City of Abundant Mechanics
Action Point Allowance System
Area Control / Area Influence
Auction / Bidding
Deck / Pool Building
Variable Player Powers
So reads BoardGameGeek’s list of mechanics for City of Remnants, the most recent offering from Plaid Hat Games. It’s no secret that I’m Fanboy Prime when it comes to their debut title, the simple-but-deep Summoner Wars, but City of Remnants is a different creature altogether. The question is, does this wide collection of tools slot together into a coherent and graceful clockwork whole, or is it something more Frankensteinian? I’d like to say I have a concrete answer, but with so much going on, perhaps this is one game that defies ratings as much as it defies genre.
The story behind City of Remnants is a cautionary tale about what happens when a militaristic race of humanoids called the Yugai conquers your planet and strands you on a gulag-world alongside a bunch of other dispossessed species, and leaves you nothing but an overcrowded urban center and such lax gun laws that even the National Sporting Laser Association is looking into regulations. What’s the “cautionary” part of this space opera, you ask? Well, mostly that space-racism is about as pointless as regular racism, because rather than the four races that have been dumped into the City choosing to unite into a freedom force with the sole intent of going all Spartacus and smash their Yugai oppressors, everyone has instead divided along race lines and is trying to prove their species the biggest cheese on a planet filled with a whole mess of big cheeses.
(Sidebar: Perfect tagline to sell Plaid Hat Games for the inevitable sequel: We must end space-racism, or space-racism will end us.)
This setup does three things for the thematic underpinnings of City of Remnants right off the bat:
1. It sets a gritty tone that makes all the drug sales you’ll be conducting over the next few hours feel relatively ethically okay.
2. It gives you a good reason to fight against all those other gangs that are standing in the way of your revenge on the Yugai.
3. It means nothing you do really matters.
Think about it: even if you do manage to wipe out the other gangs and unite all four races, chances are you’ll have depleted the City’s resources and manpower in the process. Once the big gangland war is over, it’s probably a long shot to think you’ll be able to mount any sort of effective resistance. No matter which gang takes dominance, whether it be the vanilla Humans, shady Lentree, dinosaur-like Nei’su, or hulking Iggaret, it’s really your Yugai overlords who win.
Before you assume that I’m thinking this is bad thing, I need to set the record straight by saying I love it. This game puts you up to your nads in shady dealings and moral desperation, and that’s saying a lot because Iggaret nads are probably up in their armpits or something. It sets a tone of desperation and inevitable defeat. Even the occasional punches you get to take at the Yugai Control Units are underwhelming and pointless in the grand scheme of things, and end as often as not with you pathetically paying them off with wads of hoarded Alien Refugee Credits (ARCs, the currency of the gulag). There’s never quite enough to go around, and still, you’ve got to not only make do, but also somehow conquer the entire City.
That’s some great theme right there.
As desperate and dingy as the City is, this game is also downright optimistic. Not only is it possible to rise out of poverty and amass a fortune (in ARCs at least, which unfortunately have a 0.0007:1 exchange rate with galactic credits) (also, you will have amassed that fortune through some pretty dark dealings; gain the world but lose your soul, etc.), but it’s also likely that your gang will overcome intolerance and come to embrace a wide spectrum of… well, not cultures and traditions, but talents at least!
This is where the hand management and deckbuilding mechanics come in. Each gang begins with a faction-specific deck of ten cards. These are nicely differentiated too — for instance, the Iggaret gang gets lots of troops and abilities that give you combat bonuses, let you move extra troops, or do cool stuff like blow up enemy developments after you’ve brutally seized them in battle. The industrious Nei’su, on the other hand, are able to quickly and cheaply build up the zones they control. The abnormally tall Lentree use their height to peer into otherwise-secure windows (they make excellent thieves and assassins, as do all people of height), and the humans are old pros at this gangster stuff, populating their ranks with recruiters to “persuade” people into joining the right side and brainwashed disciples who bring in all sorts of extra goodies.
Although your deck initially only contains members of your race, you’ll gradually expand your forces to include all kinds — provided you can afford them, of course.
