Bright Lights, Big City is a new, stand-alone version of Machi Koro, the tableau-building dice game which sees players compete as rivals Mayors of Japanese cities, striving to give the voting public the Landmarks they want to mark their hometown out for greatness. The box describes Bright Lights, Big City as “a profoundly different beast” and promises a “whole new way to play” Machi Koro. Can it deliver? Let’s find out.
What’s in the box? – a tiny town!
The box for Bright Lights, Big City is the same size as the original Machi Koro, and the contents are fairly similar – cardboard coins, a few dice, and lots of cards representing the things players can build over the course of the game.
There have been a few complaints flying around about the card-stock quality of Bright Lights, Big City – having read those warnings first, I probably felt that the new cards were a fraction thinner than the ones in the first edition of Machi Koro, but it really isn’t obvious enough to be a concern or have any real impact on gameplay. One or two cards were ever-so-slightly miss-cut, but again, not in a way that’s going to impact on gameplay at all.
The art-style is very similar to the original Machi Koro, with the only real change being that Bright Lights, Big City is set at night, so you can expect fewer blue skies and more stars. I’ve always been a fan of the Machi Koro art style, so even though the “night time” effect doesn’t change things much, there’s no complaints from me here.
How does it play? Nice and Simple!
A turn in Machi Koro follows a fairly simple structure, and Bright Lights, Big City doesn’t really deviate much from this: you roll a dice, which will activate establishments in place, based on the number: once the active player has gained the money from their establishments for the turn (or lost it to somebody else’s) then they have the opportunity to build 1 establishment or Landmark.
On his turn, Player 1 rolls a 2. He gets money from his Bakery and his General Store. Player 2 gets money from her Ranches, but not her Bakery, as it’s not her turn.
On her turn, Player 2 rolls a 3. If she has any money, she must give one coin to Player 1 for his cafe. Then she takes a coin for her Bakery. Player 1s Bakery does nothing as it is not his turn.
There are 4 different types of establishment in Machi Koro Bright Lights, Big City, colour-coded to make it easy to remember when they activate:
- A Blue establishment gives its owner money when the corresponding number is rolled, on any player’s turn
- A Green establishment gives its owner money when the number is rolled on its owners turn only
- A Red establishment allows its owner to take money from other players when that player rolls its number
- Purples are “Major Establishments” – unique buildings that each player can only have 1 copy of per game. They have a variety of different effects, but mostly they will take money from others, activating on your turn.
So what about this “new way to play?” – first some history!
To understand Bright Lights, Big City, we need to go back in time a bit first – When Machi Koro was first released, all the establishments were laid out in a common market from turn 1, and anyone could build any of them, until they were all gone.
When “Harbour,” the first expansion for Machi Koro, was released the sheer number of things available to build made this approach impractical and instead, they brought in a new system – shuffle all the cards together, and deal out cards at random. If you reveal a card which matches one already in play, place it on top to complete a stack, and keep going until you have 10 different establishments available.
This made a big difference to the game: it meant that you couldn’t have your whole strategy planned prior to the start of turn 1, as there was no guarantee that the things you wanted would come up at the right time, it forced players to think on their feet, and generally helped to ensure that no 2 games of Machi Koro were the same.
There were still problems though. Early in the game, you probably only have a few buildings, so most people were only producing 1 or 2 resources per round. Until you build your station, you can only roll a single dice, making any building that activates on a number higher than 6 useless. If the market gets flooded with high-cost, high-number buildings, it can lead to a slow, choked game.
Fortunately, gamers are resourceful folk, and they found ways round it – the most obvious, and probably one of the most common, was that instead of having 1 marketplace of ten cards, you had two marketplaces of five cards – five cards that trigger on a 1 to 6, and 5 that trigger on a 7+.
The ‘whole new twist’ in Bright Lights, Big City, just formalises house rules that people were already using: the cards are divided by three different card-backs: 1-6, Major Establishments, and 7+ you always have 5, 2 and 5 of each category of establishment available and (theoretically), none of the dead-locks you got with first edition.
Sounds Good? Not quite
As someone who’d been house-ruling Machi Koro like this for a while, I really like the fact that Bright Lights, Big City has formalised this – whilst it might not seem like much, having those different card-backs really streamlines things when setting up the game, a definite positive.
Beyond that though, as Bright Lights, Big City is essentially a second edition of Machi Koro, I’d really hoped that they would have fixed some of the balance issues from the first edition. Bright Lights, Big City contains a selection of establishments from the original base game, Harbour, Millionaire’s Row, and one or two completely new things to build. With such a range to pick from, they had a chance to ensure we only got the most balanced or most interesting establishments in Bright Lights, Big City.
