1906 San Francisco: Board game review

1906 San Francisco is a light-ish one-hour euro game for two to four players. While listed for ages 12+, young gamers of 10 (and maybe lower) should be able to grasp it.

You get a lot of game in a small package. In the 18x11x4cm box (think paperback book) you get: three small boards, 24 cardboard tokens, 32 wooden buildings, 98 cards and a glass year marker. The quality is perfectly reasonable, the iconography easy to follow and the artwork average. And while the cardboard tokens could’ve been a bit bigger, everything is perfectly usable.

In terms of theme, you each play a developer helping rebuild San Francisco after a devastating earthquake and fire. But in truth there is nothing tying the game to that historical event – you could up-sticks the game into any other city. Or space ship. Or Middle Earth, etc etc. Yes ladies and gents, this is another largely theme-free euro.

Teaching 1906 San Francisco

While 1906 San Francisco is a simple game to play, you do need to front-end the rules explanation. But for experienced gamers this should only take 10 minutes or so.

Players will see seven action areas – six cards and the starting area (on the year marker board). After getting income from the start area, the player furthest to the right in the area (who subsequently got least money) moves onto a spot on the first action card and does an action. Each other player then does the same, moving onto the same action card but into a different space on it (also taking an action).

Usually a player will do the action in the space they move to, but you can pay money to do a different action on the card. This is expensive, and money is often tight, but it is worth it sometimes. The worst actions tend to be nearer the right of each card, because progression continues the same way. Whomever is in the right-most spot on this card, once everyone has had a turn, will move first onto the next action card.

Actions in 1906 San Francisco are straightforward. Collect houses; collect cards relating to building plots; then build houses on the plots by spending the cards. Additionally you can collect money, clear rubble/complete urban developments (for bonus points), or take extra scoring cards.

To build quickly, you need a single building card matching the colour/number of a plot. Alternatively, you can use two cards (one with the right number and one the right colour). When using two, if they have matching urban development symbols (each building cards has two of four symbols) you get a bonus. Some plots still have rubble on them, which costs money to clear. But doing so again gives bonuses, while potentially helping with scoring cards.

The game ends either after six ‘years’ (so about 40 actions per player) or when someone builds their eighth building. You get some points for bonuses mentioned above, plus leftover money, but the majority come from scoring cards. Each player starts with a secret card only they will score, while three cards sit face up from the start of the game that everyone will score. And you can pick up more throughout, either face-up (so your opponents know what you’re going for) or blind (lucky dip, but they stay secret). Most points wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’ve spoken before on how I don’t think variety equates to variability. But 1906 San Francisco is a great example of how you you can add a little replayability simply by reorganising a few cards (in this case the action cards). It doesn’t make games hugely different, but adds enough to take plays into double figures without breaking sweat. But the real trick was squeezing so much euro game into such a small box. It hogs lot of table space, but for travelling its the perfect way to pack a meaty game into a small amount of luggage.
  • The thinker: While this is a solid euro game, there isn’t much on show for fans of heavier games. Luck of the draw can sink you easily, both in scoring and building plot cards. And while you can concentrate slightly on different ways to score, you’ll all be doing pretty much the same thing. Being able to draw random scorecards is fine for this level/length of game, as it is in say Ticket to Ride. But it can make a bit of a mockery of what happens elsewhere if you flip some lucky combos. However, it beats most small box games hands down and I’d be happy to play it again.
  • The trasher: While 1906 San Francisco is very much a puzzley euro game, I did enjoy it. While you don’t directly mess with each other, the fact you’re competing on scorecards helps. Also, you can look to see what your opponents need and mess with their plans by taking spaces they need. Sure, they will usually still be able to do it – but they’ll have to pay. While some of the components are annoyingly fiddly, you can just about see what everyone has around the table. And it’s a fair price to pay for the small box size.
  • The dabbler: I was a bit worried as the rules were being described for this one – they seemed to go on and on… But once we started playing, I was surprised at how straightforward the game was. While its neither pretty or thematic, the theme does make sense in terms of how the game flows. And you only have to play a single year (six actions) to understand how the game works. While each round is essentially the same, it does have a bit of an arc. More scorecards makes you think about scoring differently, while the decreasing range of plots makes finding the right building plots more difficult.

Key observations

1906 San Francisco is a little fragile (no historical pun intended). Getting a great run of luck can occasionally lead down a path of obvious decisions and easy victory points. Is this a design flaw? I see it more as the product of lighter euro/gateway games that is pretty much a feature of the genre, not a flaw.

But more work could’ve been done balancing these scoring cards. Some are simple to score 8-10 points from, where others you’ll struggle to reach 4-5. But in most games each player will have enough cards that the weak and strong should balance out.

Keeping track of scorecards – your own, the public ones and those of your opponents – can become a problem. In a four-player game you could easily be looking at 20+ scorecards between you. Parsing that much detail is daunting, even when the iconography is pretty good, which can lead to AP. But even with a slow player or two, this shouldn’t really overstay its welcome. And most players won’t play this game seriously enough for this kind of play to develop.

Colours can be an issue though. Blue and green are pretty similar at the best of times and, often represented by thin lines here, they can cause a problem even for those with great sight in good light. It’s a shame too, as they got the player colours right (blue, orange, black and white). On the plus side, the number of problematic components is limited so should be easy to point out once then remember.

1906 San Francisco: Conclusion

So, should I overlook these points for a game that costs around £20 and will fit in a large coat pocket? For me, the answer is yes. If the game were in a bigger box, it may have blended in with other euro games and failed to make an impact. So while it may not stand out on theme, or mechanisms, size this time is everything.

It’s annoying more work wasn’t done on balancing the scorecards, while a simple graphic change could’ve solved the colour issues. So yes, the game could’ve done with more polish. But it joins a select group of titles that are genuinely small box and of euro complexity. It will definitely be staying in my collection and – in that small niche – comes highly recommended.

Find many more of my game reviews here.

* I’d like to thank Looping Games for providing a copy of 1906 San Francisco for review.

Have your say!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.