I’m a history buff and read lots of history books, fiction and non-fiction, so it’s no surprise that I gravitate towards historical board games too. To be fair, most of them are only loosely themed for a historical era so playing the game isn’t exactly like attending a graduate lecture about the era.
Still, there’s something compelling about building games themed around, well, building, whether it’s entire civilizations evolving from the stone age thru the information age, small islands going from pastoral to more urban, or even just a few city blocks growing from tenements to skyscrapers reaching far up into the sky. The popular game Alhambra actually has a variant called New York that offers just that, a simple skyscraper placement game and it’s one I enjoy now and again.
When Blue Orange Games introduced another skyscraper building game called New York: 1901 I was most intrigued, and when the company generously sent along a copy, I shanghaied my buddy Steve and we cracked it open for a play a few nights ago and liked it quite a bit once we figured out the ambiguities in the rules.
In fact, every gamer knows that good rules can make or break a game and that there’s a reason that many games come with long, detailed rules: ambiguity and lack of clarity can be a real drag when you’re trying to win!
The basic idea of New York: 1901 is straightforward, and I’ll explain it with some photos. First off, here’s a closeup of the game board in play:
You can see that buildings are presented by cardboard tiles in various sizes and shapes. Note also that different tiles have different numbers representing how many points they’re worth once built.
A look from above shows how a block is broken down into lots, a critical facet of the game:
This block represents 9 squares that are split into four lots, a three-square lot (with the flower graphics), and three two-block lots. The small starter buildings easily fit onto a two-square lot but winning the game involves acquiring multiple adjacent lots so you can build larger skyscrapers that require 3, 4, 5 or more squares.
Each player has their own set of buildings that go from bronze to silver to gold (as denoted subtly by the background on the point value indicator on each building). You can see what blue has left in this photo:
The key question is how do you acquire lots and what’s important to know is that unlike in real life, once you acquire a lot, it’s yours for the rest of the game, so part of New York: 1901 is a straight out land grab: if you want to be able to build the really big high point value buildings, you’ll need a bunch of lots!
Constraining your ownership are the four plastic “worker” tokens: when you acquire a lot, you must immediately build on it or place a worker there. Once your four workers are on the board, you cannot acquire additional building lots until you build more. And the lots you can acquire are further constrained by the property cards, of which you can pick only one per turn. You can see them in this photo:
Pick the leftmost and it will let you take possession of an unoccupied blue two-square lot somewhere on the board. That’s most of the game explained, with the exception of rebuilding. Each turn you can either acquire and build or you can rebuild, which involves pulling down the existing building you have on the lot (or lots) in question and replacing it with a more advanced (bronze -> silver -> gold) building. In this way you can score multiple times on the same lot, but be judicious as each time you demolish a building it goes out of play for the remainder of the game.
The board has a scoring track around the edges and there are also “Legendary Skyscrapers”, one of which you can see at the corner of Nassau and Liberty on the lower left of this photo:
As I said, once we got the basic rhythm of the game and understood the nuances of worker placement and building across multiple lots, we enjoyed this fun, light game, though as is our wont, it’s quite possible we were overthinking each move as we assessed what buildings we had available, what we thought the other player was poised to build, etc.
There are a few additions to the game too, notably that you get bonus points for having the most buildings on certain streets (randomly chosen each game), something that helped me win our first play. There are also more advanced rules that can keep the game fresh after a dozen or two plays, though we haven’t gotten that far as of yet.
What confused us most of all in the rules was the question of whether you could acquire and then immediately build on a lot, or whether you can only build on lots acquired in previous rounds. Turns out that after a discussion with the developer, we learned that you can indeed immediately build, but the limitation is that you can’t acquire multiple adjacent lots if you just keep building as far as you can. Patience is a virtue in New York: 1901.
In fact, designer Chenier Le Salle has made an additional set of example moves available as a PDF download from BoardGameGeek.com, something worth grabbing if you want to ensure you’re playing the game as it’s intended to be played.
Once we figured out the gameplay we agreed it was a fun, light game. Spend a few minutes ensuring you fully grasp the rules and nuances, and this really can be a 30-45 minute game with a few friends or family members, even smart tweens or younger children. My 11yo will certainly enjoy this one once I can get her to play something other than Lords of Waterdeep, her current favorite!
Disclosure: Blue Orange Games sent us a copy of New York: 1901 for the purposes of this review.