Sadly though, Bright Lights, Big City seems to have retained some of the least-balanced cards from its predecessor, and this can lead to games which are simply no fun for the players involved.
As I mentioned earlier, Red buildings – usually eating establishments – take money from the player who rolled the dice, and give it to the player who controls the building. A café takes one every time a 3 is rolled, a Pizza Joint takes one on a roll of 7.
If you get too many Red Buildings in play, that money gets stolen faster than it can be generated: You only ever have money when it isn’t your turn, and that means that nobody can ever build anything. The worst culprit in this respect is the French Restaurant – it costs a far-too-affordable 3 coins, and it triggers on a 5, meaning it targets people who are still only rolling a single dice. Worst of all, it takes 5 coins every time it activates, which is a lot of money in the early-mid game. By contrast, a Café only takes 1, and a Sushi Restaurant requires you to have a Harbour, and still only takes 3. The only way to avoid it, is by not building any landmarks until you can complete your airport, then hope you’re fast enough to outpace the French Restaurant. If you’re lucky this card won’t come out, or people will avoid taking it in the hopes of not triggering a restaurants arms-race, but once people start building them, it’s NPE all the way to the finish.
So is there anything new? A little!
Most of the establishments in Bright Lights, Big City have appeared somewhere in Machi Koro before. The 2 which really leap out as different are the General Store and the Moon Tower.
General Store is really just a de-powered version of the first edition Convenience Store: it’s a cheap, single-dice establishment, which provides a good haul of cash on your turn only. For the reduced cost though, this one has the disadvantage of only operating whilst you have fewer than 2 Landmarks built. As you always start with one constructed, and the aim of the game is to build the other 6, this isn’t going to be around for long.
The Moon Tower by contrast is an interesting option that really does offer a completely new slant on the dice rolling at the start of your turn. In original Machi Koro, you had Radio Towers which allowed you to re-roll the dice once if you didn’t like them. Bright Lights, Big City replaces it with Moon Tower, which allows you to roll 3 dice and then chose one to discard, typically leaving you with 2 or 3 totals to choose from.
As it’s one of the largest Landmarks (only the Airport costs more), the Moon Tower isn’t likely to be in play for all that long (especially if you go for the “build the airport first” strategy), but it really alters the way the game is played: It allows decision-making to become more important, and chance less important, in determining what’s rolled.
Bright Lights, Big City – is there hope left?
The good thing about the way that Machi Koro works, is that it’s fairly easy to modify the deck without breaking the whole system. In that respect Bright Lights, Big City can be made into a much more playable, much more enjoyable experience simply by leaving the French Restaurants (or whichever other cards really kill the game for your group) in the box. At that point though, you’re back to the same place you were in with Machi Koro – having to house-rule to fix the game.
It’s worth mentioning that our group aren’t the most aggressive of gamers, and most of us would rather experiment with our own strategy, trying to create something that works more efficiently than someone else’s, rather than just smash each other in the face – obviously other groups will play differently, and may enjoy the stealing and counter-stealing. For me though, it’s a step too far when nobody can do anything on their turn, because all the money is with someone other than the active player.
Overall, I don’t think there’s any value to owning Bright Lights, Big City and original Machi Koro, particularly if you already have the expansions. Personally (I had first edition + Harbour, but not Millionaire’s Row) Out of these two very similar games, I’m really torn on which version I’ll keep hold of, and which one I’ll move along.
If you’re new to the world of Machi Koro, then I think Bright Lights, Big City offers a better entry point than the old versions: it contains some fun cards that weren’t included in the original base game, and the randomised market set-up adds a lot of depth to the game: I really didn’t have any issue with the component quality, it all seems perfectly functional to me. Be prepared to tinker with the establishment decks until you find the right balance.
If you already own Machi Koro, particularly if you have the expansions, then Bright Lights, Big City isn’t going to offer all that much that’s new – if you were waiting for a second edition that smoothed out all the creases, then this isn’t it, and Bright Lights, Big City is missing a few key cards from the first edition (no Mines, No Convenience Stores). The card backs and the Moon Tower are interesting, but they probably aren’t worth replacing your entire collection.
Overall, I’d give this a 7. There’s a good game in the box, the card-backs do help, and with a bit of patience and some willingness to tinker with deck-composition, you’ll find the set-up that’s best for you fairly swiftly enough. That said, I wish they had done more to allow exploration of creative strategies and put a bit less emphasis on eating out.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.