Whatever it’s about, City of Remnants is a grand tabletop gang rumble

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I could tell you the premise of City of Remnants, which is that two to four alien races have been dropped onto a refugee planet where they fight amongst themselves. Occasionally, their vicious alien overlords visit them in force. I could tell you that, but I’d rather not. Because when I play City of Remnants, I’m enjoying a Blade Runner slash Chaos Overlords cyberpunk yarn about gangs fighting for control of a city. Sometimes, they have to deal with — or even profit from, if they’re geared up properly — police crackdowns. Never mind that guff about refugees and aliens with silly names.

After the jump, what’s in a theme?

City of Remnants is a detailed and surprisingly unmessy tactical game about moving your gang out onto a naked grid. When you arrive, this city is only slightly more complicated than a checkerboard. It won’t stay that way. The center is the rich Heights, available for lucrative economic development and victory point harvesting. The outer edges are the slums, ideal for fast and cheap development. You and the other players will dress up the map as you go, introducing the components of an economic engine. The engine varies from game to game because only half of the pieces will be in play in any given game. Will this be a game about strongholds in the Heights, or slave traders working hand-in-hand with recruiters in Midtown, or cheap Red Eden manufactured in the slums? Will there be casinos? Will the hotly contested Club Silver X be a factor? Will the two weapons districts make the fighting more fierce? Will some poor sap set up an uncertain counterfeiting operation that never pays off? You won’t know until you see the pieces that start any particular game, and even then, it depends on the choices everyone makes as the game unfolds.

This is one of those intriguing sandbox set-ups, where you’re never sure what components will come into play in any given game. A Study in Emerald is my favorite recent example of this. City of Remnants designer Isaac Vega cites Dominion as his inspiration. That naked checkerboard fills up pretty quickly, and then it plays out as a thoughtful tactical playground for some shrewd deck-building and card management, with a touch of die rolling to stave off any certainty. The card management isn’t the usual trick of just running through your cards as they come up and then shuffling and running through them again. If your deck runs out in City of Remnants, you don’t shuffle your discard pile and start anew. Instead, you have to use one of your oh-so-precious actions to cycle the discard pile back into your deck. So a lot of the planning is about when to hold your cards and when to burn them. On one hand, it pays to be prepared. On the other hand, you’re going to feel pretty silly when the turn ends and you didn’t use your powerful cards because, you know, someone might have jumped you. On the third hand, you’ve only got so many cards left before you have to do a refresh action. There’s even a deterrent factor. How many cards does the player on your left have? How many does the player on your right have? Okay, the choice is obvious. But wait, isn’t that player’s war drone and powerful leader card still in play?

Each of the four gangs begins as a collection of ten cards, but the cards are absolutely unique to each faction. The human faction’s yellow cards cycle like crazy. The blue faction — now we’re in the domain of goofy aliens that I’d just as soon reference by color — gets an economic leg-up when it comes to developing the economic engine. The green faction starts with a healthy income potential and some powerful combat hands if he plays his cards right. But the real combat faction is red, who gets unique battle and movement abilities. I’m convinced City of Remnants isn’t balanced at all. Whatever faction is winning any given game is clearly overpowered and needs to be nerfed. When I first learned the rules, it was obviously green. In my last game, it was yellow, without a doubt. When they bring their considerable power to bear, it will surely be red steamrollering the other factions unfairly. A game so obviously unbalanced in so many possible directions is pretty smartly balanced. A lot of it will depend on player skill and how familiar you are with the pieces. For instance, a quick way to kill someone’s interest in City of Remnants is to give him the red faction in his first game against experienced players. Don’t attempt red until you’re confident and ready to prosecute some serious scorched earth.

Beyond each gang’s ten starting cards, a bidding action can bring more gang members into play, each represented as a new card in your deck and an additional figure on the board. Note that the figures on the board are a generic representation of the number of cards you have, and not a specific figure for each card. This is one of the ways City of Remnants splits the difference between too complicated and too simple. You can outright buy item cards from a black market to add additional gimmicks to your deck or your economy. Advanced weaponry, computers, drugs, trade deals, broadcast networks, and communications equipment are all adroitly themed into the gameplay. You won’t soon forget the formidable war drones or infuriating smoke bombs. Since there are only ten items, with multiple copies of each, City of Remnants has license to make them distinct and powerful. This isn’t a game with a simple +1 here and -1 there.