So now let’s take a look at how you’ll prove yourself the king of the City of Remnants. There are three things you should know before we jump into the various actions you can take.
The first thing you need to know is that the victory point pool is also your game timer. At the beginning of the game there’s a pool of 200 “renown,” and as you play, you’ll earn renown from this pool in various ways — winning battles when you have the right gang members, running illegal businesses, cornering the black market, dominating influential sectors of the City, or buying it at an unfavorable rate. There are lots of ways to increase your gang’s renown, and from what I’ve seen they’re all relatively equal paths to supremacy. I’m sure within a couple months of the game’s release, some math nerd will have figured out the single optimal route to being the bestest gang leader in all of time and space, but from a layman’s perspective all of the options seem viable. I’ve personally seen victory achieved through aggression, well-defended businesses, and huge endgame cash-ins, and none seemed like they were superior to the other options. At least not all the time; victory is usually best seized through some combination of your many options, as you exploit weaknesses and advantages as they appear throughout the game.
The second thing has to do with “influence,” which you can see tracked in the middle of the player mat above. Your gang’s influence starts at 4, can eventually peak at 7, and helps out in all sorts of ways. It determines how many cards you draw at the beginning of each round, how many gang members you can move across the City and send into battle, and how much, ahem, “product” you can sell at once. There are a few ways to increase your influence, from fielding armies of thugs, controlling a pile of businesses, or wiping the floor with your enemies in battle. None of them are a simple matter to achieve, but you’ll want to up your influence by a couple notches as soon as possible.
The third thing is that some experience in board game mechanics really wouldn’t go amiss here, because yes, this game contains elements of deckbuilding, bidding, city development, and worker placement. Not to fret — we’ll look at each in turn.
WARNING! This begins a fairly dry discussion of some of the game mechanics. If you don’t want to read all that stuff, skip down a few sections to where I’ve marked the end of the really dull stuff. I normally don’t like to talk too much about a game’s mechanics because I think that style of review is kind of boring, but a lot of my feelings — and, yes, concerns — about City of Remnants have to do with its wealth of mechanics. You’ve been warned.
Every round begins with a “Reset” that lets you shuffle your deck and gain 2,000 ARCs (which sounds like a lot, but it’s really just 2 points worth of currency), and then players get to alternate taking actions, one at a time. Everyone begins with 4 actions, and play proceeds until everyone has run out.
We’ll start with deckbuilding and hand management. As you may have guessed, your starting deck works with the same basic mechanics that all deck management games since Dominion have been using: you draw until you hit your hand limit, discard cards when they’re used, and draw — nope, scratch that! Unlike other deckbuilders, you don’t get to draw once you run out of cards in your hand. Instead, the only time you can draw new cards is when another card lets you, during the Reset Phase at the beginning of each round (and trust me, rounds can get long, with multiple battles, bids, and all sorts of gangland nonsense going down), or if you opt to waste one of your four action points on a “Refresh,” which just means you discard anything you don’t want to hold onto and then draw up to your hand limit, shuffling with necessary — and man, even when it’s the best choice, a Refresh action feels like a defeat, since you’re passing up opportunities to do cool stuff like recruit gamblers or sell drugs.
Other than Refresh, there are two more actions you can take that deal with your deck (that pun was intentional, too bad).
The second is Recruit, which begins a bid for a new gang member. You designate which gangster you intend to recruit (from an offering of four, though your options dwindle as the round progresses), and then everyone in a circle around the table gets a chance to outbid you. This goes around and around, the bid filling with increasingly absurd quantities of ARCs — and the gangster’s ego swelling apace, one would assume — until someone wins the bid. That person loses an action even if it isn’t their turn, adds the gangster to their hand, and puts a new gang figure (the little dudes you move around on the map) in their gang member pool to represent their newly increased manpower.
This gets a little odd in practice. It’s cool how your gang actually grows in size as you gain new members, and I like that other players can’t gank your actions by winning bids on your turn — as I said, winning the bid means they lose an action. But here’s the weird part: if the winner of the bid isn’t the guy or gal who began the action (as in, it’s currently their turn), then they must instantly try to recruit someone else. Which means unless they were bluffing about wanting that gang member (which is a real possibility), they’re now attempting to employ some dope that they might have no desire to work with. Which is a bit unthematic, to say the least. Worse, if there aren’t any gangsters on offer at all, that player must reveal the top card of the gang member deck and try to recruit it.
