In the future, there will be robots. Join us, won't you?
This week I'm going to give a very belated review (blame my hiatus, I'm still catching up) on a game that I have on my shortlist for Game of the Year, and I feel like after its initial buzz it has somewhat flown under the radar. Hopefully I can correct that a little today.
A Garden Left for Ruin By a Billionaire
Plaid Hat's City of Remnants is a post-apocalpytic...deck-builder? Dudes on a Map Game? 90's-style capricious punish-fest? Hold your horses there chummer, it's equal parts all of these. True, it's primarily a dudes on a map/area-control style game of battling over VP-generating conquest points (think Starcraft: The Board Game) where you use your deck to power up your armies and make your actions stronger (ditto.) However, unlike Starcraft the deckbuilding is more prominent and the battles are much more fluid--and still involve potentially glorious amounts of dice.
Players play the part of gang leaders on a planet oppressed by the evil Yugai alien overlords. The Yugai conquer, they kill, they ravage, and they rule the defeated populace afterwards. Many who live under their reign make a meager existence, trying hopelessly to survive. You? Screw that. You're gonna *own* this place.
Each gang leader has an associated color and starting deck that features different strengths for each gang. Some are good at combat, others at generating money, still others at working turf to their advantage. During the game, players will be attempting to recruit more gang members and buy illicit goods from the Black Market to make their gang (deck) stronger. And you'll need that strength, because as your gang members collide with your rivals on the map, you'll want strong cards to help you dominate your turf.
The game's hybrid nature doesn't just borrow from deckbuilders or DoaM games, though. To acquire gang members, you'll have to bid for them, and other players can interfere. Thematically, it's simply a matter of word getting out about a recruit, and other gang leaders trying to bribe them to join their cause instead. Each gang member card has four color-coded values on it, and this is the strength a gang member has when fighting for that particular gang. So one guy could fight for red at 3 strength but only fight for yellow at 1 strength. This makes the different recruits more or less attractive for each player.
They also possess special powers. Battle powers happen during combat and can tilt the odds in your favor, while others are "discard" abilities that you can use anytime to give you other benefits like drawing cards or quick cash.
Speaking of cash, you'll need lots of it. Bidding on gang members, buying Black Market goods, upgrading your own Influence level, to bribing off the Yugai when they come sniffing around...so gang members that can help you get cash are always a welcome sight.
The game revolves around a central pile of Renown. This Renown is most often earned from controlling certain areas on the board but can also be earned by placing developments on the board and controlling them. As the board develops, certain areas will become more developed and turn into "Renown hotspots", where gang members will begin to congregate. And when they're all gunning for the same spot, expect there to be bloodshed.
Before a World War Does With Us Whatever It Will Do
Combat is pretty simple. You can have up to two of your own units on any space on the board. If more than one player occupies a spot, there's a fight. The attacker commits cards from his hand face down, a number of them up to his current Influence score. If you're short on cards in hand or just want to save an important one you can also contribute blindly from the top of your deck. Once you've done that, your opponent can do the same. Remember those fight values I talked about earlier? Tally up the strengths of your color for your gang members. Then roll one die for every gang member in your spot, plus an additional die for each gang member in spots orthagonally adjacent to the battle.
What happens when you lose? That's one of my favorite parts of the game, actually. You see, your pool of gang members are your little plastic dudes, and you always have a number of these available equal to the number of gang member cards in your deck. When you recruit a gang member from the central pool, you actually take a gang member from reserve and add it to your available pool. So what happens when you have to take a casualty? You have to remove from the game one of the gang member cards played in the battle. If you did not play one in the battle, one must be removed from the discard pile, and lastly if none are there, one from the deck directly. You also place the lost figure back in your reserve and not your available pool.
To me, this is brilliant. Although there is not a one-for-one relationship between each individual figure and a particular card in your deck, the amount of gang members available to you is always equal to the number in your deck. When one dies, one has to be removed permanently from your deck. If you've been looking for theme in a deckbuilder, it really doesn't get much more thematic than that.
