City of the Big Shoulders Review: Warm, Heavy, Sprawling

The year is 1875. The city is Chicago, the city of my dreams. Four years after the great fire, I come to you with nothing but the clothes on my back and $175 in my pocket. My means are meager but my aspirations are large.

“Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders”

– Carl Sandburg

As was Carl Sandburg’s poem a love letter to the city of Chicago, City of the Big Shoulders is a beautiful and accessible ode to 18xx games.

Regarding 18xx Games

For those unfamiliar with the 18xx games, they represent a whole genre of heavy complexity train-themed games. Mechanically, they feature route building, tile laying, and most importantly, stock buying/selling and market manipulation. 18xx games tend to feature highly functional, but in my opinion, unappealing art and design. It’s not uncommon for an 18xx games to take 5 or 6 hours to play. But despite having features that may seem more like inherent turn-offs to new players rather than aspects that make them great, the gameplay of these games is very rich and invigorating.

I had my first experience recently playing 1889. Having recently given birth to twins, my wife graciously afforded me the time and opportunity to play some 18xx for my first Father’s Day.


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Playing 1889 with Alan and Kaon; A rare, aesthetically pleasing version of the game (print and play).

I was fortunate enough to have fantastic teachers, with both players having just wrapped up filming a recent Heavy Cardboard teach and play of the game. Still, even with the great teachers, the tutorial took in the vicinity of 1.5 to 2 hours, and we were sitting with the game for around 6 or 7 hours. Overall, it was a wonderful, brain-burning experience that I instantly wanted more of, but wasn’t sure I would be able to repeat anytime soon as a new father.

Enter City of the Big Shoulders…

Simplifying the game a bit, City of the Big Shoulder (also known as Chicago 1875 in Europe) is a eurogame designed by Raymond Chandler III that borrows the stock mechanics from 18xx games and replaces the route building with worker placement. The player with the most money at the end of the game is the winner. Unlike 18xx titles however, City of the Big Shoulders is pleasing to the eye and only takes about 2.5 hours to play. Let’s chug along…

A 3-player game of City of the Big Shoulders at Brooklyn Game Lab in Tribeca

The game is played over the course of 5 rounds, with each representing a decade. The rounds are composed of 5-phases: Stock Phase, Building Phase, Action Phase, Operation Phase, and Clean Up Phase.

Stock Phase

Reminiscent of 18xx games, City of the Big Shoulders begins with an initial stock phase in which player start their own company. The stock phase is the only real time that players will spend their personal money. Other parts of the game have players spending the money belonging to the companies they have invested in rather than their own.

To start a company, you choose a “par” value. This value represents how much you will invest in order to start the company, how much the shares of that company will initially cost, and how much money the company will have in its treasury. You must buy the Director’s share to float a company, a 30% majority stake represented in a single stock certificate.

There are many companies to choose from in the game, especially if you have the Burden of Destiny expansion. Some of these companies will be unfamiliar as they represent businesses that died out during the Great Depression, but many are very recognizable, classic American brands. Some examples include Spalding, Quaker Oats, Oscar Meyer, and Radio Flyer. Each company has its own unique properties that will impact game strategy and can be leveraged to develop them into highly-profitable machines. In some ways, I actually find picking the companies one of the more challenging aspects of the game, as it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the myriad options.

In subsequent stock phases, you may choose to start additional businesses, sell, and/or buy stock in existing companies. When you sell stock, the share price decreases for each share sold. This is important because in the advanced game, hostile company takeovers and stock dumping is possible. I recommend always playing with these advanced rules, as it gives the game more substance.

I love the buying and selling that goes on in 18xx and that same experience also exists in City of the Big Shoulders.

Building Phase

The next phase involves the placement of building tiles. Building tiles are essentially new worker placement locations that players will choose to add to the board each round.

Players will always have 3 of these tiles in their possession at the start of the phase. One building tile they will choose to keep (and potentially use in another round), one they will discard, and one they will place on the board. These building tiles are almost always enticing and choosing a tile to add to the board makes for some very interesting decisions.

Action Phase

The action phase is the worker placement part of the game. During this time, you will use your “partners” to take actions on the main board. The available action spaces include the buildings that were placed in the previous phase, as well as fixed locations that are always available to everyone and cannot be blocked.

