Friday, December 21, 2012

City of Horror

Please note that this is the rough draft for a review I wrote for Please check out the final draft of the review here.

Regular readers will remember that the first game review I did for Buy Zombie was Mall of Horror. I recall having positive things to say about it. It was fun and strategic, though somewhat friendship-destroying. City of Horror is the... well, I'm not sure what to call it. It's its own game, so it's not an expansion or reprinting. Is it a sequel? Can board games even have sequels? The website classifies it as a "reimplementation". I suppose that works better than anything I can think of.
Whatever it is, it takes the rules of Mall of Horror and then refines them, expands on them, and tweaks them in a few areas. This creates an experience that if you've played Mall of Horror will feel familiar, yet wholly distinct. If you've never played Mall of Horror, but you think you'd enjoy the kind of game where you feed your friends to zombies for fun and profit, then you're in for a special treat.

City of Horror takes place a month after the dead first started rising. The few remaining inhabitants of this unnamed city have managed to band together somewhat and bunker down. But hordes of zombies have been seen coming towards the city. The army is coming to rescue them, but they won't arrive for another four hours and the zombie horde is arriving right now. Not everybody is going to make it out alive.
So, first of we have the contents. The first thing about the components you need to keep in mind is that I received an advance review copy, which was complete, however, there were some imperfections with the game boards that they were working on getting rid of for the final release copies. So that means you should take what I say here with a grain of salt, because any imperfections should have been removed in the final copies. Now, having said that, I have seen complaints on various forums and other locations on the internet that the imperfections were not in fact fixed. Let me address this. Some of the game boards tend to bend in the middle, just a little bit. This makes it a little awkward to put the boards together the way you're supposed to. I've seen some people complain that it totally ruined their experience, however, the bending in my copy was very minimal and I hardly noticed the bending at all. Though I also have to admit some of the pictures I've seen have had worse warping than what I have in my copy. On the flip side, I have a couple other games with this same imperfection (in some cases far more noticeable than in my copy of City of Horror), and I still never found it to be severe enough to get in the way of either playing or enjoying those games. So whether or not this is going to be a problem for you comes down to a couple of issues. The biggest issue is how severe the warping is. From what I can tell, it's a gamble. Your copy may have little to no warping, or it may have quite noticeable warping. After that, the next biggest question is if the warping will bother or not. Personally I don't find it to be that big of a problem, but it may be for you. After that it's mostly a question of if you can fix it and how easy that is. This isn't something I've looked into, because as I've said, it doesn't bother me. However, it might be something you will want to look into if your copy does turn out to be warped.
Now, when you first open the box up you'll notice is that there are four rulebooks with accompanying quick reference guides. One each in English, Spanish, German, and French. As a polyglot and a translator, I love this. I love being able to read the rules in different languages and comparing them. In this case I assume they did it partially to make sure that the game components were as language independent as possible. This makes sense for several production and distribution reasons that I can think of, as well as making it simpler for people to learn the game, even if they don't speak any of those four languages. You see, the game components (all the various cards and boards) have relatively self-explanatory icons on them rather than text explanations of what they do. If you aren't sure what they do, then you can check the rules or the quick-reference guide. You'll need to at first, but it was pretty easy to figure out what they mean after a short while.
After the rule books, the most interesting thing is the zombies. Instead of the neat plastic zombie figures in Mall of Horror you've got cardboard cutouts and plastic stands to put them on. Personally I liked the plastic zombies, but these are solid, in color, and there are a couple different poses to spice things up with, and there are plenty of zombies this time around instead of just barely enough. The characters are a step up. You get the same cardboard-on-plastic-stands, but it's better than the wooden tokens you had to apply stickers to. You've got more cardboard pieces representing the various tokens, the rest of the game board, including the water tower, (don't worry, only the five largest pieces have warping issues), cards that will act as your resource but also help you out during play, cards that will tell you where the zombies are arriving each turn, and last but not least... bags to put everything into! That's right, no need to pull out the Ziplocs, this game provides plenty of bags for you to put all of the tokens and whatnot in. They even have holes in them so you don't have to burp the bags as you close them. It's a small thing, to be sure, but overall it's a very nice consideration. Besides, as the saying goes, it's the small things that matter most.
