Thursday, May 9, 2013

I'm (Not) Batman! : "Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game"

Continuing their tradition of producing highly-thematic diversions à la Star Trek Fleet Captains, WizKids recently released the evocative new superhero title Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game.  

Here's the game's attractive splash page, torn right from the headlines of the WizKid's website:

"The Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game is a game for 2—4 players who will each take the role of one of Batman’s iconic Villains— The Joker, The Penguin, Two-Face or Killer Croc.  Players collect resources of Information, Money and Threat.  Threat is used to exert your rule over blocks in Gotham City— control of blocks will allow you to collect an income on these blocks of either Information or Money.  Money is used for leveling (see below) and to hire henchmen who will not only help you exert rule in blocks but also help you in fights against other Villains and Batman.  Information is used for leveling (see below) and moving your Villain and henchmen through the blocks of Gotham City.

"Each turn a player will play a Criminal Plot card which will either produce an income for the ruler of a certain block or it will trigger the Bat Signal— calling in Batman!  When Batman moves into a block with a Villain, a fight occurs using the two custom Batman dice included with the game.  If Batman wins, the Villain and their henchmen must flee back to their Hideout and Batman restores order in that block of Gotham City.  If the Villain wins, they have defeated Batman…for the time being…Batman returns to the Batcave, increasing his combat effectiveness as he plans for the next encounter.

"Each Villain has a combat dial with 10 levels.  Each click of the dial shows a requirement that you will need to advance to the next level—Information, Money, Henchmen, Blocks Controlled.  The first player to reach Level 10 with their Villain wins.  On every even number level, players will acquire special abilities that are unique to their Villain.

Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game is a unique combination of Euro-style sensibility combined with the best elements of Ameri-trash theme and design.  The core game mechanic is worker placement— placing your Villain, henchmen and Threat tokens to control blocks of Gotham City so as to produce the most income possible—overlaid with thematic elements that bring the stories and the characters of DC Comics Batman to life.  't feeling it. 

"The struggles by players for control of blocks— through resource placement or through face offs between Villains— make for a high level of player interaction.  Each Villain has their own strengths and weaknesses and play much differently from one another significantly adding to the replay value of the game.  We are confident that fans of DC Comics Batman and fans of tabletop and strategy gaming alike will both appreciate and enjoy the Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game."  

Looking to analyze the game's deets on your very own Batcomputer?  Click on yonder link for the full dossier...


Given my recent diet of Batman comic books and video games, I've been itching to play this ever since Andrew busted it out at Davecon back 'round the middle of April.  On that particular occasion, the arseholes started into it before I had the chance to extricate myself from all of my self-inflicted red tape so unfortunately I was relegated to the role of spectator.

By the same token, Marvel Heroes has been on deck for my game turn for the past several weeks but we've been having a devil of a time securing the four-player sweet spot, what with Chad out and Mike tentative.  Since B:GCSG was still fresh in Andrew's brain, it was the perfect fallback plan if Mike couldn't make it.  Unfortunately, when Dean also had to bail out a few times, this was no longer an option.  Andrew proposed a couple of two-player games but I just wasn't feeling it.  For me, it was Batman or bust.

Finally the stars aligned last Wednesday night.  After gathering in Dean's Batcave it fell upon me to randomly select our villains.  I pulled The Penguin for myself, which was kinda funny since I'd just written a blog entry accusing him of being a "sad fuck".  I selected Two-Face for Dean.  Initially I drew Killer Croc for Andrew but when he started whinging about having played him already, we let him take The Joker.

Immediately a turf war erupted between Dean and I over the Miller Harbor section of the board, which I needed to secure in order to play a lucrative Criminal Plot card for a big Money windfall.  For some odd reason, Dean took this as a personal affront so we battled back and forth for the privilege of occupying this same space.  Meanwhile, Andrew took advantage of our preoccupation by using The Joker's three starting Threat to control three Blocks and garner a critical first-turn Level Up.

Batman made for a pretty scary presence early on, putting all of our villains into traction at various points in time.  Then something interesting happened around mid-game.  A series of nigh-identical card plays resulted in the Caped Crusader barricading himself in the Batcave for several turns, presumably to sit around, watch Bat-television, eat Bat-corn chips and Batsturbate™.  During his self-imposed exile, Gotham City began to slide further and further into irredeemable chaos.

As we got three or four turns in, the game began to reveal its thematic flair.  Andrew played The Joker as a chaos-intoxicated aggressor, Dean's very-balanced Two-Face slowly began to bend the game's rules in his favor and The Penguin reveled himself as the ultimate mobster, specialized in criminal economics.  Even though Dean and I were thrown by Andrew's quick advancement, the unique capabilities of our own villains quickly became apparent.            

Dean's Influence allowed Two-Face to procure three Blocks, facilitating his first Level Up.  Not long after, both Andrew and Dean got the scratch together to hire their first Henchman, leaving me in the dust.  But then, all of a sudden, the Penguin's resource acquisition kicked in.  After securing my third Block I suddenly realized that I had more then enough moola to hire a goon and drop the required six cash for my third Level Up.  In just one turn I'd managed to take the lead!

Of course, this resulted in a giant target being painted on my rotund gut.  Just as I managed to secure both Ace Chemicals and Miller Harbor to facilitate a key Plot Card card play, Andrew's Joker bombed in and whipped my ass.  I know that it was probably bad luck more then anything else, but The Penguin proved to be woefully inadequate in hand-to-hand combat.  Realizing that I was never going to hold on to both of these locations until the start of my next turn, I begrudgingly abandoned my scheme.