Of course, there’s an element of strategy here, from bluffing to snatching away gang members that are great matches for an opponent’s deck. But this is the first in a series of fiddly little quirks that arise from the game’s abundance of mechanics.
The third action that helps you build and manage your deck is Buy, which is thankfully a lot simpler than the Recruit action. This lets you do two things. First, you can spend ARCs to take one of the cards in the Black Market into your hand. These are cool additions, including permanent bonuses like better guns to give you an extra edge in battle or trade agreements so you get extra cash during the start of each round, or extra cards that go into your hand to give you intermittent perks. Second, you can buy renown. Quick and easy.
In theory, the hand management is a great idea. I love it when deckbuilding games try to be about more than just deckbuilding, so City of Remnants endears itself to me on that basis. However, in practice, it feels a bit sloppy. Many of the cards come with abilities that let you draw extra cards, and in every game many of our players were able to draw through their entire deck (or at least a huge portion of it) every round, which in turn stalled the game as they drew and used a pile of extra cards each turn in addition to their regular actions. This has a few negative effects, in my opinion:
1. It draws the game out. The game’s advertised length is 60 to 90 minutes, which is even more optimistic than the fantasy that the Lentree and Iggaret might set aside their differences and give the Nei’su the right to vote on how much they love Humans. My shortest game took two and a half hours, and that’s once everyone had played the game at least three or four times and knew all the cards.
2. It works against the game’s awesome theme of desperately scarce supplies. After the first few turns, there’s a good chance you’ll have plenty of supplies cycling through your hand with regularity.
3. Battles are determined by a whole mess of factors: how many troops you and your opponent have in the contested sector, how many in neighboring sectors, and what cards you play in support. You can play cards equal to your influence, so four at the start of the game and probably seven near the end. In addition, the combat values of these cards can get pretty high, meaning you’re rolling gobs of dice and adding highly variable numbers to the combat results. I’ve only seen a handful of close battles.
I want to be clear: this isn’t a game-breaker, and on the flipside, drawing so many cards does mitigate the luck of the draw somewhat — not entirely, but at least you won’t be wondering why you always draw your super duper warrior last. Problem is, once one player has a couple of those über-fighters, you’ll be seeing them often. I suspect this will be a matter of taste, but the pace of the hand management was one thing that didn’t appeal to my group.
Next we’ll talk about the development and worker placement mechanics.
In addition to managing your hand, you’ll also be managing your illegal gang empire. The “Production >>> Develop” action lets you first place Product Tokens on any developments that are busy manufacturing weapons or substances or what have you, and then choose from a wide array of buildings to plop down on the map. These range from cash-cow drug dens, junkyards, and weapons districts, to defensive strongholds, ethically questionable slave traders, and renown-stealing fight clubs and nightclubs. There’s a lot of great variety on display here, with 18 structures that may or may not appear in each game. And there is a minor worker placement feel to it, since you need to make sure you’re staffing each space or the business won’t be of any use to you — which becomes a considerable factor in determining whether you can afford the numbers necessary for a hard push into enemy territory.
Once you have some buildings generating products, you can use the Sell action to exchange your influence value’s worth of them for a tidy sum of ARCs. It’s a simple system but it works well because you need to string multiple actions together in order to pull off a booming payday, and of course you’ll be doing everything you can to juggle your economic powerhouse with military and deckbuilding considerations.
Criticisms? Most developments are just production generators, and there are a couple that feel a little overpowered, mostly the Strongholds that are likely to kill enemy figures and thus remove gang member cards from your opponent’s hand without them even putting up a fight, but overall this is one of the things I like best about City of Remnants. No two games are alike thanks to the randomness of which developments will appear in any given game.