Choose your actions wisely as they will grant you advantages that will give your investments an edge! Some examples include acquiring workers that are required to run your factories, obtaining capital asset tiles to give your companies some extra powers (only applies to some companies), discounts for various things, salespeople that help your companies earn more money, managers that grant your factories bonuses when they produce goods, and a plethora of other desirable things.

You must also be thoughtful with whose buildings your workers visit. Depending on which building action you take, it may result in that player (or their associated companies) earning money. This aspect of the worker placement part of the game adds another layer of deeply satisfying strategy.

If you were to evaluate the game based purely on the worker placement phase, you wouldn’t be disappointed. It’s fantastic! You never feel like you have enough workers to perform every action that you’d like to perform, being first player matters a lot if you want the best building actions, and the whole thing builds upon the economic puzzle that is the rest of the game. It’s just how a worker placement game should feel.

Operating Phase

The operating phase is the part of City of the Big Shoulders that replaces running trains along routes in 18xx games. Instead, you run factories. There are a number of subphases to grok. Let’s explore.

Purchase Resources

The first part of the operating phase will be to purchase raw materials from the Supply Chain area. These resources are necessary in order for your companies to produce goods from their factories.

Every phase has its own method of determining turn order. In the case of the operating phase, turn order is decided by company position on the appeal track. Every company has an initial appeal value that dictates its initial position. Appeal will go up from taking various actions during the course of the game. As your company progresses along the appeal track, it will unlock various bonuses, such as a new partner or a free salesperson. In the games of City of the Big Shoulders that I have played, there was a lot of fluctuation along the track, with players constantly vying to be the first one to purchase resources and unlock appeal bonuses. I was frequently shut out of purchasing a particular color of resource cube in my most recent play, resulting in owning a company that was essentially useless.

Running Factories

After you’ve purchases the raw materials needed to run your factories, you get to actually run them!

All company boards are segmented, with the iconography on very left dictating how much the company will earn for each good that is sold to Demand Tiles. If you have salespeople assigned here, your company may earn even more.

Then, going from left to right, there will be one or more factories. Each factory will have a personnel and goods requirement. In order for your factory to manufacture goods, it must meet these requirements. Once you’ve met the requirements of your first factory, you may produce goods in any factories to right of it. The same rules apply here and you must meet the requirements of those factories in order to produce goods from them.

When you produce goods, you remove any spent resource cubes from your company and place them in Haymarket Square, exchanging them for the indicated number of goods tokens. If you have any managers assigned to these factories, you may unlock bonuses when the factories run in addition to goods.

At various points of the game, you have the opportunity to earn automation tokens, and use them in place of factory workers. If you’ve automated your factory, it has become more efficient and will produce more goods.

Lastly, some companies have a space for capital assets. If you’ve purchased a capital asset tile and placed it on your company board, you can use its special action and reap its benefit (either during the operating or action phases).

Running The Cracker Jack Co.

Selling Goods

Now that your companies have produced goods, you need to sell them for profit.

Every company produces a certain type of good, and must be sold to the associated market. Each type of good will have three Demand Tiles to which they are able to sell their goods.When you complete a Demand Tile in the center or right-most column, you will earn a bonus. Completing Demand Tiles will cause them to be removed from the game and for the other tiles to shift toward the main board. As the game progresses, these demand tiles will become harder to complete, and you may be left with the default space on the board. Some of the default spaces do not permit the sale of goods and some may only earn you half the price you’d normally earn. In other words, as the market grows saturated, demand decreases.

Paying Out

After you’ve sold your goods and earned Demand bonuses, you must total everything up. There’s some basic arithmetic needed here. You add up the total earned and divide by 10. This value is then multiplied for each 10% share owned.

The Director of the company decides whether to pay dividends, earning anyone who has stake in that company some money, or to withhold, causing only the company to profit.

For every 10% of the company they own, players will earn the the value we just calculated. If the company still has shares in its treasury, it will also earn accordingly.

For example, this round A.G. Spalding and Bros earned $280, so it will earn $28 per 10% share. The Director owns 40% of the company. He will take home 4x$28, or $112. Player B owns 10% and takes home $28. Lastly, there is still 50% that is left unowned in the company’s treasury. So, the company itself will earn 5x$28, or $140.

