Forbidden City by Reiner Knizia has a gorgeous box cover. It conjures up an idea of growing the Forbidden City into this architectural beauty. In reality, however, you are going to be putting bland tiles with bland men on them to score points. The fact that we go from one to the other is such a disappointment and unfortunately, the rest of the game doesn’t hold up well either. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
In Forbidden City, players are playing the role of advisors to the emperor, in a very roundabout way. To gain favour with the emperor, you need to have most of your men in a given room at one time – presumably, this gives them the most sway/votes/chattering heads. Each turn you are going to take one of your tiles and place it anywhere into the ever-growing Imperial Temple. These tiles are all different parts of a room and can include anything up to an including, walls, men, a dragon or nothing.
The only rules for placing walls is that you cannot attach two colour rooms together (there are four colours in total) and a tile must border another tile. The aim here is to grow rooms full of your advisors and then close them off to gain, what the game delightfully refers to as, Chinese coins or points. You gain Chinese coins equal to the size of your room and the size and any finished or unfinished rooms it is joined via a doorway, and a bonus 3 points for each dragon included in this count. If you have the second most advisors, then you get half that number of points or Chinese coins. Play continues until the last two tiles and you gain bonus points if either of these has advisors or dragons on. The person who has the most Chinese points is the winner.
The thing that will strike you are you build out Forbidden City, is that this is a very ugly game. That cover will lull you into a false sense of security before hitting you with bland tiles of the same man in different coloured robes. While at the same time feeling the need for a 3D middle token that represents some kind of tower? I don’t know what it is but I feel the whole game could be on much smaller tiles and the fact that they are so bland would have been far less noticeable.
This blandness means that whatever thematic overlay there was meant to be on the game, is lost. You really are just placing tokens to get the most of your colour to gain points. There is nothing else to it really. With three or four players, there is a little back and forth for first and second position to be the owner of the room and there can be some interesting tactical play as you close off rooms early or sneak in a second-place for some extra points. However, the scope of choices given to you is pretty limited and there is often just a flat out better option at all times. This leads to a game that feels very rote and like the order of your tiles decides how many points you’ll achieve. While this is obviously not the case, you will still run into situations where you will draw a tile that is not helpful to you at all and have a wasted turn.
On the flip side of this, are the two-player games. These are even worse. While there they are more tactical as you only have one other person’s decisions and placement to concern yourself with – meaning you can more easily plan turns ahead. However, since you have no idea what your tiles are, it’s not really being worth making plans any more complex than, “I’ll make a big room here”. And even this simple strategy is fraught with trouble as now only one other person is jostling for second place in each room. This means that you can run into a situation where you spend several turns making a room, only to have the other player places a single tile and get half of those points.
This means the Forbidden City is not satisfying to play. It doesn’t make you want to try a different strategy or see if things could have turned out differently. Instead, it feels like the outcome is chance-based and rather than clever strategies, cheap moves are rewarded.
If you enjoy tile-laying games, then you might get something out of Forbidden City. However, there will never be a situation where I would play this over Carcassonne – a game that takes roughly the same time, has similar but better decisions to make and actually looks nice on the table.
Thank you to Jumbo Games for sending me a free review copy of Forbidden City. If you would like a more positive board game article, then check out why I think Dice Fishing is great or why I think Raid on Takao came close to brilliance.
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