Oh, and one of my favorite things about developments is that you can fund their construction anywhere in the City. Which means you can plop down a lucrative renown-generator like the Club Silver X in a sector contested by your enemies and watch as they tear each other to pieces over it. Like so:
Heh. Yeah, nobody attacked me once during that entire game. I was the yellow player, and I’m not even pictured up there because I just sat on my side of the board and raked in the dough. And by dough, I mean Star Dust.
Anyway, the only other action I haven’t mentioned is Move, which lets you move troops across the city, taking over developments and getting into scuffles as they go. You can move as many figures as you have influence, up to 3 spaces each. A simple one.
BORING MECHANICS DISCUSSION OVER!
How do I feel about City of Remnants? Well, I like it, but as to how much, I’m honestly a bit torn. It’s been divisive with my gaming group, which isn’t normal. We have a couple players who really enjoy it, who think it’s one of the best games they’ve played. We also have a few players who feel it’s much too slow, too fiddly, in dire need of some fine-tuning. Nobody hates it, which is a good sign, and even those who didn’t like all that much were willing to keep trying it because there were enough appealing bits and bobs to draw them back.
As for me, hearing my friends, most of whom are mild-mannered enough that they aren’t drinkers and don’t even really curse all that often, talk in all seriousness about drug deals and selling that informant kid into slavery — well, it’s a sort of magic. Okay, okay, so the “Star Dust” and “Red Eden” could be medicinal products or rare alien toiletries rather than space-meth or Yugai shrooms, but there isn’t much room for waffling with the “slave trader” stuff.
City of Remnants strikes me as the union between Plaid Hat’s cleverness and the sprawl, ambition, and production values of a bigger company like Fantasy Flight Games. And, like some FFG products, for all its size, it’s a bit fiddly. There are some weird rules. Some of the randomness is a bit higher than I usually like. Not everything feels perfectly balanced right out of the box.
And I think that’s okay.
One recent match was between my wife, Somerset, and two of my friends, Steve and Adam, on the side of the board specifically designed for three players. While Adam quietly built up a tiny empire on his side of the board, Steve decided he wanted to see some combat, and looked over and saw that Somerset had built some enticing developments. Since he didn’t want to waste the time or money required to build his own, he used all of his actions to march over and attack her. He drove her out of her developments, much to her annoyance. He didn’t stop there; he also drove her all the way back to her starting space, and then off the board.
As you can imagine, Somerset was pretty pissed. To her, the game looked broken right about then, because there was nothing she could do — Steve had blockaded her starting space, so any attempt to move out resulted in more lost figures and gang member cards. She was ready to settle in for the long haul, because it looked like she was about to spend the next couple hours sitting around and collecting cash and maybe buying some cards from the black market. It seemed like she had no other options. And that’s some sloppy design.
But! After everyone takes their turns, the Yugai Patrol Phase begins, representing the Yugai deciding that maybe they should police this circus of theirs. Normally their Yugai Control Units aren’t much threat — they aren’t usually tough to beat in combat, and if you aren’t in the mood to waste cards you can always bribe them off. But in this case, a whole bunch of them decided to patrol right across where Steve was occupying Somerset’s territory. And since he hadn’t been earning any cash of his own, and had spent all his actions pushing Somerset around, and had used up his cards in combat against her, he didn’t have any cash for the bribes. Or cards for the combat.
So the Yugai massacred him, and left Somerset’s home territory free again. She came out of hiding and took back her buildings. Except the one Steve destroyed in the course of his retreat, naturally.
All the while, Adam was building his empire. Of course he won.
Here’s the moral of the story, as well as my final score.
That match was memorable, and funny, and everyone involved had a good time (in the end), even despite some wonky rules. That’s been my experience with City of Remnants: yeah, it has a few things I don’t like as much, but I still think it merges all those mechanics together better than can rightly be expected. And I’ve enjoyed my experiences with it overall, even if a few games haven’t turned out as amazing as I’d hoped, considering Plaid Hat’s pedigree.
I give City of Remnants an 8 out of 10. No, a 7. Or… hell, I don’t know. Hm. It’s good, alright? Like I said at the beginning, it sort of defies being rated.
Though for now, I’ll settle on 8/10.