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Victims were apparently eaten…
It could be Racoon city, or any other backwater American town in popular fiction at the mercy of a zombie invasion. The four cornerstones of American society – a bank, a gun shop, a church, and a hospital – stand around a deserted crossroads, overlooked by a water tower and strewn with canned food from an overturned truck. The scene is lit by a burning ambulance, its precious cargo of antidote syringes abandoned in the chaos. The survivors, a rag tag bunch, have barricaded themselves in the buildings and eye one another nervously. What will happen when the food runs out, or the bullets? Why is the punk looking at me like that? Leon S Kennedy is nowhere in sight.

The stage is set for City of Horror, the fantastically lavish sequel to the now out of print indie classic Mall of Horror, a game that captured the spirit of the classic zombie flick Dawn of the Dead in cardboard in much the same way Dead Rising did on consoles. Although it’s more of a reimplementation than a sequel (Nicolas Normandon designed both and the games share the same base mechanics), it feels bigger and better in every respect, like a good triple A videogame sequel that proved its concept with its initial outing and is now pumped with confidence and a bigger budget.

The sprawling city, complete with 3D watertower. Thanks to John from Norwich Boardgame Club for the pictures

This confidence is obvious with one look at the sprawling board. The level of indulgence that has been lavished on its creation is fantastic. Whilst the mall in the first game was comprised of one wafer thin board, the city here is constructed from separate components that slot together elegantly and each location is double sided. Essentially this approach to board design not only makes the game subtly different each time, but makes it easier to potentially release new locations – something that is certain to happen. On top of that, the water tower is represented by a completely unnecessary, but very cool, cardboard structure and if the armory is blown up by playing certain cards (thus trapping everyone inside) then there are completely unnecessary 3D flames to represent it being set ablaze. If part of the appeal of boardgames is the components, then City of Horror is a feast. But happily the game also has the gameplay to back it up.

Humanity is the real monster here
This is how it goes down. Players are each given a number of survivors from a wide range of characters, each a classic stereotype. But that’s fine, as you’re given just enough of a vessel to pour your own imagination into, like the blank slate protagonist of most first person games. Characters also come with abilities, some good some bad. The little girl, for instance is able to hide protecting her from detection for a turn, whilst the old lady isn’t even able to move as normal unless you trigger her ability. If you use an ability, that character becomes exhausted and is thus worth less points at the end of the game, so it’s a really hard decision to make. One of the more amusing characters is the Blonde who attracts a zombie to her location each turn because she simply can’t stop screaming, unless you gag her – one of the game’s many playful nods to genre cliché. A slight drawback is that the characters seem a little unbalanced. Some have clearly brilliant abilities and although the characters with a disadvantage have slightly more victory points attached to them, it doesn’t make up for how difficult it is to keep them alive. But that’s all part of the fun. And by fun I mean desperation, emotional distress and amoral scheming.

Every moment of the game can be woven into a grand narrative. I’ll leave you to decide what’s going on here

The game pans out over four turns, each one representing an hour of time before the rescue helicopter arrives. Each turn sees more hordes of zombies flooding the town’s locations. Each location is checked in turn and if there are too many zombies and players can’t fight them off then a vote occurs to see who is chucked out the door. Yes, you get to vote on who dies in a wonderfully twisted commentary on democracy. You see like The Walking Dead, or any good zombie fiction for that matter, it’s the survivors that are the true threat; the zombies merely provide an appropriate backdrop to the complete breakdown of human society and its values. They’re just hungry and running on instinct – you’re the one who ‘chose’ to send granny to her death at gunpoint. You monster!

But you have no choice, right? It was either her or me. You see each character present gets one vote and the first player breaks ties. Someone has to die. What results is a vindictive game of backstabbing, frantic bargaining and revenge that makes perfect use of boardgaming’s true strength – the fact that you’re all sitting around the same table actively participating in the same experience. You could say that the true winner of the game isn’t the person with the most surviving characters, but the one who has lost the fewest friends once all the pieces are packed away.

Survival horror
If it was merely a case of having your characters survive that would be one thing, but unlike Mall of Horror each character will need to find a vaccine to survive, and they are just rare enough to become highly valuable bargaining chips. Also, as the game proceeds, your initial hand of helpful action cards quickly dwindles and it’s pretty hard to get any more (if they happen to appear on a location there is another vote to see who gets to share them out), which is great because you become more and more vulnerable as the stakes get ever higher. It’s like a survival horror game where the horror derives from your vulnerability.

At four turns (about an hour and a half) the game is just long enough to sustain a dramatic narrative arc without ever outstaying its welcome, and unlike a lot of thematic boardgames (games that are often referred to, either with derision or pride, as Ameritrash) it feels as though the story is being created by the players rather than being artificially dictated by the game. Imagine the scene: zombies are closing in on the hospital where grandpa and grandma are making a last stand. It doesn’t look good for this elderly couple, until grandma whips out her chainsaw and saves the day. Meanwhile in the church the priest uses a little white cat to lead the zombies to a random location, but the location drawn is the church, and the stupid cat returns with its procession of undead in tow like groupies at a Justin Bieber concert. It’s even possible for the pregnant woman to give birth (like a groupie at a Just… ahem), giving her two votes instead of one for the rest of the game!

Oh no, they got grandpa – you BASTARDS!

City of Horror is a constant source of tension; with every element having the potential to effect you and alliances formed and broken like cheap Ikea furniture. Movement for example is handled by each person choosing a location card secretly, but only then are they told where the zombies are going to go. That hospital is suddenly looking a lot less appealing now that all the zombies by the Water tower have wandered over there. And if the buildings weren’t dangerous enough, if a player attempts to move into a location that is already full (very likely) he has to go and stand in the crossroads where the zombie leader is silently picking off the unfortunate – although in our game the business man, who we decided to dub Steve Jobs, managed to survive the entire game there no doubt by boring the zombies to death (again).

The world has zombie fever right now and the inevitable backlash is that each new entry into the genre will be eyed suspiciously for signs of bandwagon jumping. Happily this is not the case with City of Horror, which dwarfs the lacklustre, rushed Walking Dead boardgame, also recently released hot off the back of the TV show. This is a game with pedigree in the form of a respected cult prequel, and although it’s true that if it weren’t for the popularity of the genre then it probably never would have gotten a second chance to shine, we should be thankful it has, because this is one of the most dramatic, enjoyable and tense games you will play this year.

City of Horror
Designer: Nicolas Normandon
Mechanic: Negotiation/voting/hidden movement
Number of players: 3-6 (best with 6)
Length of Game: 60-90mins
Complexity: Light/Medium
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  • http://www.facebook.com/davidgatheral David Gatheral

    Excellent review. Now, where’s my letter to Santa?