When I first bought this game, my brother Rhys, my sister Shannyn, and myself were so excited about it that we cleared off the dining table and played it all night, getting through enough games to make sure we’d tried it with every single character (of which there are many). We very quickly became attached to these little drawn figures, doing away with the bland (to us at the time) classic horror trope titles they had as designations and naming each and every one of them with love, care, and countless pop-culture references. During a brief break between the second and third games to dart off to the Macca’s drivethru, we charted out relationships, reasons for their visiting specific locations at the start of the game, entire backstories! We concocted in our minds, almost instantly, an entire miniseries based on the stories that had revealed themselves through play. But still, my opinion of this game is not a particularly good one.
City of Horror is yet another member of that seemingly endless horde of zombie apocalypse themed board games currently available for purchase. It’s marketed as a “backstabbing survival-horror game” and the mechanics basically require that each player take control of a number of characters and keep them alive throughout a series of zombie waves, all the while collecting antidotes and fending off attacks. Points are earned at the end of the game mostly according to the value assigned each of the surviving characters, and are complicated by the need for antidotes to have the characters count as ‘alive’, an “exhaustion” mechanic which allows the use of a character’s ability but leaves them worth less, and added points value from tinned food and any excess antidotes. Honestly, if there are so many antidotes to the zombie virus lying around, I don’t quite see where the problem is in beating this apocalypse, but hey!
The production values for the game were the first thing that caught my eye, and a big part in why I eventually bought it. The game utilises detailed art on 2D stand figures rather than miniatures (to accommodate without extreme expense the large number of zombies required during play). The artwork is truly spectacular, and at times used in extremely clever ways. The game’s pieces are beautifully thematic, combining comic book elements with the appropriate gritty and abandoned feel of any apocalyptic setting. Most impressive to me, I think, are the clever ways the board incorporates token placement for piles of anything not in use. Antidote tokens lie atop the image of an ambulance and weapons cards similarly make use of a halted military truck. The dormant zombies are stored as if trapped behind a barricade of sandbags, and the food tin tokens lie scattered across the crossroads as if they’ve spilled from the overturned food truck. This artistic ingenuity is seen again when the character cards, flipped to their “exhausted” side, bear different artwork reflecting the change caused by that character’s power. When the Security Guard uses his ability to kill two zombies at his current location, you flip his card to find that his dog is missing from the image, as if he’s set it loose on the walking dead. The Pregnant Woman has the ability to vote for two every turn until the end of the game, but only if you allow her to give birth, an action which leaves her permanently exhausted (I mean, she can hardly put the baby back IN). Turning her card over reveals her cradling a kind of grossly accurate new born baby.
Elements like this are FANTASTIC but City of Horror is bizarrely inconsistent with them. Only 3 characters out of 21 have an altered image on their flip side (one of them being The Blonde, we’ll get to her in a minute). The Thief, for example, isn’t shown on his “exhausted” side to be struggling to carry something heavy he’s stolen, which would both fit his character ability and account for his supposed “exhaustion”. Instead, the red side of his card just shows the same image of him, lithe as ever, but for some reason now worth less. The powers themselves even show this inconsistency, some of them being applied seemingly arbitrarily. The Housewife, for whatever reason, is able to kill two zombies in her current location. Sound familiar? Yep, that’s the exact same ability as the one belonging to The Vigil. Are we supposed to accept that her umbrella would have the same effect on the hordes of the undead as a trained attack dog? Similarly, The Rocker and The Geek both share the ability to move a zombie away from their location to somewhere else on the board, with no explanation as to how these characters are in any way alike (aside from the occasional image of them sitting together drinking energy drinks outside a convenience shop) or in fact, how they are able to repel a single shambler each at all.
