My Heart Pumps Neon
With the benefit of hindsight, City of Remnants was a bit of a mess. Crud, it was a mess even without hindsight. Somewhere between the tile-laying, alien-killing, and drug-peddling, it was brimming with cool ideas. Unfortunately, they were held together with bouncy glue. The resultant skyscraper towered high, but also tended to sway precariously. Needed more blurp.
Wait — blurp?
That’s right. Blurp. Neon Gods is a remake of City of Remnants, minus the mess and plus ten points of charisma. And it has more blurp than you can shake a sneeze at.
What is blurp? No idea, although Neon Gods invokes it plenty. It’s in the first sentence of the rulebook. Twice. And it’s what your shock-hot gangs of partyboys are after, the desired result of all their rowdiness. Conquer a few high-rises, peddle some euphemistic “product,” trade in your cash. All for blurp. You win by having the most of it. Surely it’s important.
Perhaps blurp stands for style, because Neon Gods has heaps of that. Its cityscape is a soak of electrically charged neon and argon. Its partyboys are drenched in color, hot with color, burning with color. The troops you recruit into your deck look like cartoons from a time when the spectrum of all televisions was tuned to “hard on your dad’s eyes.” Pretty much the only thing that could have used a visual bump is the structures you build, little watchtowers and drug factories and gang-worshiping monuments. Drowning among all that color and noise, your eyes take a second to saccade to them; then, suddenly apparent, you blink with the realization that they’re right there, unmissable. Five seconds later, they’re camouflaged again.
That sense of style leaches into the gameplay itself. Your task, as one of this neon-scorched city’s premiere outfits of hoodlums and partygoers, is to sprint into the night, grapple territory away from the Robocop-ish police, recruit and build and brawl, and rub the blindness from your eyes when at last the dawn rolls around. Incidentally, that’s when scoring happens. Every skyscraper and neighborhood, every monument and wad of cash, every triumphal tussle, they all bring the blurp rolling in.
At its best, Neon Gods is reminiscent of its forebear without ever devolving into the same cacophony of rules and exceptions, almost like a chiptune version of an over-stylized symphony. Your turn is a parade of simple decisions, most of them revolving around the characters populating your deck and hand. Your starting grunts provide all the basic actions. Before long, you’ll find yourself in need of new muscle for the combos, dice, and partyboys they provide.
The idea is that each turn lets you play up to three cards for actions and three cards per battle. Most of the actions are pleasantly immediate, providing extra moves or draws or cash. Even the more complicated actions aren’t difficult to understand. You can set up structures, manufacture product at the factories under your control, and sell briefcases of goodies for wads of cash. In battle, cards provide dice, whether boring blues, punchy reds, or cash-stealing greens. Other than the resemblance between the cash and sell icons, everything fits into its place without confusion or cruft.
And because these decisions are so straightforward, your turns are less about individual choices and more about all the trouble your gang gets itself into. Every character you deploy for an action is a character who isn’t available for battle, and anyone spent on a fight isn’t available as a deterrent once your enemies start crawling across the city. Spending cash on watchtowers helps secure the block, but means you won’t have the same flexibility in recruiting new blood or buying blurp. Everything in Neon Gods is a currency. The only question is how you’ll spend it.
A handful of other ideas are clever enough to match the game’s appealing weirdness. My favorite is the way “product” increases in price the farther it’s produced from your home base. A factory on your doorstep is easy to protect, but only churns out the cheap stuff. Factories in contested territory are harder to hold, but anything manufactured and sold there can generate three or four times as much cash as back home. Or more. Hopping through a tunnel with the right cards in hand can reward you with enough cash to last a lifetime. Or at least a couple of blurp purchases.
Even better, the events that appear in the sale row alongside all those characters are downright nasty. There’s one that lets you flip an enemy character onto your side, including killing off one of their former owner’s partyboys. Another reroutes tunnel tokens, letting you establish a pipeline directly into undefended territory. Yet another lets you raze a building entirely, ideally right before a scoring phase. And then there are the owls. Why owls? I couldn’t say. All I know is that owls reduce the defense of an entire block. It’s whimsical, silly, and a total coup when a parliament of owls clogs up somebody’s defenses.
With such a pronounced sense of style, Neon Gods sounds pretty much perfect. In some ways it’s a resounding success, distilling its predecessor while clubbing to a body-shaking beat. What could possibly be the problem?
One thing, for the most part: a deficiency of consequence.
Let me illustrate. In both City of Remnants and Neon Gods, there are a few things to consider in a brawl. I’ve already mentioned how cards provide dice. The other element is the positioning of your partyboys. Each block can only host two at a time, so seductively potent is the sway of their hips. In a fight, however, neighboring partyboys also join in on the fun. So two partyboys provide two strength, plus any adjacent partyboys, plus anything you roll. Maybe a watchtower is added or owls are subtracted. The calculus is simple for a board game battle. Whoever amasses the higher total sends their rival packing.
But that’s where Neon Gods and City of Remnants part ways. In the old days, the fallout from a fight was significant. The loser would not only permanently lose one of their warriors, but also a card from their hand. Ouch. If this sounds too harsh — and really, at times it was — it was also an opportunity to sweep out someone obsolete. A failed battle could hone or break your deck, either tightening up your actions and dice or robbing you of something critical.
Either way, it was important.
Most of the time, Neon Gods streamlines its predecessor in all the right ways. Most of the time. Other times, the process more closely resembles a defanging. Those older battles were often too punitive, but they also carried real import. You had to be careful about wading into a scuffle unprepared, lest the consequences ruin your deck and board control. In Neon Gods, a lost battle merely sends your partyboys home, as though carded by the bouncer at the club. It’s taking a page from Scythe in that you never really lose anything but actions and effort, except that Scythe’s mechs are few and slow, while partyboys are plentiful and zippy. Recovering from a loss is generally as simple as tossing yourself back into the fray with card icons and free moves that your next turn would provide anyway.
Battles aren’t the only thing gliding along without any real impact. As you’d expect from a game about controlling territory, Neon Gods is at its best when gangs perform daring maneuvers and take dangerous inroads, setting up factories in rival backyards or launching assaults through subway stations. These can all happen, and they’re genuine highlights when they do. But between the ease of retaking territory nearer to home and the likelihood of overextending your hand of cards, the game has an affinity for dragging itself back to status quo. Most of our plays opened with gangs capturing territory all over the place, only to conclude with everyone controlling four roughly symmetrical quarters of the city.
If anything, Neon Gods would have benefited from an additional heaping of zaniness. More owls! Tunnels that move without events! Destroyed blocks outside of the setup, roving cops, losses in battle! Crazier buildings! For every memorable moment, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Neon Gods misses five more. What’s blurp about that?
Or maybe I just don’t understand blurp. It’s possible. Most of my clothing comes from whichever store is holding a sale.
The thing is, Neon Gods gets so many things right that its problems are all the harder to forgive. Its style is impeccable, and its card system forces careful management without requiring much actual overhead. Nearly every element, from the references on the character cards to its wacky events, evinces a blend of good humor and streamlined play. More’s the pity that it takes that streamlining a step too far, stripping away the consequences and heft of City of Remnants along with its excesses. In that regard, the opening line of the manual is more than just color: “It’s the future year of 2009, and blurpin’ ain’t how it used to blurp.”
A complimentary copy was provided.