The artwork on everything is top-notch. The zombies look cool, the characters look cool, the cards look cool, and the game boards are fairly well-detailed. If I had one objection to the art it's that it's just a fraction too dark. I mean, the darkness adds a lot to the mood of the game, but there are just a few too many shades of black. It could have used a touch more color.
The game plays very similarly to Mall of Horror in most respects, but where it differs makes a big different. You start by randomly dealing six action cards to each player as well as a certain number of unique survivors. That's right, unlike Mall of Horror, where everyone has the same team, just with different colors, there are 21 individual survivors with unique skills. (Though there are a few survivors with the same skill. The little boy and little girl, for instance, can both hide.) This makes each game you play slightly different. However, beware, not all skills are of equal value, so you could end up having a huge advantage, or get completely hosed. There's a difference between having three zombie slayers and having someone who can't vote, someone who can't move, and someone who attracts more zombies. Good luck. I've found, however, that while the survivor skills do make a difference, it's not an insurmountable difference. After setting the game boards up and placing survivors, shuffle the "hour" cards that decide where zombies are placed at the start of each turn. Pick one of each hour and make a new pile. Start with midnight (game start) and then at the start of each subsequent turn you turn over the next and place the zombies (and airdropped supplies) at the locations indicated. The person to go first is... I kid you not... the one who looks most like a zombie. It's such a crazy way of going first you can't help but love it. The most-zombie looking gets the First player token and at the start of each turn, whoever had a character die last gets the token. If no one died, they keep it.
Much like Mall of Horror, each player has to decide a location they will move one of their characters to. Once everyone's decided where they're going to move, starting with the first player and moving clockwise, they choose a character to move to the location they chose. Normally you have to do this blindly, since you don't know if there are going to be extra zombies where you're moving to. However, if you have any characters on the water tower, then you get to look at the hour card showing what's going where, giving you and advantage. This is similar to, though not quite the same as being the security chief in MoH. Just like MoH, there is limited space at each location except for the middle of the board. So if you try to move a character to a full location, then they go immediately to the crossroads. There's food out there, for extra victory points, however, if there are any zombies there at all, somebody's getting eaten. In the other areas, certain conditions must be met before they break in, such as there being a certain number of zombies outside or more zombies outside than humans inside. Probably the biggest improvement over MoH is that between survivor skills and action cards, there are a lot more ways to kill zombies than MoH ever had. This is offset by the fact that zombies don't leave a location when they eat someone. On both accounts it makes a lot more sense to do it this way, and adds both a sense of greater danger but also greater control over the game.
That's the game turn right there: Choose where to go, move there, zombies show up, maybe you vote people out of the building to be eaten, maybe you don't. Remember to use your resources sparingly, though. Each location on the board has a special ability, but in most cases you have to discard a card to use it. Most of the locations have useful abilities, but the hospital is a must-visit location, since it's the easiest way to get antidotes. Oh, yes, that's another difference. At the end of the game, you need antidote tokens for each of your survivors for them to be counted for victory points. And survivors have two states: Rested and exhausted. In order to use their skill you have to exhaust them. But survivors are worth fewer points while exhausted.  So you might have more survivors than the next guy, but if yours are all exhausted and none of his are, then he just might beat you.
That's probably the best part of the game that MoH was really lacking. In MoH, there was usually little reason to not to use your resources as soon as you had them. In CoH, you need to conserve everything you have for as long as you can. Every decision feels important, not just where you're going to run to next. You have to decide if you can risk losing a vote and having a survivor get eaten because you need to keep that action card that can kill two zombies for later in the game, or if you need to kill the zombies right away to keep your survivor safe. There are occasional "airdropped" items (which survivors at the lucky location vote over), but generally there just isn't much in the way of replenishing cards in your hand. Which, again, makes sense, since you're in a ruined city, just trying to wait it out for just a couple hours so the army can rescue you.

Bottom Line: As follow-up of Mall of Horror, City of Horror improves on the original in almost every way. It basically is everything I wished Mall of Horror had been. It's not quite as cutthroat, but it's still pretty vicious. But even forgetting Mall of Horror and taking City of Horror all by itself, it's a fun, strategic game with a mean streak that manages to maintain a good sense of the dangers of the zombie apocalypse. It's got a great premise, good atmosphere, and rules that fit both perfectly. It's definitely among the better zombie-themed board games out there, and it just might be the best one released this year. If you can look past a few cosmetic flaws, then you should definitely check it out.

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