Around this time, The Joker managed to subjugate five Blocks for yet another Level Up.  While he was efficiently stockpiling ten cash for the next upgrade, Andrew made a point of keeping Dean and I mired at four locations.  At this stage in the game, frustration really began to set in for me.  Even with the help of my hired goon and Emperor Penguin, every turn seemed to end the same.  I'd claim my fifth territory, psyche myself up for a Level Up next turn and then either Batman or the Joker would crash in and fuck everything up.  Assholes.    

But Andrew couldn't keep both of us down.  Two-Face managed to wriggle out from underneath the Joker's crazed auspices and go on a minor tear.  In quick succession, he skipped past me by gathering six Information, locking down five city Blocks and hoarding a Scrooge McDuck pile of 10 Monies.  Pretty soon both Two-Face and The Joker were in a Human Resources bidding war to retain their fourth Henchman.  Although the Joker was the first to reach this milestone, Two-Face quickly followed suit, helped by his trademark Coin which allowed him to generate additional Threat.

As The Joker's influence spread across the face of Gotham like a multi-hued fungus, Dean and I had to admit that Andrew's victory seemed inevitable.  I tried to get into an Influence war with him in Tricorner Yards and Black Gate Penitentiary but he kept outpacing me.  We also tried to sic Batman on him several times but ended up rolling miserably.  Every time Andrew sent a tenderized Dork Knight packing back to the Batcave, he won additional Influence to shore up his criminal empire.

Even when we did succeed in getting the Clown Price of Crime off the board for a little bit, we couldn't overcome the tide of purple Threat that had washed across the city.  Despite the fact that both Dean and I were now openly working in conjunction with one another, we still couldn't prevent The Joker from claiming his seventh district for the big win!


Although you don't actually get to play as Batman in the Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game I honestly think that designer Paolo Mori made a good call by having the players take on the role of the Villains.  Thanks to a series of elegant and efficient Euro-esque mechanics, it really does feel as if you're building a criminal empire and spreading your dark influence across the city.  Besides, you can still get your Bat-fix whenever you send him crashing down on one of your rivals.  Although he wasn't an insurmountable force in this particular game, I can definitely see how Batman's appearance on your turf can suddenly make you feel both "cowardly" and "superstitious".

The game's components are appropriately colorful, tacky and comic-booky.  I really dig the olde-skool Batman imagery provided by artist Chris Raimo.  The cards are nicely laminated and made of a decent stock.  Despite the fact that the game board is even more featureless then Marvel Heroes, it's both functional and flashy.  Although I really like the lurid art, rules summary and iconography on the Privacy Screens, the damn things fall over whenever you look at 'em funny.  This led to a running joke whereby we all screamed "I CAN SEE EVERYTHING!!!" whenever someone's screen tipped forward ever four minutes.

The figures included in the game are stupendous.  Even though the Henchmen dudes are wee, they have a slew of little details that make them look like a bunch of teeny Joe Chills.  But it's the Heroclix figures that really take the cake.  Although the sculpts are pretty pedestrian (save for Bats), they're incredibly detailed and very well-painted.  Whenever you drop your Big Bad into a Block it really feels as if something major is going down.

The game does have few niggling issues that cut into the fun.  Even after orchestrating a wildly successful turn that sets you up for a new level, it's really easy for rivals to gank you before the start of your next turn.  The funny thing is, I'm actually kinda loathe to complain about this, since the phrase "Curses, foiled again!" should be the mantra of every super-villain.

When I was leading the game early on, Andrew wisely used this strategy to impede my progress and catch up.  Although it made perfect sense for him to do this, my own inability to control my advancement made for a pretty frustrating experience.  Taking advantage of Andrew's preoccupation with me, Dean managed to wriggle though the Joker's dragnet and surpass me.  Even after Andrew decided to abandon OPERATION PENGUIN SCREW, I had a devil of a time playing catch up.

Which brings me to my second issue with the game: its tendency to drag ass in the final quarter.  Even though we were playing with a house rule which made resource acquisition a bit more flexible, it's not easy to procure twelve Information or hold onto seven Blocks when every other full-flight Villain is gunning for you.  The ability to play spoiler reminds me of Zombies!!! when the helicopter comes out close to one player who immediately finds themselves buried under a stack of screw-you cards.  I can only imagine how protracted and frustrating this would be with four players.

Mercifully Paolo Mori has already addressed these concerns and the next time we play we might incorporate some of these tweaks.  My only concern is that some of these ideas feel like overcompensation and might end up watering down the thematic flavor of the game quite a bit.
Some folks have also raised concerns about game balance, but frankly, I don't give a damn.  At face value, The Penguin might seem like a dud compared to Killer Croc, but if you play to the character's strengths the differences are negligible.  All I care about is that the Villains are distinct from one another and each one promises a different game experience.  Croc is a scrapper, Joker is a wild-card, Two-Face is all about balance and The Penguin is a dedicated professional criminal.

Despite a few minor flaws, I really like this game.  Imma gonna give the Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game four Bat-pips outta six with a Bat-grapple up.

Wanna force-feed your opponent a Bat-knuckle sandwich?  Click on the link below to pick up a copy of the game from Amazon and help support this blog!


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