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Cracked LCD- Batman: The Gotham City Strategy Game in Review


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.

Rethinking Mass Murder

The above panel is from issue #25 of Grant Morrison’s phenomenal run on DC Comics’ Animal Man. The pale guy is actually the author speaking directly to the character he’s written for two years at the point and the statement he is making is specifically about comic books and the state of the medium circa 1990. It’s a reflection on how grim, dark, gritty, and graphically violent comics had become in a rush toward feigned maturity and mainstream acceptance. It’s a statement about how the gee-whiz wonder and optimism of the Golden and Silver Age had been washed away by writers and artists over-eager to Frank Miller everything up, to darken the vibrant palette of comics to reflect the real world. I read this issue over the holidays, not long before the Connecticut school shooting.

Of course, neither that tragedy nor Animal Man have anything to do with violence in the real world, regardless of the pundits and opportunists that would have us believe that media is a causative factor in increasing the number of murders or violent crimes that we see on the news. People make choices, people have problems. Consumer media doesn’t make those or create those. Ironically, even the bloodiest, most brutal video games are less socially harmful than any given car commercial that promotes an illusion of American affluence or a reality show that celebrates crude, unbecoming behavior.

Between reading Morrison’s rather profound, simple statement against the darkening tone of the comics medium and thinking about twenty- twenty– children shot to death, I’ve been thinking heavily on violent video games content and in a way that I never really have before. Maybe it’s something to do with getting older, maybe it’s something to do with being a parent. Writing as someone who has never had an issue with violence in video games, movies, or any other kind of entertainment, I’m rather shocked to find that for the first time in my life I’m really kind of sick of being entertained by mass murder.

Brace for unpopular opinion. The anti-video games crowd isn’t entirely wrong about violence in video games. They’re wrong because they don’t understand that games aren’t non-stop slaughter-fests oozing with blood and rape. Most of the people that make comments about video game violence have barely played the games they’re talking about, if at all. It’s the exact same situation as with the Video Nasty, Satanic Panic, and Gangsta rap controversies in the 1980s The moral watchdogs don’t understand that video games have finer literary qualities like narrative context, signification, satire, and metaphor.  And that they are entertainment, and that it is OK to be entertained by darker, more questionable material. They don’t get that video games are an artistic medium that can- and in fact should- represent all aspects of human life including violence and death.

But what they are, at least in part, right about is that it has become too pervasive and there is a certain climate of brutality, nihilism, and devalued human life that games (along with other media) are promoting in the larger cultural spectrum. Witness any number of games released in 2012, where the primary action is killing somebody or something. Witness any number of games where the environments are broken, destroyed, or otherwise ruined. Witness any number of video game covers where the central figure is a “chin down, eyes up” killer of whatever stripe. Witness the aggressively macho, roughneck tone, sound, and visuals of many games. You cannot possibly claim with any degree of credibility that video games do not glorify, reward, and celebrate the taking of simulated life. Achievement unlocked, there’s pixelated blood on your hands.

Lionizing murder is one thing, but stripping death of all of its finality, meaning, and immense power is another. Video games are practically founded on frivolous representations of death without consequence or meaning, barring games such as Dark Souls that make dying an important mechanic in the game. But rare is the game that comes along saying to the player “hey, maybe killing all of these people was a bad idea”. Spec Ops: The Line did that in a particularly chilling way. The victims of a white phosphorous attack are revealed to be innocent civilians, not enemy combatants. I can’t think of another game that really shows the player what happens when they press a button and lots of people die. People that shouldn’t have died.

Video games have always been criticized for violent content. I recall reading a video games magazine sometime around 1983 or 1984 that had an article about what could happen if video games were made illegal because of their violent content. At that point, the most violent game you could play was the old Death Race arcade game. Decades on, and slaughter has become casual and in fact expected of the medium.

To some degree, it’s natural. Simulated violence is one of the key elements of any kind of play. When animals play, they mock fighting, competition, conflict, and aggression.  And people have always been entertained by violence from the gladiator arena to the Grand Guignol. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I do believe that there should be violence in video games because they, as art, should necessarily reflect who we are as a civilization. I’m still going to play shooters, because I love them. Violent video games are entertaining. But I do find that I am questioning why there are so many games that put the player in the role of a mass murderer- regardless of context, cause, or justification. Why is it always about killing?

