It wasn’t the most dramatic or interesting moment of the game, but it was arresting.
A gang of hulking, violent heavies breaks into a stronghold held by a police patrol, directly in the centre of the city. A few cards on the table and a roll of the die. The right cards meant it was almost a certainty, but dice don’t often deal in certainty. It was an aggressive move, rude even. It wasn’t their stronghold. Unoccupied until the police moved in, presumably putting off the gang who built it. A fruit for picking, for the prestige as much as anything.
Three Iggaret scrappers checked their guns, ran round the corner and climbed the walls of the stronghold. They rolled the dice, and set the police on fire.
I realised after I succeeded that I’d basically just done an Assault on Precinct 13.
City of Remnants is a game that deserves a John Carpenter soundtrack. It is threatening, it is tense, it is lean and beautiful. It is just a little scary.
I won’t go deep into the rules, you can find plenty of reviews that do that. The short version is that you are a gang of refugees, dividing along racial lines and fighting for renown in a bleak wasteland of a city.
The game has a backstory only slightly more detailed than that single sentence. The manual provides a paragraph, and a short story at the back. But this is a game full of stories. It makes stories with its mechanics, and it tells stories in little flashes of detail.
Each card in the game has at least a line of backstory, something someone said, a little slice of insight. These fragments build a world. You could miss that world if you didn’t read it, but I don’t think there’s any way you can avoid what’s going on in this game.
You are hard up. You are building yourself up, but you are building by treading on other people’s faces. Not even just the other gangs. There is slavery. There are drugs. There are fight clubs and gambling dens. The game is fundamentally about gangs divided on racial lines, and some aliens don’t play nicely with others. At the end of every round, you will get stomped on by the police. If you fight back, there’s a real chance that they’ll just stomp back harder. Bribery often feels like the safest option.
So much of this comes directly from the rules. The story is clear. Every decision is a fight. Every fight is for your life.
Each turn is a single choice. You can only do one action. There aren’t that many actions.
Each fight is a gamble. You don’t know what your opponent has, and if you have to fight a second round, you may find you’re playing blind. If you lose, you could lose an important linchpin of your strategy. Every item, gang member and ability is a card. If you only put one gang member into a fight and you lose, that gang member is gone. Even if it’s your leader.
Put it in the box. You’re dead.
There’s weight to actions. Choosing what to do is a little agonising, but you’ll almost always get some benefit, so it doesn’t slow down the game. There’s a lot of ways to get ahead. It’s just deciding which one might work. Making a plan. Making it work.
And then it’s gambling, pushing your luck, and playing cool when things get desperate.
Desperate is the word. This world is desperate, and you will be too. You have not got much time, and you can lose momentum quickly.
The game is the theme is the story is the world is everything.
This is a game with a lot of moving parts. Set up takes a while, and once you get there you’re left with a lot of piles of tokens and stacks of cards and a small army of little plastic miniatures. Each person has a gang pool, a draw deck, a discard pile and a hand. You can recruit gang members, buy contraband or build developments. You have to position your people, and your buildings; a rude combination of tetris and chess. Make sure everyone is protected. Make sure everywhere is efficient. You build an economy. You build a gang. You get angry when you die, or you lose ground. You get revenge.
I think this is a lean, taut and brutal game. It is immediately engaging, despite the initially intimidating appearance. It’s straightforward to teach (although probably not enough for boardgame beginners), and it quickly becomes clear how much possibility there is.
It looks complicated. And in a way it is.
But at the same time, each element is simple. You can play these cards any time during your turn. These cards are for battles. Everything does what it says on the card. Positioning is important and clear. Having neighbours makes you stronger.
It’s all a series of simple choices, simple mechanics, combining in a well thought out, solidly balanced way.
And more than all of that. It feels right. It feels like you’re scraping by with very little. It feels like you’re building a precious, precarious empire. It feels like every time you expand you just make it more likely the police are going to knock down your door. It feels like you have a gang. A gang made of remnants. A gang you could lose.
It feels like proper sci-fi. Grim, dirty, desperate and intriguing. Not a story, but a world.
And then you make your own story.
This would not be my game to win people over to boardgames. It’s a bit too complicated (but actually it doesn’t waste a drop of anything), it’s a bit too grimdark cliché (but actually the world is much richer than first glance) and it’s a bit long and slow (but actually it’s tense and pacey and ends just at the right amount of a little bit too soon).
But once someone has taken their first paddle into the cardboard waters, and started to see that there’s more going on than they thought, I think this is the game to show them just how deep the water is.
I can’t stop thinking about it. About the mechanics, about the tactics, about the world. It doesn’t ever feel like just a game. It feels like a City. A place where people live, somehow, and die.
I can’t wait to put that City back on my table, and tell some more stories in it.
I’ve already linked to the Shut Up show video review, which might get you almost as excited as me. I’d also recommend the Cardboard Republic review. I particularly like their explanation of why it is good for different ‘gamer archetypes‘. Not entirely sure I agree with their definitions, but I like the idea, and it’s a good critical tool.
Much of my boardgame enthusiasm and knowhow comes from the chaps at Shut Up & Sit Down, so here’s an obligatory link. They’re great, fun, and informative.
Obviously check out Plaid Hat Games to see the developer, they have great how to play videos, and I think they are genuinely lovely people. The SU&SD interview confirms some of that loveliness. Also, check out Plaid, although they have nothing to do with Plaid hat, and some people even say they pronounce it differently.
Thanks to Plaid Hat for permission to use John Ariosa’s picture for the header. Ace customer service, I’ve had two email responses directly from Isaac Vega, the maker of this game. Which makes me feel cool.
Oh, and the Escape from New York and Assault from Precinct 13 soundtracks are awesome.