there are twelve. Each action card has different results, giving players more money and influence, allowing them to move sticks, etc. After the twelfth action card has been executed, the game ends, and the player with the most victory points is the winner!

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: As I said in the introduction, there are a lot of components in this game, but fortunately there is a wonderful plastic insert in the thematic, sturdy, box. All the tiles, both the players and the districts, are nicely illustrated and of a good thickness. The sticks are nice, and if you run out of them, I guess you could go to your local Settlers of Catan game. The board is fantastic, and really reflects the period settings. The cards – both the influence and checks, are of the highest quality – and they really look good! The artwork on the influence cards show different fictional people, although some of them, like the “mayor”, look like famous characters – i.e. Robert E. Lee. For the most part, the components are just great!

2.) But: There is a rather big problem, however, with the tiles. All of them have some beautiful artwork of different district types – there are six different kinds. On the backs are large numbers, easily showing which district is which – because they all are in different colors. HOWEVER, these numbers are not on the “bidding” cards. When one wants to see which tiles are up for auction, they must compare the pictures. This sounds easier than it is – and it really becomes a pain in the neck. We managed to enjoy the game regardless, but this was a small irritation to me, and a greater irritation to the other players. I thought about marking them with a marker, but didn’t want to ruin the game. I’ll live with it, but it still annoys me that this wasn’t caught in play testing.

3.) Rules: The rules for the game are in German, but there are a couple good translations on the internet – at I found them quite easy to understand, with many full colored pictures and illustrations. There are also quite a few hints and tips about strategy sprinkled throughout the manual. Complete play examples are listed, and gone through – and I had no trouble learning the game. The game isn’t extremely hard to teach, but it did take a while for people to get into the swing of things as can be expected with three different types of auctions. Two variants are also included in the rules, both of which I highly recommend.

4.) Bluffing: Bluffing and guessing other’s bluffs is a major part of this game. Some people are really put off by the fact that three players can bid a “9” influence card, and all cancel each other out, while another player can have bid a “0”, and win. I, however, find this exhilarating, and really enjoy the influence auctions, more so that the other two types. The action cards also add a bit of pressing one’s luck, too. One of them allows players to draw checks from a random pile – where they can draw until they reach $100,000, but if they go over, they lose them all. It adds a slight “Blackjack” feel to the game, and one that causes a lot of yelling and laughter.

5.) Strategy: Most of the strategy lies in the above bluffing, and knowing how to bid in auctions. Other strategy comes in the form of knowing where to place the sticks – but it’s usually rather obvious. The only other important bit of strategy is knowing when to pass up on a “Bidding” card and draw another. The simple fact is, though, that if you don’t like auctions, then this probably isn’t the game for you.

6.) Fun Factor: I really had a lot of fun playing this game, mostly because I love auction games. Those who played also enjoyed it, although most people liked the check auctions more so than the influence auctions. Everyone had a good time, and while this game is not too light, it was still easy enough for teenagers to enjoy and have a good time.

Overall, I was very pleased with the game. If the tiles were fixed, it would probably have made it into my top twenty games. As it is, I really enjoy the bidding, and place this in my top five auction games, one that I will gladly play anytime. Those who complain that the game is just an unholy combination of mechanics of other games fail to realize that the combination actually is a success. The theme is lacking, to be sure, and is rather superficial, but the mechanics are strong – and they and the components really help drive the game’s Fun Factor. If you are looking for a medium weight auction style game, I can think of few better than this one. It plays in about 90 minutes, and is a good centerpiece for many a gaming night. I know it will in my group. If you like auction games – this is a prime one to add to your collection.

Tom Vasel

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