If the Director decides to withhold and not dividends, the company’s stock value will decrease one level. However, when a company pays dividends, its stock price will go up based upon how many multiples it has earned over its current stock price.

Shifting the Supply Chain Resources

The last part of your turn during the operating phase is to shift resources down the supply chain area if any of the locations are empty.

Your first inclination might be to think about this as being part of the cleanup phase, but it actually occurs during both phases. Thematically it makes sense too, as it represents available resources in a supply chain. Business, boom!

Cleanup Phase

The Cleanup Phase is just a boring old cleanup phase. I’m mentioning it only because it would be weird not to. Filled demand tiles are discarded and demand tiles will shift and/or be added to the board. The right-most capital asset tile will be removed, the rest will shift to the right, and a new one will be added to the left-most space. Resources in the $10 space of the Supply Chain will be placed in Haymarket Square and everything will shift to the right again.

End Game Scoring

A game of City of the Big Shoulders comes to completion at the end of the 5th round.

There are 5 goal tiles that are randomly selected at the beginning of the game and are resolved at this time. Any players who have satisfied their conditions will earn additional money.

Lastly, all players sell off their company shares according to the final stock price of that company.

The player with the most money in their personal supply is the winner!

Thoughts

There is a lot to love about City of the Big Shoulders. In my opinion, it shares all of the same qualities of 18xx games that make them desirable, and distills them into an experience that is shorter and more welcoming to new players.

My first game of 1889 may have taken 7 hours, but my first game of City of the Big Shoulders only ran about 3. In subsequent plays, that running time was true to the box, running about 2.5 hours. Each one of those plays captured the thrill of starting your own company, systematically building it or leaving it to rot as someone else’s problem, making smart investments, and reaping the rewards of those investments. It’s amazing what you can do as a man with $175 in the great city of Chicago!

Although much of what makes the game great can be attributed to the 18xx stock market mechanics, it would be remiss to ignore the contribution of the worker placement aspect of the game. The action phase just by itself would make a good worker placement game, and its integration with the rest of the game mechanics elevates the whole experience to another level.

Whereas most 18xx games are eye sores, City of the Big Shoulders features a rather beautiful aesthetic. Everything is well laid out, the box is elegant, the iconography appropriate but not bland, and there’s an actual color scheme being used with not a single unsightly hue. I’m proud to put the game on my table.

The component quality of the game is of the highest caliber, sporting thick cardboard (company boards being an understandable exception) and nice wooden bits. 18xx player usually favor using poker chips for money, and although the game doesn’t come with any, the thicker cardboard money in the expansion works just fine.

Yes, there’s a couple of very minor issues with the rulebook and on the player boards, but I have found those issues to be grossly overstated. I probably would not have noticed them had they not been pointed out to me.

If I were to highlight a gripe with the game, it would be the existence of the goal tiles. I mostly glossed over this part of the game in my rules explanation because their inclusions seemed somewhat disjointed to me. The game feels like a purer 18xx-esque experience without them. Although to be fair, this is a very minor complaint as they don’t really detract from the game either. I can even understand why they may have been included. The goals help make the game feel a bit more like a eurogame, and can be used to help orient strategy if someone were to feel lost.

What if you’re not in my shoes? You don’t babies at home, you somehow have infinite time, and are interested in 18xx games. Should you simply ignore City of the Big Shoulders and skip right to 1830? Not at all! There’s room for City of the Big Shoulders and 18xx in your life. The game serves as a perfect introduction to the genre and will feel perfectly conformable to eurogamers without any 18xx experience. That being said, it also isn’t just a watered down version of an 18xx game. City of the Big Shoulder is overflowing with strategy and depth. It feels familiar, but different than 18xx games. I expect that any 18xx enthusiast will enjoy playing it and will want it in their collection.

Chicago may be Stormy, Husky, Brawling but City of the Big Shoulders is warm, heavy, and sprawling. It’s warm and welcoming to new players, heavy, rich, and full of deep strategies to explore. Without a doubt, Parallel Games’ City of the Big Shoulders is one of the best games of the year.

Overall Rating

5/5

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