Regardless of the quality of the gameplay and design, Wizkids’ new Batman: The Gotham City Strategy game fails to meet expectations on a fundamental level. As the first-ever serious attempt at a Batman-themed hobby title and as an example of the typically problematic superhero theme, expectations were high- especially from this lifelong Batman fanatic. When I opened the box and saw that the illustrations were the exact same ones that you see on coloring books, party favors, or lunchboxes at the dollar store and not anything based on the actual comics, my heart sank. Looking past the high quality Heroclix figures of Batman, Joker, Penguin, Killer Croc and Two Face, I was profoundly disappointed to see a card titled “Harley Quinn” that had…a picture of Joker on it- the same picture that is on all of his upgrade cards. I mean, seriously. Couldn’t they get somebody to draw a picture of a laughing gas canister?
One of the results of the cheap, repetitive party favor artwork used in lieu of authentic comic book penciling is that the game falls well short of being the tabletop analog to the licensing grand slams that were Rocksteady’s Batman video games. Unlike those brilliant games, which dug deep into the Batman canon and presented a mature, fan friendly but mainstream-accessible version of the classic characters and setting, the Batman board game feels like a very, very high level take on it with almost no connection to any bona fide comics material. This is Batman as a bland, corporate mascot concept with the only buy-in being the notion of classic Batman villains committing crimes in Gotham City while Batman runs around thwarting their madcap schemes. Further, the game acts like the Christopher Nolan films never happened, and I think that is a mistake if it’s gunning for a wider audience.
I’m hitting the artwork and production design hard because this is a comic book game and simply having bad drawings of characters drawn much better elsewhere and slapping a comics lettering font on the components doesn’t hack it when you’re trying to make a convincing attempt at putting superheroes in a tabletop game. This is a ground floor, foundational failure and it’s especially disappointing that Wizkids, with their long and successful history of licensing comic book characters, couldn’t do better with visually presenting the property.
With that bit of ugliness out of the way, the nuts and bolts of the game are actually pretty decent. It’s a light, very easy to play hybrid that melds area control Eurogame mechanics with a distinct “dudes on a map” feel, paired up with some fun PVP and a mutually controlled Batman that acts as a spoiler. That’s right, there’s no arguing about who gets to be Batman. Everybody gets to be Batman. Smart move.
I’m especially pleased that designer Paolo Mori made another smart move and eschewed the usual superhero game pattern established by Games Workshop’s Judge Dredd (1982) and carried on through Marvel Heroes and others. Instead of having villains commit crimes on a city map and tasking the players with resolving them, this game puts the players in control of the villains. I like this idea, especially for a Batman game since his rogues’ gallery is the best in the business, bar none. I’m not quite sure why Mr. Mori (or the Wizkids suits) would pick Killer Croc over Catwoman, who doesn’t bother to show up at all. But neither do Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, or any of the other members of the Bat-family.
The idea is that the players use their villain’s figure and a small handful of way-out-of-scale henchmen figures and some “threat” markers to control areas of Gotham City. Each turn, a player plays an action card that provides one of two different income types (money and information) to whoever controls a specific part of town. Control is based on whoever has the most henchmen and threats or whoever has their figure there. The second part of the card is an action which may feature prerequisites such as controlling a pair of areas or a certain number of pieces in one.
The kicker is that some cards also have the Bat signal which heralds a mandatory action by the Caped Crusader, which means that the players have some control over when Batman decides to make the rounds. It’s not total control, because he may decide to pop up in one of your own areas to fight your villain figure or clean out the threat tokens present. Batman has his own click base and can level up over the course of the game, increasing his crime-fighting capabilities. He’s a real threat to the bad guys, and I think the game really captures the idea of Batman watching over the city, striking out of nowhere, and returning to the Batcave.
The villains also level up, and that is the ultimate goal of the game. Each villain’s click dial has a series of goals that include things like controlling a number of areas or having a specified amount of money. When the villain upgrades, he may unlock a special ability card thematically tied to the villain like Penguin’s trick umbrellas or Two-Face’s coin. The goal of the game is for a player to level their villain all the way up the dial to level ten, giving the game an interesting development curve and sense of escalation.
I like how it all works together, in general. The dice combat is fun. The resource management is a little convoluted but working out when to spend your information to move in on a territory and invade it or save it for an upgrade make for some simple but significant decisions. The upgrades increase the thematic feel as the villains become more detailed, and the presence- not just the activity- of Batman feels right.
This is a game with just a couple of pages of rules, which usually means two things. One is that the game is very easy to learn and approachable. The other is that there are invariably rules clarifications, uncertainties, and vagaries. I haven’t seen anything particularly egregious, but there have been a few times when I wished the rules were actually a little more thorough. It doesn’t help that there is a touch of sloppiness to the design, with its multi-tiered area control triage and multiple resources.
With four potential players, it’s also troubling that the game doesn’t feel quite right with a full table and not just because it’s 30 minutes a player. It runs long, with players struggling to get into position to hit the upgrade checkpoints against three other players doing the same, knocking each other down at every opportunity. I like the three player game quite a bit more, but the two player game feels like it is missing friction. So it may be best to regard Batman as a three player game, which puts it into a certain niche that may make it a more valuable proposition for some players.
I’m looking at the box sitting next to me and although I like the game, I think it’s fun and it does have a measurable amount of Batman flavor, I can’t help but feel that this is a case where so much potential was squandered. This could have been THE Batman game. It needed to be that ultimate expression, not a good but not great game that doesn’t leave a particular mark other than it’s slightly better than most other superhero titles that we’ve seen over recent years. I don’t think it would be hard for even a casual fan to look over the game and notice missed opportunities or to furrow their brow over the presentation that doesn’t speak to the current interpretations of Batman- or any of the most popular ones over the past 70 years that the character has been around. The inspiration seems not to be in the Batman of Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Timm/Dini, or even Bob Kane. It seems to be coming from the notion of Batman as a party favor mascot rather than as a cultural icon and I think that is terribly unfortunate.