Build a big city (that fits on a small table) in this cute card-based city builder

It's enjoyable to plop down a building and watch it get built, either by wee little peasants or by tiny construction crews, depending on the era of the city builder you're playing. But I've discovered a new and satisfying way to watch buildings get assembled: when they're folded together out of little bits of cardboard.

That's because I'm playing Cardboard Town, a city builder that takes place on top of a table. Build something like a condo or a power plant and it'll fold itself together as if it's part of a tabletop game—you can see the lovely animation of several different buildings folding themselves up in the trailer above. But despite your city being small enough to fit on a table, Cardboard Town still manages to capture the sprawl and scope (and problems) of a big city.

Cardboard Town is a card game: everything you build will come from a card dealt to you, and each card costs a certain amount of money to play. Building houses adds people (which in turn gives you more money, letting you play more cards each turn), wind turbines add electricity, parks make your city more environmentally friendly, and so on.

Cards also have an effect on your four resources: water, electricity, safety, and environment. A coal power plant will boost electricity but take your environment score down a few points, and a police station will improve the safety of your citizens but cost electricity. It's all about finding a balance, building and expanding while trying to keep a surplus of your resources. You can go into a deficit for a while by building too many electricity-dependent buildings or not having enough water towers, but if three of your four resources all drop below zero at the same time, it's game over.

And there's always trouble brewing in Cardboard Town. In fact, there's an actual trouble meter that grows at the end of each turn, and the more that meter fills, the more wrenches will be thrown into the gears of your lovely little tabletop city. At one point all my road cards went up in price, making it harder to expand since most buildings need to be placed along roadsides. Another time I had a mass migration of new citizens into my city, and all those extra people started consuming my resources with every turn.

Luckily, there are also specialty cards that can bail you out of a jam, give you extra draws from the deck, let you discard unwanted cards, and even avoid the little disasters that the trouble meter is planning to throw your way. You can also remove some disasters by throwing resources, like extra cops, at the problem, just like a real mayor would.

(Image credit: Stratera Games)

It's a tricky game but a lot of fun, a nice blend of city builder, roguelite, and card game, and each time I've played I've done a little better. My first city eventually failed because I let too many resources fall into deficit (including an embarrassing negative 10 environment score, thanks to all the condos and skyscrapers I'd built), but I was much more careful to keep things balanced in my next game. 

Cardboard Town will enter early access on Steam tomorrow, and if you just can't wait that long to play it, there's a free demo you can try right now. 

Christopher Livingston
Senior Editor

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.