City of Horror, a game played by total jerks, takes the gameplay out of the game

, | Game reviews

City of Horror isn’t really much of a game. The rules are surprisingly simple for a board with so many pieces, most of them being zombies on little plastic stands. It only lasts four turns, which means you will only ever make four moves. The modular board doesn’t seem to have any sense of balance or tuning. “Eh, just use whichever side you want,” it says about each tile, as if it knows the board itself is one of the least interesting things going on here, despite being gussied up with zombie apocalypse artwork. Useful artwork, by the way. The discard pile is an overturned garbage truck. The pile of antidote tokens goes on an ambulance. The zombie markers pile up behind a barricade until you put them into play.

But none of this is as important as the people sitting around the table. How you play the board doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you play these people.

After the jump, you don’t see them screwing each other over for a victory point.

As a game, City of Horror doesn’t work until you add players. You could never, for instance, add an AI and port it to the iPad. If you’re just playing this as a system and hoping to get through with the most victory points, it won’t reveal anything meaningful about itself and it’ll furthermore feel like a pretty lousy boardgame. Instead, you must play City of Horror as a framework in which you screw over the other players. And not in the usual boardgame way of simply trying to get more points than they have, or taking the last piece of wood before they can get it, or rolling dice to attack their territory. This is a very different kind of game. It’s like the old maxim about people being chased by a bear. You don’t have to be the fastest to get away. You just have to be faster than at least one other person.

The heart of the gameplay is voting. When the zombies attack, they don’t overrun a location or ambush anyone or shamble through collapsed barricades. These zombies have to be fed. They don’t do anything that a tank of piranhas couldn’t also do. At any given location where the zombies are a threat, the players decide who’s going to die by voting. It’s more Survivor than Night of the Living Dead. One of the biggest mistakes players make in City of Horrors is playing these early turns like a co-op game. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. The early turns are a chance to get ahead.

You only have as many votes as you have characters present, so there will be plenty of instances where three people vote, in which case two of them team up against the third. Frequent ties will be broken by whomever holds the first player marker. In a clever example of tuning since the first edition, City of Horror had a very important rule change about who gets the first player marker. It used to just move around the table every turn. Now, whoever loses a character gets the marker immediately, and therefore gets to break the next tie vote. So when you vote to throw someone’s character to the zombies, you’re simultaneously weakening him (he has fewer survivors to cash in for victory points) and empowering him (he now decides who will die in the next tied vote, at which point he will probably remember how you voted to kill one of his characters).

Even though this is only a game that lasts four turns, this isn’t necessarily a short game. The playing time depends on how long players take to make deals. The special character abilities and power cards throw a lot of wrenches into the works, so the early turns will often take longer. Early on, there are more ways to deal with problems, and more goods to be traded, and more promises to be made, and more schemes to be trumped with a handy shot of pepper spray, or Molotov cocktail, or priest’s rebuke, or convenient pregnancy (the theming is nothing if not silly). But these abilities and cards are extremely limited. The progression of more zombies and fewer options as the game goes on is one of the few ways City of Horror feels like a zombie apocalypse instead of a simple framework for player voting, such as Resistance. By the time the last turn comes around, you’re often helplessly watching everything fall apart, with no recourse but to wander the streets and die. It can be an especially discouraging game for how you’re basically at the mercy of other players’ deals. I’ve had more than one game where someone just got fed up and left the table. City of Horror players are dicks. They have to be. The game demands it.

As a game unfolds, as it starts to progress as it should, as the players start actually playing it as intended, I can’t help but think of Hart Bochner approaching Alan Richman to make a deal in Die Hard.

“Hans, boobie, I’m your white knight.”

He oozes insincerity. That grin, that oily wheedling, that grotesque caricature of sincerity. He is only acting out of self-interest. That is always and only how you should regard other players in City of Horror when they offer you some sort of deal. If you’re not dealing, if you’re not wheedling, if you’re not oozing insincerity before you throw someone to the zombies, you’re not playing City of Horror. Never mind what’s happening on the board. This is a game about what’s happening between the players, all of whom are assholes.

  • City of Horror

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  • Boardgame
  • In City of Horror, you're playing a group of humans faced with a zombie invasion. The struggle against the dead is important, but your own survival is vital! To win, you'll have to make alliances but also betray your companions. Which is fine, since they're all total assholes.
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