We Came, Warsaw, We Played — Warsaw: City of Ruins review

I try very hard to be a board game player, not a board game collector. But, I have a few blind spots. For instance, if I see a board game on a shelf with a Walt Disney Parks attraction as its thematic presentation, my head will always do a double take. Same goes for games about the Pelican state, or games about baseball, or games with whales.

But my biggest challenge in trying not to become a collector is this strange attraction I have to games with the name of a city in the title. It might be because my dad raised us seven kids to love travel, and we were always staring at maps and roadway signs showing the next big town. Maybe because when we travel in Europe, we think in terms of “let’s visit Florence” or “we need to check out Segovia again” rather than the specific country. More than likely, it’s because I’ve spent most of my adult life living in college towns, and romanticize about life in big cities that I’ve seen in the rom-coms that I like to watch.

But whatever the reason, I got really excited when I was able to track down a copy of Warsaw: City of Ruins from NorthStar Games at Dice Tower East Con. I knew from online reviews that it had tableau / city building, and an interesting use of actual buildings in the city to show the growth of the city through two different world wars.

I was honestly surprised by the game. Judging by the cover, and even from the box description of the theme, I wasn’t expecting such a tight experience. But, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Warsaw: City of Ruins is a two-to-four player tile laying and drafting game designed by Filip Milunski with art by Tytus Brzozowski and Grzegorz Molas.

In Warsaw, players help build the city, which in this case builds into a 4×3 grid of thick, chunky tiles. Players will draft tiles from a hand dealt to them each round over six ages, using the “pick one and pass the rest” familiar to anyone who has played 7 Wonders or Sushi Go, and play them into their tableau, if they can afford to pay the cost printed on the tile, of course. The tiles themselves are abstracted to represent various types of buildings — residential areas, business districts, parks, etc. — or actual buildings from Warsaw’s history.

That was plus number one for me. The fact that the publisher used illustrations of the actual buildings with their actual hard-for-Americans-to-pronounce names and including a little blurb about them in the back of the rulebook got me juiced up to play.

My wife and I dove into this game numerous times since we brought it into the collection, and one of the reasons for the multiple plays is because it is so easy to get into. Shuffle up six stacks of tiles, which are color coded and numbered into six progressively more powerful ages, give each player a starting tile and some moolah, and put your mermaid statute on space number one and you are ready to proceed.

Well, there is one more thing, and this is what separates the game from other city builders. There are five monuments that are double sided and represent the first five ages in the game. We grab them one by one and flip them high into the air — whichever way they land, that’s what monument we will play. These five monuments are goals for each player to meet during that age. Best the other player in that goal, and you get to add that monument to your tableau for free.

You want to add these monuments because generally speaking they break the game for you in terms of scoring points. In fact, getting a monument can kind of steer how you will develop your city during the game, so choosing which ones to win (you know the five monuments and the order they are coming up even before you start to play) is an important strategic element.

My wife really digs the way the economy works too. The different colored tiles each give different things to you, but they all cost money to play. How do you earn the money back? Two ways, one obvious and one pretty subtle. At the end of each round is an income phase, and some of the tiles give either points or money back to you depending on your placement of the buildings. For instance, putting residential areas next to parks is going to be very beneficial to any city, and that’s thematically grounded in the game. If you’re out of money, you can even burn a tile to the discard for three coins (unless you happen to have Sigesmund’s Column like I did in one of our recent games:)

That’s all pretty straightforward and expected. The subtle way is to “overbuild.” Players can plop more expensive buildings over tiles that are already built, and use the original cost to offset the new one. We didn’t see the importance of overbuilding in our very first game, because we were too busy learning the tiles and the pace of play. But in later games, overbuilding and planning that out to effectively limit how much money you need to spend each age is a good strategy to make sure you have access to lots of cash in the final round. Money is not only useful for buying victory points in the end game, but having lots of it helps you get those super expensive point scoring tiles in the sixth age.

Besides, the tableau is tight. You are adding lots of tiles each round, but you only have 12 spots to play (unless you get that sneaky tile that my wife loves which lets you expand your city further out). Overbuilding not only keeps more cash in your coffers, but also helps you deal with those stringent space limits.

I normally love little wooden pieces representing stuff like points, and despite this being a euro, there’s nary a wooden piece to be found. But that’s okay. I like the fact that in Warsaw the publisher included four plastic mermaid standees to represent each player’s points on the board. Not only do the mermaids look cool, and different from most other euros, but they also harken back to some of the lore and legends in the city’s history. Nice touch, there.

What has kept the game so fresh for us? What makes us keep going back to it, when it is essentially a pretty standard tile laying tableau building economic city game? I’ll give you three reasons:

  • First, five monuments combo differently every time due to the random nature of the start game. Planning out how you meet those goals when they aren’t the same every game (and in some ways, can conflict) is a good exercise.
  • Second, there are two ages that represent the two world wars. In each, you will lose one or two building tiles respectively (again unless you have a way to mitigate that loss). That’s another combination of strategy and tactics that keeps the game experience new each time.
  • And finally, the tiles themselves are so smartly connected with little combos that build off each other. There are a ton of tiles, and poking around those combos to find one that just sings by the sixth age is so satisfying.

This game is not for everyone, naturally. There’s not a lot of player interaction. The game economy can be really tight for new players, who struggle to understand how important getting that engine of points and money is in the first two rounds. Knowing when and what to build and what to throw away are tough decisions that might give some players AP. And, of course, not everyone will be fans of the pick-and-pass drafting style in the game, even though it is one of my personal favorite mechanics.

But if you like tableau / engine builders, and want something different than the usual buy-a-card-in-the-market game, check out Warsaw: City of Ruins.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ from Board Game Gumbo

One thought on “We Came, Warsaw, We Played — Warsaw: City of Ruins review

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  1. Funny you should post about this game. I saw a couple of copies of it at our local Half Price Books (where I found Nuns on the Run). It looked interesting, but I passed on it at the time. I may have to go back this weekend and see if a copy is still there.

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