Then there’s the stereotyping. It seems, from other reviews I’ve read over on Boardgamegeek.com and from the folks at Shut Up & Sit Down that these character depictions are easily brushed off as part of the theme, as the kind of characters you would see in a typical B Horror film. However, when there are games in the genre that have already done that brilliantly, such as Last Night on Earth, and when City of Horror includes survivalists that I’ve never seen in any horror movie my whole life, such as The Sushi Chef and The Punk (hey, maybe I’m just watching the wrong zombie movies), the ‘making fun of the tropes argument’ doesn’t quite cut it for me. The characters of The Rasta, The Sushi Chef, and The Student are fairly problematic—a psychic black man, an Asian chef with ninja know-how, and an Asian high schooler with an extremely short skirt as part of her sailor style school uniform. Then there’s my personal favourite (read: the depiction I hate most). The Blonde. This character doesn’t even get a special ability. Instead she is constantly screaming, which attracts a new zombie to her location every turn, and the only way to stop this is by “exhausting” her character. Flip over the card to see the alternate art for the “exhausted” Goldie and, oh hey, she’s been physically gagged!
My disappointment when I first bought this game and discovered the thinly veiled elements of casual sexism and racism inside (not mentioned by anyone while I was researching before handing over my money, mind) was immense. I am proud to say, however, that my siblings and I, while not confident enough to alter the functions of cards like Goldie’s in case we break the game’s mechanics, are excellent at thematic spin. “Screaming?” says my brother, “She’s not screaming, that’s her battle cry! She demands that the zombies come and fight her in mortal combat!” As much as our own head canon has done a good job of putting a bandaid on the wound, this is something that would have had a huge impact on my purchase had I known about it earlier. Perhaps I could have looked harder to find out if the game would contain anything I’d be offended by, but no one should have to—it’s on the game developers to not be offensive, not the buyer to not be offended.
Speaking of things that would have impacted my purchase! There’s one major thing mentioned in the breakdown of this game that’s copy and pasted to every site where it is sold that has caught my attention while writing this blog post; “the city map changes each game”. This, when I was originally looking to buy, called to mind more expensive games I coveted like Zombicide or classics in the genre like Last Night on Earth. Games with modular map tiles that can be randomised or rearranged to create a new layout every game, with new location combinations, all adding massive replayability. This was a big selling point for me! What I got, however, was six locations that are always present, two of which are always in the same place on the board, no matter how you puzzle piece it together. These tiles CAN flip, as I’m sure was promised somewhere, but the flipped side shows the exact same image with perhaps one fewer capacity spaces or an alternate zombie limit which hardly add a lot of variety to the game play.
Possibly the biggest problem I find with this game, though, is one of the most important parts of any game; the rules. Most of the in-game instructions are provided in coded images, which is a perfectly sensible idea for saving space and getting meaning across clearly and quickly. Or at least it is if the images make any sense. I’ve played this game probably close to a dozen times and still find myself needing to clarify the meaning of many of the little vectors. Some are pretty easy to get a grasp on, like the Chainsaw or the Hideout, but when you’re trying to understand what you can do with the Pepper Spray or the Businessman’s power it can become confusing, especially given the use of the universal “recycle” symbol to mean several, slightly different things. But sure, I have to double check with the cheat sheet or the rule book sometimes, that’s not too bad! Except that the rulebook is one of the most difficult to navigate I have ever encountered. It’s deceptively simple at first, but then you notice the mistakes the Belgian publishers have made in their English which could leave a rule meaning two completely different things. Then you start to realise that some of their layout decisions make no sense, like putting the advanced set up rules on page 7 amongst the descriptions of how the game ends and is scored, rather than at the beginning of the book with, you know, the set up rules.
City of Horror does a lot of things right, like the spectacular moments when the mechanics and theme work together seamlessly. Someone fires a flare at the water tower leading zombies there and away from themselves, only to have the flare blow up the last of the tower’s foundations, bring it crashing down on the mindless face eaters congregated underneath, washing them away in the flood of water! But then, that doesn’t happen all that often, really. Usually it’s more along the lines of “the military have airdropped us some supplies and… It’s a kitten and some energy drink…” It often felt like an unfinished prototype in the way some of the mechanics functioned, or occasionally didn’t.
On the whole, I’ve enjoyed this game many times but most of that is thanks to the creativity of the people I was playing with. The production values played a big part in getting me to buy this game, but the pretty pictures aren’t enough to carry the game and make me content. The game needed a lot more work in its mechanics, its communication and its sensitivity training in particular.