1923 Cotton Club board game: A four-sided review

The 1923 Cotton Club board game is a small box worker placement game for 2-4 players. Although if you’re predominantly a two-player gamer, I’d potentially steer clear (see ‘key observations’ below). The game takes about an hour to play. It is quite a basic euro game, so while the box says 12+ I’d say gamer kids around 10-years-old should be fine. Most information is public, so it is easy to ask questions where required. And the small amount of hidden info has clear reference notes in the rulebook. The theme, if anything, is more likely to be an issue for some parents (guns, illegal alcohol etc).

Talking of theme, it doesn’t do much heavy lifting here. But it does help make what you’re doing make sense. You’re each building up your own club from which you’ll be selling illegal booze in the US during 1920s prohibition. Cards represent gangsters, alcohol, club improvements, artists and celebrities. Using your workers (and currency, in the shape of money and influence) you claim them to earn victory points. It’s very much a euro game.

As always with Looping Games’ small box line (see also 1906 and 1987), you get an incredible amount packed into a small box. There are two thick main boards, four thin player boards, 32 wooden pieces, four cardboard chits and 110 cards packed into a 7x4x1-inch box. At the time of writing, comparison site Board Game Prices has it at several (non-UK) retailers for less than £30 delivered, which still seems good value for money.

Teaching 1923 Cotton Club

1923 Cotton Club will feel instantly familiar to anyone with worker placement experience. Each four-card row (replenished at the start of each of the six rounds) has three worker spots. And getting into a row early usually gives a small extra benefit. The main boards help record initiative (for turn order), influence (spent to attract celebrities), criminality (which can hurt you late game) and victory points. Plus an ‘eep, I’ve screwed up’ action space any number of workers can go into for some quick cash.

The decreasing cards and action spaces can make initiative important. It is redone at the end of each round, and won’t necessarily be in clockwise order (which I know some people hate). You’ll also gain income at the end of the round, and complete any event cards. There’s one event guaranteed each round. But each player can also add one from their hand into each round. You each start with five, and can play all to none throughout the game. They do various things, usually rewarding/penalising players for having/not certain requirements – from criminality to alcohol/entertainment types.

The cards

There are five card rows: Gangsters, smuggling, artists, celebrities and Improvements. Gangsters give you muscle and income, but usually at the expense of criminality. Smuggling (read: alcohol, usually needing gangsters) will help attract guests and gain income, but increase criminality. Artists (singers, musicians) will increase income and reputation. This in turn allows you to attract celebrities (politicians and movie stars) who’ll earn the majority of your victory points. Improvements do a bit of everything, from reducing criminality to gaining reputation, influence or weapons. But are usually one-and-done ‘instant’ cards.

Just before the game ends, players can spend leftover money to bribe their regulars (if they have political influence) to reduce their criminality. This can be crucial, as the doitiest player will take a victory point hit. Final scoring will see bonuses for leftover cash, influence and the highest initiative added to your score. But most points will come from the celebrities you’ve attracted and events you’ve managed to prosper from.

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 do like it when a publisher goes the extra mile with the theme. Especially when the game has such a small footprint. Here, at the end of the rules, you get four pages of history covering all the characters on the cards. From ’empress of the blues’ Bessie Smith to famed bootlegger and gangster Lack ‘legs’ Diamond. It talks to the care and attention paid, as well as a love of the art of making games and a respect for the fans that buy them.
  • The thinker: While certainly a solid euro game, 1923 Cotton Club is very much tactical over strategic. Even with two players, the random draw of the cards will limit your choices each round. So long term strategies are very much limited to your event cards. And even those are situational, depending on what your opponents do. So there’s not much here for me.
  • The trasher: I enjoyed this one with three and four players. If you pay attention you’ll know what others are looking for, which can definitely guide the order of your choices. The events can be key too. There’s an additional worker space where you can defer your action until last, but get to look at that round’s even cards. This can really swing things too, as it gives you a chance to dig out of a hole you didn’t know was coming. Or throw someone into one! Euro games aren’t really my thing. But when I’m in the mod, this is my kind of euro game.
  • The dabbler: I really liked the artwork in 1923 Cotton Club. While the rules all made sense, and the flow of the game was helped by the theme. The characters do encourage a bit of table talk too, as your club starts to take shape. Maybe its all singers, or dancers. Or perhaps you’re attracting some big movie stars, like Charlie Chaplin. And who doesn’t want to hire Al ‘scarface’ Capone just to do the comedy accents?! As for gameplay, everything fits. But I’m not sure it’s anything special. But it is for the size of the box it comes in.

Key observations

Personally, I haven’t really enjoyed 1923 Cotton Club with two-players. This is a game that needs players taking spots and cards from you to make turn order important and add the tension the game needs to shine. They’ve tried to fudge a two-player workaround where you each place a neutral meeple each round after your second placement. Bit its just fiddly and rarely makes much of a difference. Or if it does, it’s devastating. I won’t play with two again.

Also, there is nothing new here. No clever mechanism or unique element. Sure, the theme is great and well realised. While it’s great to have a genuinely solid competitive worker placement euro in such a small package. But when compared to Looping’s other recent-ish euro 1906 San Francisco, which is in the same size box, I feel this pales in comparison. Purely because that felt fresh and original as well as being remarkably compact.

But the game is simple and smooth and is a nice addition to the ‘get cards to get other cards to get points’ genre. And by its nature things tend to be very tight, with small margins being the difference between grabbing or missing certain cards. Some worry about replayability as you see all the cards each game. But I worry less about that in a tactical game, where its more about reacting than planning. I worry more that, beyond the theme and box size, there isn’t anything making it stand out. But maybe that’s are enough. It didn’t hurt Splendor…

Conclusion: 1923 Cotton Club

While it will never make my Top 50 games, 1923 Cotton Club will be staying in my collection. I love this small box line and I dig the theme. While I do like this kind of tactical competitive euro once in a while. So its staying on its merits, even if they are a bit niche. And, if you like games in this genre. Or ones with unusual theme are nice art. Or in small packages! I definitely advise you to take a closer look.

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