Think about it. How many digital lives did you end last year, not including online multiplayer opponents whose on-screen personages map directly to a live human being? How many over the entire time you’ve played games? For my part, I can’t count that high. If the world of Tron were a reality, I would be a Hitlerian figure of evil. And so would you. Yet I’ve never once flinched at a headshot or a backstab. Have you? Why aren’t we shocked by decapitations, dismemberments, throat-cuttings, eyeball piercings, or evisceration? It’s all become so powerless, inert, without impact.

This adherence to a standard of killing as core design element is one of the key things preventing, I think, games from progressing as a medium. We- the people that buy and play these games- have set a very, very low standard that appeals to the basest instincts and desires, valuing murder fantasy over creativity, exploration, and transcendental reflection. We got tired of killing living video game people so we started re-killing video game people that are already dead. It just goes on and on, and it’s sad that there’s no end in sight.

There are exceptions, and they are important. Games like Catherine, Journey, and Little Inferno. Games that are about other aspects of the human experience than killing other people. Over the holidays the game I played the most was Waking Mars, an IOS title about exploring Mars. It’s a science fiction game, but there isn’t a trace of the kind of xenocidal, Aliens-influenced bug hunting that characterizes an overwhelming percentage of all the science fiction games ever made. Instead of shooting the place up, you observe lifeforms and learn about the ecosphere.  Yet it’s compelling, fraught with danger, and offers challenges far beyond killing everything and then shooting a boss in its glowing bits. What if Mass Effect did away with all of the shooting and instead was a game about exploration, discovery, and the pioneer spirit? Did Bioshock really need to be a FPS to tell its story or convey its message?   Why can’t more video games follow the example of 2001: A Space Odyssey instead of fucking Pitch Black?

Think about an alternate reality where mass murder in video games wasn’t acceptable- or demanded- by the audience, where creators understood the power of depicting death economically and with meaning. Imagine Assassin’s Creed in this world. Instead of cutting down hundreds and hundreds of random enemies, your character would spend the entire game gathering intelligence, observing, and preparing for ONE murder in a 20 hour game.  How awesome- and more profoundly thrilling- would that assassination be? Imagine more games like the original Rainbow Six, where one shot kills, every bullet counts, and the goal is to complete a mission- not just kill everything in sight as you walk through a shooting gallery toward an “objective marker” to press X and flip a switch and trigger a cut scene that serves as a phony justification for the actual gameplay and actions depicted.

There’s a reason that casual gamers flock to games like Farmville, Angry Birds, and the like. They’re going to games that DO NOT reflect the real world, they aren’t escaping like “hardcore gamers” are into a world of persistent, continual, and endless violence. They aren’t using silly excuses about “blowing off steam” or “getting out some aggression” to participate in this kind of simulated mass murder. They just don’t want to see it, and I don’t think that’s wrong. I think that’s actually more normal than locking in for two hours of constant death and killing during a Call of Duty session. And I don’t want to hear developers whining that games without guns and shooting don’t sell. Because they most certainly do, as evidenced by any number of games that aren’t about shooting versus Body Count, Inversion, Homefront, Syndicate, et. al. It’s just that there are a very small number of killing-centric games that have dominated the AAA market.

But why, developers, do you keep shepherding us down this road where mass murder is the overarching theme of the video game medium? The irony is that these games are rated “M for Mature” when they’re more often than not anything but that. Is there even a possibility for us to have a Cannibal Holocaust moment in this medium where people say “OK, that is taking this kind of entertainment killing and death worship a little too far.” I don’t know that there is, and as much as I like games about fighting, shooting, stabbing, punching, and blowing things up I find myself asking if those things are actually entertaining anymore. Mass murder has lost its thrill, and I’m more excited by a game where I’m watching how water affects a subterranean organism on Mars than I am by a good K/D ratio.

The pale guy up there, one of the best writers that comics has ever seen, says it all but I’m going to quote with liberty.

“They’ll stop at nothing, you see. All the suffering and pain and death in the video game world is entertainment for us. They thought that by making the video game world more violent they would make it more “realistic”, more “adult”. God help us if that’s what it means. Maybe for once they should try being kind.”