The police crackdowns add a picante randomness to an otherwise orderly procession of armies and economies. A crackdown phase each turn draws from a deck of crackdown cards. This deck distributes police actions across the city over the course of the game, but because you draw two cards at a time, each with three locations, the police might stack up on a particular location. What’s more, in the course of fighting the police, die rolls can call out more cops. What begins as the cops chasing off a panhandler — don’t miss the cute little flavor text on the crackdown cards! — can turn into a city-wide war of cops vs well armed gangs. It might shatter a player’s defenses, gimp his economy, or force him to waste his money on bribes. And it’s almost certain to concentrate itself in the lucrative Heights area. “Maybe all those developments in the slums weren’t such a bad idea after all,” you muse as everyone scrambles to fill a power vacuum the police have left in the center of the board, leaving you to churn out Red Eden while they beat themselves silly.

City of Remnants was released last year about the same time as Kemet, and I’ve heard that Kemet might have stolen some of its thunder. They’re both dudes-on-a-board games of war and economics. But they each have a very different feel, and not just because of the theming (Kemet is ancient Egypt). City of Remnants is less fluid than Kemet, and therefore more predictable. It’s more about tactical positioning. This is a city and not an open desert. But the dramatic impact of the deck building, the city developments, and the asymmetrical factions reminds me of the tech tree in Kemet. There’s a delicious “anything can happen” openness when these games begin. As the game board takes shape in City of Remnants, and as players bite off pieces of the tech tree in Kemet, a vivid landscape emerges. But whereas Kemet is like a whirlwind that can scoop up anyone at a moment’s notice, City of Remnants is an exercise in urban planning and measured tactics.

Although I really like City of Remnants, it does come with a few important caveats. Losing battles can be extremely painful in terms of ceding territory, manpower, and economic resources, sometimes all at once. The lesson here is not to put all your eggs in one basket, or to at least protect that basket very jealously. A winner can easily start snowballing, and this is often bad news in a game this long. This is not a snappy game. The game clock is a pool of victory points that depletes very slowly. While you could jigger the number of available points for a shorter game, I suspect it would throw off the balance.

And as the vivid landscape takes shape, as the police become less of a threat to the frontrunner, the game can effectively end before it’s over. There isn’t any meaningful mechanism for a come-from-behind victory, which is part of why some players might prefer Kemet’s whirlwinds. I’m also skeptical that City of Remnants scales well. There’s a bit too much room in a two-player game, and a three-player game will often be about two players fighting each other while the third player wins. I’m tempted to call City of Remnants a four-player-or-not-at-all game. But I won’t, since this is too good a game to be written off as a not-at-all.

Finally, City of Remnants is hugely encouraging to those of us looking forward to Plaid Hat Games’ upcoming Dead of Winter, which looks like a zombie apocalypse themed version of Battlestar Galactica’s co-op-with-a-hidden-traitor formula. With Isaac Vega as the co-designer of Dead of Winter, there’s a good chance that game will do for zombies what City of Remnants does for Blade Runner, Chaos Overlords, William Gibson, and even District 9.

  • City of Remnants

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  • In City of Remnants players take on the roles of gang leaders each one with unique qualities and motivations. Players will struggle to control the city but only the winner can decide the city's future. Many paths to victory lay before you. Bid for gang members who provide a variety of shady skills. Get an edge with weapons and other sundrys from the black market. Build districts that can provide you with advantages production and income but beware because a greedy opponent might sweep in and take over the work of your own hands. City of Remnants combines strong resource management auction and conversion mechanisms with spatial tactics asymmetric player powers area control and direct conflict. A variety of tools different every game are at your disposal to build up your gang and claim the city for yourself. But watch out for the Yugai police force who will meddle with everyone's plans!