The new Plaid Hat Games title is City of Remnants, designed by Colby Dauch (Summoner Wars) and Isaac Vega (the upcoming Bioshock Infinite board game). I’ll cut right to it, this game is bad ass. Especially if you’re looking for a game that somehow magically combines a plot development/harvesting mechanic with a light dudes-on-a-map conflict game featuring massive die rolls and plenty of battle incentives across tight quarters. Call it Aggro-cola if you must, but this is an easier and far bloodier design. Oh, and to top off this delightful layer cake of a design, there’s also simple deckbuilding element with multi-function cards that have different values for each player. There are a couple of unclear rules mostly owing more to its dynamism than a substandard rulebook, but on balance City of Remnants is poised to be one of the top games of the year.
There’s a bit of necessary fiction to prop up the concept of rival gangs vying for economic and territorial control of what is essentially a city turned into a prison camp for survivors of an alien invasion. It doesn’t get in the way, but it does feel a touch forced when a more sensible them would have been a contemporary organized crime narrative. Get past it, and the idea is that you start your nascent gang with a seed deck of a few faction-specific cards that sort of define your crew’s specializations. Each round, you get four actions to conduct your gangly business. You might recruit a new gang member via auction into your deck because you want his card’s special ability or he may have a high combat value for your side. Or you may just need to get another of your figures on the board. You can also buy black market equipment, some of which are permanent effects and some of which go into your deck. If you’re already in position on the board, you can buy building tiles that provide special functions and/or produce goods that can be sold for profit. Money is measured in ARCs, victory in renown cumulatively earned each turn for your possessions and through other gameplay functions.
Development isn’t just a matter of material holdings or building a tough deck that gives you an advantage in the auctions, discounts for buying buildings, or raw combat power. Influence is an important factor in the game, serving as a limiter for functions such as hand size, how many units you can move, and how many goods you can sell. Increasing influence is achieved through a neat achievement-like system. Roll 18 dice in combat, pay 12,000 ARCs, and so on. It’s a great short-term goal system, and I particularly appreciate the subtle influence of modern video gaming “unlocks” on the design idea.
The combat mechanic is a combination of a dice pool mechanic and cardplay. Players tally up how many units are in a contested space (stack limit of two, mind) and in adjacent spaces. Cards can be played for their combat value, and the sum of it all is the number of battle dice thrown. Whoever gets the most hits wins, and the loser not only has to remove a figure from the spot but they also have to remove from one of the cards they played in the fight from the game. It’s simple, brutal, and the cardplay makes for some compelling decisions- especially since there is no built-in reshuffle/redraw during the turn, and players have to use one of their four actions in a round to do so. Pick your battles, or you may wind up without cards to play.
The close quarters paired up with per-turn renown point income help to ensure that players play aggressively, fighting for control of valuable development tiles and the prime real estate in the center of the board. If players decide to unadvisedly turtle up, there is an end-of-round incursion by the Yugai Control Units- the cops. Coordinate cards are drawn, chits are drawn from a bag, and the alien police crack down. Even the most dug-in player might have to fight battles in inconvenient locations. Beating a Yugai chit results a die roll which can net the player rewards but can also spawn more Yugai. The aliens are also corrupt bastards. You can choose to pay an ARC cost to get them to take a hike.
City of Remnants is a surprising design because there is a lot going on it, yet the rules set is fairly simple and easy to share with others. It’s one of those games that has just enough of everything, and doesn’t go overboard on anything. The length is right (90-120 minutes with four, and you should play it with four), the procedural density and overhead are right on the mark. In more than just one or two ways, the game puts me very much in mind of Nexus Ops, but skewing more toward a modern hybrid concept with some distinctly Eurogame ideas regarding development, resources, and long-term goals.
It’s a total package. Smart, well-considered and editorial design ideas paired up with a subtly complex combination of classical and innovative mechanics. The ass-kicking, dice-rolling genre fare works surprisingly well with the more austere Euro elements. It’s not quite the orchestral, elaborate balance that Chaos in the Old World was as this feels like more of a plebian game tuned for simple thrills, high interaction, and easily satisfying strategy. The product is on the right end of the scale with nice graphics and a distinct sense of character that drives home the sci-fi concept.
Between the smash successes of Summoner Wars and Mice & Mystics – not to mention the potential of the upcoming Bioshock game- this is a company that’s doing some outstanding in-house design. Plaid Hat is clearly engaging the development of a brand and style. Mr. Dauch and company continue to impress me with their products and I think City of Remnants fits right in line with their oeuvre. Fans will be pleased, and newcomers might be surprised at this game’s unique feel.