What's really smart about it is that not only is it 'realistic' to have cards killed off, it lends logic to the traditional notion of thinning your deck. Guys at your disposal get killed off, they're not there anymore. And looking at it from a further thematic perspective, when you want those weaker guys gone, you might set them up to take the fall by chucking them into a battle. Hey, guy was useless as a fighter, one less mouth to feed and one less drain on my resources. If you look certain to lose a battle, why not toss a low-level grunt in there, so you never have to draw him again? It's a fantastically intelligent addition that works on both a thematic as well as a strategic level, and that is very difficult to pull off on this level.
When You're Hiding Underground, The Rain Can't Get You Wet
I won't get into developments too much, only to note that there are a random selection of them available from game to game and players can build them by using one of their player actions. These most frequently give Renown for controlling them, but most of them have additional abilities that can generate money, let you trash cards from your deck, earn free bonus renown, or generate goods that you can later move for even more cash. Since these available development tiles are randomly generated each game, that keeps the game from falling into a "default" board development strategy.
Also note just because you buy a development doesn't mean you get to keep it--if a rival gang moves in and muscles you out, they'll get the benefit of your turf. Luckily the person placing the development gets to choose where it goes, although many are restricted into what color areas on the board they can be placed. The juciest ones are the green central devs (also coincidentally where the on-board Renown squares are) so it's only natural that everyone's thugs will gravitate toward there...leading to much bloodshed.
The last thing that happens on each turn is the Yugai Control Phase. To me, this is defintiely old-school and feels like it would be found in an older game. Understand though that I mean that as a compliment. During this phase, two cards are drawn with coordinates on the board. These are the areas that have drawn the Yugai's attention, and their enforcement agents will descend on those squares. You draw tiles out of a bag and place them on the coordinates show. If you've got guys there? The jig is up, and you've got a problem on your hands. You may be bloodied and spent after a turn of gnawing and clawing for turf, but the Yugai really don't care about that.
You've got two options at this point. The Yugai are vile and corrupt, and each have an amount of credits printed on their chit. You can grease their palms to look the other way in regards to your illegal activities, and they'll go about their business. Think of it as "protection money", though you're on the wrong end of the protection in this case.
Or...your guys there can fight, using the same combat rules as when fighting another player. The Yugai have a fixed combat value. Some of their sqauds are a pushover, but some are very tough, and if they end up in a square together they will help each other making your work even tougher. Should they get the best of you, well, do a shot for your fallen man and move on.
If you win, though? You'd think you'd be guaranteed some goodies, but that's not the case. You then have to roll a d6 and consult a card to see what you get. You might get a nice little boost of Renown as word on the street spreads--"whoa, he stood up to the Yugai and lived to tell about it." But then again, you might bring more heat on yourself and cost yourself money just to make the problems go away.
The way they drop on the board, the way they randomly punish players, the way you can kick their alien asses and *still* get boned...this is all stuff straight out of the older days of game design, and I love it. Instead of artificial "catch-up mechanics" that all the Eurogamers fawn over, you instead get "Random Beat-down Mechanisms." True, players who own a lot of turf are more likely to feel the jackboots of what passes for justice, but you can be trying to paw your way back in the game, setting up a little side activity for yourself, and...gulp...is that a squad of Yugai goons moving your way? Evening officer, what seems to be the....BLAM~!
Anyway, after the Yugai are dealt with, play resets, the first player marker passes, and the game continues until you reach a turn where a player needs to collect Renown from the pool and can't collect the full amount. That turn finishes as players take note of how much 'extra' Renown they've earned during the turn and add it to their final total. Highest Renown wins, and the streets of this alien-controlled slum belong to them. Hey, it's a seedy, violent world where the life expectancy is pretty damned low, so you take your victories where you can get them.
