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Dead Star – City of Horror review

CityofHorrorCOVER

I’ve said it pretty often that the reason I love to play games is the social interaction you get from them. Whether you’re working co-operatively trying to save the world or striving to screw over your opposition, there’s little better than sitting around the table and playing something, anything. There are, of course, a selection of games where the cruelty is as important as the interaction, games where the main focus is on being mean, striking out for yourself and screw the consequences for everyone else. Diplomacy is probably the finest example of this genre, a game where friendships are crushed in the pursuit of victory, and now we can add the newest release from Repos Production to the fold. City of Horror is here, and it’s not pulling any punches.

The only way to win? Survive.

Actually, that’s slightly overdramatic. In reality you need to survive in a better fashion than everyone else. Played out over the course of four rounds, you and your fellow humans seem to be the only ones left in a city that is rapidly getting overrun with zombies. A rescue helicopter is on its way and will pick up everyone left at the end of the final round – perhaps. As the game opens, you’re given a selection of these characters ranging from abandoned children to business types… even a heavily pregnant woman is thrown into the mix. Each character card is double sided and must be flipped over showing that you have used their special ability – doing so means that they’ll be worth significantly less points should they manage to escape the city, however.

Now, we say city, but really it’s a section that has descended into chaos. It’s always built at random, but there will always be an Armoury, Church, Hospital, Bank and Water Tower along with a crossroads in the middle of the board. The survivors are randomly given a starting location, but before you even begin there’ll be problems. There are only a limited amount of spaces in each place which means some folks could well end up out in the open, stuck at the crossroads where the danger is even greater.

Someone's going to get eaten. Someone is ALWAYS going to get eaten!

Someone’s going to get eaten. Someone is ALWAYS going to get eaten!

At the beginning of each round a card is flipped showing where the zombies will spawn or shamble to, along with supply drops of extra Action cards and syringes of antivirus. These syringes (also available from the hospital by trading in cards) are vital; if you don’t have at least one for each of your survivors by the time the helicopter comes, they’ll be left behind to join the ranks of the undead.

The actual play of the game is very straightforward. Once the zombies are spawned, players will (hopefully) move a single character to a new location, ending up in the Crossroads if there’s no room at their chosen destination. You then work your way around the six areas, working out if there’s going to be a zombie attack in each one. If conditions are met, all players (not just those at the location) are allowed to contribute to killing off enough undead to stop the attack. If this happens, great; move on to the next place and start again. Unfortunately, most of the time – and especially when those Action cards start running low – the attack will happen, and this is where the magic starts…

You see, not a huge amount of stuff actually happens in City of Horror. Over the course of play you’ll only actually make a small amount of decisions; the emphasis is on doing everything you can to save your own hide, and this is why the game is so good. If an attack is going to happen, someone will die; you need to do whatever you can to stop it from being one of your characters. At this point, the game comes into its own as you try your damnedest to prevent the zombies from claiming your character as dinner. Anything goes. Any deals that you can cut are valid and there’s no penalty if you back out on them, aside from the fact that you may well end up being hated by your friends. When that vote happens and someone is thrown to the baying horde, alliances and vendettas are created and shattered in moments. There’s little more entertaining than pulling a fast one, promising you’ll side with one person then stitching them up. Don’t worry about offending them; they’ll be planning to do exactly the same thing to you as well.

A metric ton of cardboard! Everything is double sided adding plenty of replayability.

A metric ton of cardboard! Everything is double sided adding plenty of replayability.

Repos have put together a great package in City of Horror. The city tiles are thick and sturdy, and although the first print run did have a minor issue with warping (nothing that couldn’t be sorted with the assistance of a heavy book) the latest print run has had no reported problems. All components are of good quality and the artwork is suitably horrifying and comedic in equal measures. Also, this is the only game I can think of that comes with a pre- and post-birth character; yes, the Pregnant Woman can have her baby mid game. Good job too, it gives her two votes…

