24th Feb2020

‘Aftershock: San Francisco and Venice’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


If you’ve played a modern board game, chances are you’ve heard of Alan R. Moon, the designer of the iconic Ticket to Ride series. Whilst not as prolific as some of his peers, Moon has released a steady string of understated new products both within and outside the TTR universe, including the likes of Ticket to Ride: London. The latest in this line of games is Aftershock: San Francisco and Venice, which is co-designed by relative newcomer, Bobby West.

In Aftershock, each player controls a team – or corporation more likely – with an interest in rebuiding and repopulating the titular areas following an earthquake. Each city (San Francisco and Venice) is represented on a different side of the board, and the Venice map plays 3 to 4 players, whilst the San Francisco map allows for 4 to 5. A 6th player expansion is available and a copy was provided for review, but whilst it includes a few minor tweaks and enhancements to the base game, it is primarily just what it says – the components needed for a sixth player.

There are elements of bidding, area control and negotiation involved in Aftershock, and the game features some unusually mean features for a game that comes from the same stable as Ticket to Ride. The core concept is that each player is hoping to rebuild bridges and repopulate the damaged regions before then forcing a scoring event that will be beneficial to them. A lot of this is done through bidding for cards and secretly laying them down as plans, but there are a few other nuances such as causing aftershocks that force the already beleaguered populace to relocate.

The game begins with the players being handed a fairly large quota of personalised components. These include meeples, houses (worth 3 meeples) and bridge pieces, as well as a personal screen and a planning board to place behind it facing the right way up based on the current city. Each player also has a number of coins (set by the number of players) and three bid tokens in different values. Players are then dealt eight cards from the city deck, one each of which will always be a seeded bridge card.

The city decks each contain four kinds of cards – bridge cards, area cards, aftershock cards and influence cards. In order, the bridge cards allow players to claim bridge and meeple pieces from their own supply for use during planning, area cards allow meeples to be added to areas, aftershock cards provide aftershock tokens that can then be placed and influence cards allow the player to influence the scoring phase.

Each card has a value, broadly relating to how powerful it is. From their hand of eight cards, each player can purchase as many cards as they wish at face value, showing them to their neighbour to confirm the value paid, but otherwise keeping them secret. Any and all remaining cards are then placed in front of the players who can then take turns to buy cards displayed this way. The buy tokens that I mentioned come into play here, and two of these (each of which can be used once) provide a discount, whilst the third will add a penalty and can be used as many times as needed. Finally, each player retains one of their cards for free, if there are any.

In the next phase, players resolve their area cards first of all, placing meeples onto the board in the quantities that each card shows. This provides the basic board state for the players to consider during the rest of the round, where their other cards are used to make secret plans. During this phase, the accrued bridge parts, meeples and aftershock tokens will be placed onto area spaces on the planning boards, all concealed behind the player screens. In general, players will want to gain the majority in each area (and complete bridges) so there’s a combination of both guesswork and strategy here.

The third phase is all about executing the plans as laid out by the players. Meeples and houses will be placed onto the board as shown on the player boards, whilst aftershock tokens will cause meeples to be displaced based on how severe the shock is (on the roll of a dice.) When built, bridges allow players to direct their own meeples into neighbouring areas when displaced, whilst also scoring in their own right. If meeples can’t escape an area via a bridge, then they will be removed instead, which obviously reduces the influence of the affected player.

The final phase involves scoring, with each player performing another round of secret placement by putting their four scoring markers onto different areas – including the “most bridges” space. Each player can only place one scoring marker on each region, unless they have an influence token which can be used to either add a second scoring marker (guaranteed to cause a region to score) or additional points. The rub is that the regions that score are those with a minimum of two scoring markers on them across all players, so during this phase, you’ll likely want to encourage and cajole each other into supporting scoring in a region that benefits you.

A few cleanup actions must now be completed before the next round, with the players who won a majority sacrificing a meeple in each area where they won. All city cards are also returned to the deck and shuffled before the next round begins, and then the money in the bank is distributed evenly between all players. The economy in Aftershock is fixed based on the starting amounts and no new money will enter the game – nor will any leave. Values are simply rounded down evenly and handed out. After two or three rounds (depending on player count) the game ends, with the player who scores most the winner.

Each game of Aftershock lasts for around an hour, and whilst two to three phases might not seem like a lot, the play remains continuously interactive throughout, whilst the board state changes more or less continuously. Receiving eight cards per round feels like a boon, but keeping them is costly and you’ll almost never claim the exact cards you want. Bidding for those of other players at a discount is fun and feels smart, but you can never be sure what you’ll get until the cards are revealed and your turn to buy comes around.

The planning phase is fast and can be completed simultaneously, as can most of the construction phase. These elements keep things moving at pace and can result in some serious swings one way or another. This can be quite lively, as can the debate that follows when it comes to determining which areas score. A player may often take control of one or more areas with relative ease, but that’s absolutely useless if they don’t have the means to score them on their own, or the connections to convince another player to join with them.

On the down side, the inability to retain even a single card from one round to the next does reduce the opportunity for long term planning. Despite what I said earlier, the board state remains largely intact from one round to another (albeit with the lost meeples for those who win each area) and that can enable a player to make longer term plans – or at least to hope that an area where they remain strong might score. This limits the appeal of Aftershock to heavier gamers, but that’s not to say it’s truly light either, and I’d say the complexity is certainly a step higher than Ticket to Ride.

Personally, I found Aftershock quite a unique and enjoyable prospect, and I have enjoyed playing it on the occasions where I’ve been able to get it to the table. Sadly, I don’t seem to have a great abundance of friends who really want to play it. This might be due to the somewhat dry theme, or maybe the relative lack of depth, but in any case it seems to be a game that few people are keen to return to. I must admit that whilst I always enjoy it whilst I’m playing, I rarely think about the puzzle it presents or how my strategy might change next time. It’s a fun distraction, but it is not an essential purchase or a classic in my view.

***½  3.5/5

Aftershock: San Francisco and Venice is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator


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