I Have No Feeling For You Now, Now That I Know You Better
Alright, so you guys have been asking for "deckbuilders that do stuff." This is definitely one of them. From tying your gang members to the amount of them in your deck, to buying and recruiting to increase your strength, all of this feeds the central action on the board itself where your gang members are gutting each other like fish over a few creds and a scrap of territory. It's Dudes on a Map in an era where very few good ones are still being made. You've got dice, special powers, cool stuff happening during combat, and guys dying with real consequences.
It's not a perfect experience, and I think there are a few rough edges due to how many blends of things are going on in the game. You've just got these edges of the different elements that sort of grind together from time to time. The bidding for gang members seems a little awkward if others jump in. Sure it costs them a future action, but it feels really bad to use an action bidding on a choice thug only to lose him to someone else (and it's not their turn!) and you're left to bid on the scraps. It works, but it's definitely weird. Not everyone is going to be a fan of the Yugai and I'll fully admit it can knock a player down several pegs who has done nothing to deserve it. That's the theme of the game, though; life under the Yugai simply isn't fair, and the game doesn't bow down to modern notions of "fair" design.
The board is probably the only real knock I have. I see what they were going for, but it's not an attractive board at all and the color-coded areas definitely blend to the eyes as you look at the board. It's a pretty simple layout with green 3x3 in the middle then a 1x blue ring around that, and a 1x red ring around that. There are coordinate marks around the board to help with placement of the Yugai as well. It's functional, but not terrific.
Having to limit you to two dudes per square is a strange but necessary rule. I understand it, but it still feels a little off. Without it, turtling would be too much of a problem. Because units can support adjacent squares (think like A Game of Thrones), you can still get your fortified areas, but at the very least this rule generally ensures someone can at least flank some of your support. So it's necessary but definitely gamey and can take you out of the theme a bit.
The sideways design of the cards gives the game its own distinctive look but I think I would've preferred all the cards that went into players decks to have the traditional vertical rather than horizontal design. It means you're always sort of sifting through them sideways, which is awkward. Of course your handsize is generally low, so that helps and is a pretty minor thing, all in all. I'm reaching here.
So many positives, though. Violent, heavy player interaction of both the direct and indirect variety (not just "hey, you bought the card I wanted!" but also..."hey, you shot me!") A real feeling of progression as your deck gets better, and one with thematic ties as gang members come and go from your available cards. This does more with 150 cards than a lot of deckbuilders manage to do with over 500, and that's pretty awesome.
The art design is deliciously old-school. It has that feel of an old RPG supplement from the 90s, but again in a good way. Though I'm not sure the world is fully realized just from the limited fiction in the book and the flavor text on the cards, you get a feeling that this is a world that could be developed further. And it helps that it doesn't mind getting a little weird, which is cool.
I'm going to be honest, few games to me this year have really stood out with an identity of their own, but City of Remnants is like a breath of air. The way it blends several familiar elements and ties them up thematically is very smart, and I definitely can't nail down just one game that this feels like. The bits about controlling Renown spots and deckbuilding feel a touch like Starcraft, but only superficially. It even takes stalwart Euro concepts like goods production and turns them into something that your guys will willingly draw weapons over to secure their use.
It's longer than I think you'll expect when you first dive in, but it's also nowehre near as complicated as the intitial glance at the rulebook and some of the text-laden cards will make you think. Just don't count on the game helping you catch up from bad play. And don't expect spoonfed 55-50-48-47 game scores where everyone chuckles about just how close the game was (whether they earned it or not.)
Even if you hate deckbuilding games, understand that this is using it as a part of a larger whole, and you're not building villages, you're killing dudes who dare to make a move on what's rightfully yours. And you're not
"impressing" the Yugai--you're either killing them, or paying them off like a good criminal leader should. At least, until the day when you can cram a magazine's worth of machine gun fire down their stupid, alien faces.
This is a really ambitious design and I really do think that Ameritrash fans should give it a look. It's an amazing blend of old and new, with reverenace to the old and refinement to the new. There are multiple paths to victory, the theme is strong, the production is good, now get in there and do some biddin' and killin'.
That's going to do it for this week. So until Arnie and Carl destroy the world with the power of their manly handshakes, I'll see you in two weeks.