Money can’t buy you happiness. So the saying goes, at least. But in Happy City, a couple of coins might just be enough to bring some extra joy to the citizens of the most serene metropolises on the tabletop.
Happy City is a charming small-box card game that plays like a stripped-back version of modern classic Splendor. Instead of hoarding gems and building up your influence to impress po-faced Renaissance nobles, here the objective is simple: create the happiest place to live by adding the right buildings to your city.
Your city itself is two rows of five cards, for a total of ten by the end of the game. You start with just one, the Happy Market, which provides the basic income collected at the start of each round. Then, players take it in turns to buy one of three cards in the central grid - with the option to discard and redraw a card first - and add it to their city. Unlike Splendor, you can’t reserve cards for later, and there’s only a single currency to worry about - no need to scrap over the last red gem chip.
Buildings are divided into three decks by their price range, but only three cards of any combination are ever up for sale at once - allowing players to draw only cheaper buildings at first, then work their way up to pricier museums, stadiums and theme parks. The tight list of options each turn keeps things moving quickly, with Happy City clocking in at a tight 15 minutes to half-an-hour tops with the snappy setup included.
Cards provide the income necessary to afford more expensive cards, but more importantly add extra residents to your city and provide the amenities necessary to make them happy. Scoring is straightforward: the number of citizens multiplied by the number of happiness hearts on your cards. Balancing happiness with population becomes crucial to totting up a big score - focusing on just one will severely limit your points haul - but keeps the post-game mental maths to a minimum.
Players can also grab special buildings, granting bonus symbols, by picking up the matching combination of building types. A slightly more complex ‘expert’ variant introduces extra requirements and gameplay effects, providing a solid reason to play again with a new combination of cards.
Watching your city grow and increase your income to fund better cards brings to mind the pleasing momentum-gathering of Machi Koro, minus the luck of rolling dice. Not all cards are purely positive, either - in the vein of classic city-builders such as SimCity, adding industrial buildings such as factories will boost your economy at the cost of popularity, while the most adorable haunted house you’ve ever seen might nevertheless see one of your citizens flee in terror.
Designers Toshiki and Airu Sato’s light and breezy gameplay is matched by the charming illustrations of Makoto Takami, whose cartoony isometric buildings capture the sense of fun that sits at the heart of Happy City. The bank is shaped like a giant safe, the library is an open book, world wonders sit alongside shoe shops and the game gleefully adds a dream factory, dragon parking lot, Mars embassy and My Hero Academia-esque super hero academy to its urban utopia. Even the box is an exercise in good vibes, serving up a rainbow and custard-yellow birds on the top of its inlay.
While other board games may offer more of a full meal to chew on, it’s hard to resist the sugary snack that Happy City presents. It’s a game that delights in simple pleasures; of watching the numbers go up as you add each colourful card to your rows, grabbing a handful of chunky cardboard coins and building a hotdog shop (topped with cocktail-swilling Shiba Inu) next to a unicorn ranch.
Happy City is a game that knows exactly what it’s here to do - make you as happy as the citizens of your wonderland - and in that, at least for a few minutes, it excels. Like all good things, the charm may wear off eventually - but if you’re after something easy but not empty to play with kids, hobby newcomers or simply as a breather before the next Kickstarter buffet, it’s a sweet, enjoyable distraction. That’s something we could all do with at points.