In the distant future, people will look back and laugh at our urban planning. All these streets and parking lots, these single-story houses and abandoned warehouses. Such horizontal waste, they will say from the lofty towers of their arcologies, daintily sipping their own recycled piss.
Will they say similar things about how underutilized our stacking games were? In all likelihood, at least if Jordan Draper and Michael Fox’s MegaCity: Oceania is the best we’ve got.
If that sounds too dismissive, let me offer a corrective. MegaCity: Oceania is a risk. An admirable risk, even. It’s halfway about building a city; the other half is about stacking. Yes, Grandma, like Jenga. Except instead of a single square tower, we’re talking about new-world construction. Soaring slabs of glass and concrete and that other color. Floors suspended hundreds of feet above the ground. Structures that could be dismantled by the slightest breeze or bump of the table, killing millions. Also vents.
The process of building a MegaCity goes something like this. On the table there are contracts. Over the course of a single game, you’ll likely nab somewhere in the realm of half a dozen, each displaying a handful of constraints. Your building must be x miles tall. It must be built atop a purple hex. It will not touch the vents on its hex. It will feature an archway, for reasons known only to the godlike minds that operate this city for the benefit of all mankind.
Within those constraints, your goals are limited. There’s a bag with a bunch of tinkling components, everything from tiny nubs that will undoubtedly puncture somebody’s heel to big slabs that feel heavy and would make an excellent foundation, if only you weren’t so preoccupied with building the tallest megastructure in the history of megaconstruction. Properly balanced, you slide your megastructure into place.
Block by block, the city grows.
Because this is a board game, there are details like height and adjacency to consider. On its own, a structure may earn bonus points for being the tallest on the table at the moment it’s ensconced within the megacity, being constructed of a single material, or by placing a monument into a neighboring park. These little goals range from hard to trivial, but they’re also essential. The final scoring awards bonuses for things like specializations and diversity — as determined by all those hex colors you’ve been building on — but these are typically spread around so evenly that the winner generally comes down to those who brave the perils of gravity to make absurdly tall structures as often as possible.
There is joy in this process, especially when the contracts get weird. Having to cover all of a hex’s vents, or erect a raised arch, or create a courtyard in between other foundations — these allow for quandaries of architecture that can leave you stymied — and laughing. It should also be noted that very few designers working today have quite as keen an eye for aesthetic as Jordan Draper. MegaCity: Oceania is undeniably handsome, in particular as the city expands and gradually takes shape. Here is that tower nobody could beat. Over there is the structure shaped like a kaiju. On the other side of town are the parks that will pass out bonus points to the winning player. In abstract fashion, it evokes a fiction of its own, one not unlike the sprawls of Blade Runner given some additional vitamin D. The photographs alone will move copies; no need for the written word to wax long about what all this stuff is for.
The problem is that, like most novelties, the appeal doesn’t stick around. Worse, it hardly even lasts a single play.
There are a few reasons for this, their sum approaching an explanation of why MegaCity: Oceania doesn’t quite hang together.
Take the contracts, for instance. The best of them provide miniature puzzles to be solved, quandaries that, when paired with the bits you’ve drawn from the bag, might be easier or more difficult. That’s a classic bit of tension! Should you cash in a building swiftly so you can move onto something more lucrative, or root through the bag for superior pieces? Unfortunately, there aren’t many of these to consider. In fact, I listed most of the game’s puzzles above. Within only a few minutes, all of MegaCity: Oceania’s tricks have revealed themselves. The ever-rotating challenges of Junk Art, these are not.
Even at a tactile level, the components are clinky rather than chunky. It’s the same problem that beset Tokyo Highway, where fiddling together these pieces is less like conquering gravity and more like reading your current blood glucose level by how badly your fingertips tremble. Piling together a tall structure isn’t a matter of cleverness; it’s a qualification for a surgical license. And although that’s fine, it doesn’t compete against the superb high-wire acts of heftier games like Men at Work.
Meanwhile, the goals themselves are tragically limited. You want lots of the same hexes, but also many different colors. Okay, so building swiftly will net you more structures, but likely fewer bonus points along the way. But why not place priorities on changing tastes? Or award buildings that incorporate every type of construction material? Or occasionally thump the table? At least watching your MegaCity collapse provides some sense of catharsis. Its slow expansion is so placid that it comes across as an agent of entropy, all matter arranging itself into neat rows until the revolt against organization is secured and everything is knocked down.
But no such thing happens. You could even say that “nothing happens” is MegaCity: Oceania’s most hallowed credo, like an urban-sized homeowner’s association announcing that this neighborhood will permit no pets, no paint, no swimming pools, and most of all no dancing. Although the core experience of balancing and placing isn’t broken, there’s so little going on that nearly any addition would have jazzed it out of its rut.
Nine-tenths fine, in other words. But the tenth that’s missing is the reason to come back for a second look. As it stands, MegaCity: Oceania is as sterile as the utopian island it constructs before your eyes.
A complimentary copy was provided.