And that is why this is such a great game to play. Between the amount of though that has been put into realising the theme to the simplicity of the rules, from the sheer cruelty of how you know that not everyone will make it out alive… it’s a brilliant and entertaining romp of a thing, filled with arguments, broken promises and more “I can’t believe you did that” moments that you’ll be able to stand. The prequel, Mall of Horror, was entertaining enough but had some limitations. City of Horror expands the experience, offering a much wider range of options and giving players the chance to truly do everything they can to survive. The team at Repos Production have come up with a gem that will play out differently every time and is well worth picking up. Just don’t expect to be friends with everyone when everything is over…

City of Horror was released in 2012 by Repos Production and Asmodee. Designed by Nicolas Normandon with art by the fantastic Miguel Coimbra, you can pick up a copy from the guys at Gameslore for £32.99. Between three and six can attempt to survive the zombie onslaught and the whole thing will take you between 60 and 120 minutes. Well, it should do if you last that long and that’s far from guaranteed…

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Swords of a Thousand Men – Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery review

SpartacusCOVER

Once again, The Judge returns to cast his learned eye over another game. This time he gets all gladitorial and sees what Spartacus has to offer… 

Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery is a 2012 release by Gale Force Nine, and is based on the popular U.S Cable TV show. Now, I’ve read lots of enthusiastic reviews for Spartacus prior to getting it to the table. People have called it ‘The best licensed design since Battlestar Galactica!’ so it was with some anticipation that my gaming group took up the challenge of this gladiatorial ‘swords and sandals’ epic last week. Expectations are a dangerous thing…

In Spartacus, players adopt the role of Dominus, heads of competing houses in ancient Rome. To summarise, play consists of a ‘take that’ action card phase (Intrigue) where players attack each other – representing political machinations – and raise their own profile and victory points. Then, several once-round, blind bid auctions take place to recruit gladiators, money-generating slaves and combat equipment. A final auction establishes who will host the gladiatorial combat for the round – a key component – as not only does this role generate victory points, but also provides power in the next and most overtly fun part of the game.

The Host now invites houses to put forward a gladiator for a fight to either the concession, injury or decapitation. After players have a chance to bid on the potential winners, this combat is played out in a dicey, hex based, tactical miniatures game. Battle ebbs and flows as fighters try to take down their opponent whilst the other players cheer on their preferred choice. After one fighter has been defeated, we turn to the Host to ‘Caesar’ the loser with a thumbs up or thumbs down. This particular piece of theatre is the highlight of the game as bribes and non-binding promises are slung back and forth to save / end the defeated combatant’s life.

The combat itself has beautifully cinematic moments. For instance, one particularly spectacular incident occurred where Spartacus was geared up to face another oiled, gleaming, sword wielding maniac, but suddenly found himself (at the surprise playing of an Intrigue card) instead facing off and with a waif-like handmaiden armed with a winning smile and a flagon of wine. Undeterred, a swing with his massive trident decapitated the innocent girl much to the glee of a rabid crowd, and the Dominus who had bet the farm on Spartacus.

That's a fair bit of stuff in the box...

That’s a fair bit of stuff in the box…

So that’s it – rinse and repeat… and repeat… and repeat… and repeat … and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. This is where the wheels fall of. Never before have I played a game where diminishing returns have been realised so quickly. The first round was great fun – yeah, the backstabbing of the randomly drawn take-that cards was swingy – but never mind when the rest of the experience is so much fun!

Two and a half hours later and the mood had changed. Victory is secured by getting to twelve Influence points but as soon as anyone looks to be getting close, everyone jumps on you to take you down. It becomes Munchkin in Sandals – actually, don’t show this to Steve Jackson, I don’t want to give him MORE expansion ideas – and all your hard work seems completely at the whim of the cards you draw. The length of the game and the amount of player investment needed to get the fun out simply does not compensate you for this design choice.

So, did I enjoy Spartacus? Well, yes – at first definitely. Would I recommend it? Probably not. Even at a very reasonable price, I think you will have seen EVERYTHING the game has to offer after just half of your first play, and will have no need to approach it again. It seems terribly cliché, but then so is the series the game is based upon – The Judge gives Spartacus a big THUMBS DOWN. Execute him Centurion!

Should you desire to test your mettle in the arena, you can pick up a copy of Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery from the good folks at Gameslore for £25. Remember though, sword and sandals are not included.

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