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Rolling Heights Review


Like James Cameron casually adding a dollar sign on the end of “Alien”, you can imagine the designer of Rolling Heights (John D. Clair) writing ‘Dice’ and ‘Meeple’ on a whiteboard, before planting an equals sign right in between them, causing raucous applause to erupt in the room. That’s right. In Rolling Heights we’re not rolling dice, we’re rolling Meeples. This may strike you as overly gimmicky, but I can tell you for a fact that not only is rolling Meeples incredibly satisfying and enjoyably frustrating in equal measure, it’s also highly thematic.

A thematic gimmick of genius

To explain why rolling Meeples fit so well in Rolling Heights, let’s first go through the theme and general outline of the game. In Rolling Heights you all play general contractors, competing to develop the empty plateau of the board into a bustling city of towering skylines, leafy suburbs and powerful factories. On each of your turns, you will be aiming to place and construct building tiles, each requiring a different assortment and arrangement of the game's building blocks: wood, concrete, glass and steel. The act of placing tiles and completing buildings award you victory points, with the winning player being the one who receives the most points by the end of the game; brought about by one of the four building blocks running dry.

To generate the building blocks, at the start of your turn you will choose a maximum of 10 Meeples from your supply and, you guessed it, roll them. There are three possible outcomes for your Meeple: if your Meeple is standing straight up, it counts as ‘working hard'. This means that your Meeple will give you the best possible bonuses. If your Meeple is laying on its side or on its head, it’s ‘working steady’. This means that it will still give you some rewards, but not the most it possibly could. Finally, if your Meeple is lying flat on its back, it’s exhausted and doesn’t give you any rewards. The final dusting of theme on this mechanic is that you're not just rolling your Meeples onto the table, you're rolling them into a little box decorated as though it was a construction yard.

A juicy bit of push-your-luck

The little twist that takes this mechanic from a gimmick into a tour-de-force is its push-your-luck aspect. Once you’ve rolled your Meeples, you can take as many of you want out of your construction site box (exhausted or working) and put them to one side, and re-roll any Meeples you have left inside your box. You can then again take any Meeples out of the box and put them to one side. Any Meeples that you’ve collected at the side that are not exhausted, you can then use to gain rewards. But, ladies and gentlemen, that is not all. There’s something that I've not told you yet. If at any point, all the Meeples you’ve rolled all lie flat on their back, half of your working Meeples (rounded up) go on strike, laying down their tools and leaving your building ambitions in tatters.

You can imagine yourself as the foreman saying to your workers ‘just one more hour, then we can all go home’. But that one hour turns into two, two turns into three, and at that point your workers throw their tools down and storm off home. This is the key to Rolling Heights success. When you’re left with one Meeple exhausted in your construction yard box and you roll it to work, it’s the best feeling in the world. Conversely when you roll them all flat- destroying all your plans- you want to start gnawing at the legs of the table and curse your past self for making such a gamble.

The Meeples that generate building blocks are not even half of the rainbow of meeples you’ll collect and utilise in this game. Along with victory points, completing buildings can also give you Meeples to add to your supply, allowing you to do more complex things on your turn. For example, the green ‘public servant’ Meeple can upgrade any of your thrown Meeples from exhausted to working steady or working steady to working hard, or the purple ‘public figure’ which can activate special bonuses that some buildings offer upon completion.

See your city bloom

I’ve waxed lyrical long enough about rolling Meeples that it may give the impression that’s all this game has to offer. While that mechanic is indeed the main unique selling point of the game, one of the reasons I keep coming back to this game over others, is the sense of progression you feel over a game. At the beginning, you’re faced with a flat landscape of possibility that, bit-by-bit, you and the other players fill up into a bustling city. This is facilitated through the ability to add building blocks to a building tile, even if you cannot complete the building that turn. A minor yet important addition to the game that is not only aesthetically pleasing to see a tile slowly grow in height and complexity over time, but gives you the freedom to jump between all your different building sites depending on what you’ve gained on your roll.

In terms of choosing new tiles to place, all players have access to the same common market of level 1 and level 2 buildings. Level 1 buildings require less components and offer less interesting rewards, while the level 2 buildings require more commitment, but can give greater rewards for your effort. On your turn, you can buy and place one building onto a free spot on the board, sometimes gaining additional victory points if you place a particular building type (eg. industry, housing or town hall) on a certain space. The game encourages players to take risks through its market, by having a sliding pay scale where the cost of building tiles decreases as players buy up building tiles that are cheaper than them. On top of that, the bottom two cheapest tiles on the level 1 and level 2 have wildcard tokens placed whenever someone buys from the level which it’s contained in. These wildcards can be saved to be worth a victory point each at the end of the game, or can be used as any type of resource during the construction of a building tile. These mechanics create an interesting trade-off incentive between buying the tiles you want, or taking the cheapest tiles for these wildcard bonuses. If you don’t balance this well enough, you could end up with a hodge-podge city made up of mismatched buildings under varying levels of construction but, ultimately, never completed.

For those worried that the aesthetic of the game will be somewhat broken by players randomly placing tiles everywhere trying to chase cheap victory points - fear not! Rolling Heights has devised clever ways to combat this, like making the cost of placing a tile more expensive, the further it is from your existing tiles. Furthermore, the game nurtures an aesthetic cohesion of building type through ‘Ad’ challenges, which all players are competing for, and ‘Targets’, which are given randomly to players at the beginning of the game. Many of the Ads and Targets give bonus victory points at the end for having collections of similar building type and also introduce negatives if you place skyscrapers, houses or parks next to factories. This gives the game replayability, as you switch up your city building strategy based on what the Targets and Ads give out victory points for.

While I do think this is a great game, I’m not ignorant of its issues. In terms of components, while the Meeples are delightfully chunky and colourful, the building blocks are more Mega Blocks than Lego, with quite bland uniform colours on them. While they may seem like they click together like Lego, they sit precariously on top of each other; which can be fun (given the right mindset) in a challenging way, as you struggle to place the final block on your building without causing a toppling building cascade. In terms of interactions with your fellow players, while competing for ads or placing down tiles can allow player interaction, in practice this does not happen nearly as often as you think - especially in two player games. This is not to say that this game is purely to be enjoyed through its solo mode, much of the fun of the game is hearing the yelps and groans of frustration as your fellow players strike out for the third time in a row. My final issue is that the last couple of turns can be slightly underwhelming. Near the end, you’ve often completed all the buildings you wanted to complete, and don’t want to buy or build anything else. You end up just rolling yellow ‘politician’ Meeples which give one or two victory points, making your last couple of turns a tad predictable and taking some of the enjoyment out of rolling your Meeples.

All in all, Rolling Heights is a game that will make your blood pressure rise through the roof. Whether you’re risking all your gains on getting one last Meeple to work or treating the last block addition to your skyscraper as though it’s keyhole surgery; this game will stress you out in the best possible way. However, it’s all worth it in the end when you take a step back and admire the metropolis you’ve all helped build.

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