Designed by Martyn Oliver and Colin Thornton
Published by Monocle Games
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
1 to 6 players
City of Chaos represents the classic game of two halves. It claims, and partly delivers, a combination of 'original' ideas, intriguing plot and novel mechanisms. It has clear rules and provides quality components to do this, and for a first endeavour in the UK game market, it is a remarkably competent effort. However, what is promised, or at least strongly indicated, doesn't actually turn out to be what we get, and there are some low level flaws. Nevertheless, this is a game we have enjoyed, which will doubtless sell well in the fantasy and hobby markets, and which shows, again, what the so-called dead British boardgames industry can produce when it really wants to. My congratulations go to Monocle who have struggled to get this designed, tested and produced - all of which have been done well - and now they face the hardest job of all, selling the product.
To explain my slight overall reservations, you'd need to read the following blurb and probably see the game. "You must enter Byronitar and restore order by defeating a source of the spreading anarchy. There are numerous plot lines which the player can follow to a successful conclusion. With the random world generation system used to create the city, no two games will ever be the same." Cor. Multiple victory conditions, plot lines (possibly non linear?), a mystery to be solved and a random terrain system. Sounds great. Wonder how they pulled it off? As we shall see, CoC isn't quite that radical, drawing as it does on tried and tested board game mechanisms, but it still works. So I am not going to moan too much about what CoC is not, as what it offers is rather interesting.
All that said, it is impossible to cram this game into one pigeon hole, so I'll use three and hope it stays put. There are elements of Talisman and Dungeonquest, by which you are strolling around an unknown, fantastic city collecting magicky items, money and knowledge. There are also elements of Cluedo, or Sherlock Holmes, in that something major has gone awry and it is your job to find out why. And finally, there is a lot of Tales of the Arabian Nights and Fighting Fantasy, because the game runs primarily off of a paragraph book, offering descriptions, clues, encounters and even quite humorous jokes - the Pharmacist is excellent. Now I hate Talisman with a vengeance, am a sucker for Dungeonquest, Arabian Nights and the better paragraph games, and can live with a well done mystery. I won't get it right, but I can live with it. So this game is right up my street in most respects.
The first plus is that the game is a doddle to play. The setup is minimal, the rules get you straight into action and the systems are clean and transparent. Play rattles along, only delayed slightly by the looking up and reading of the paragraph text - this is the usual, "If you attack the dragon, go to 167" stuff. In fact, there is little originality here, whereas the designers seem to think they have created something of a design milestone (as opposed to a millstone), but we'll put that down to the excitement of creating a new game and, perhaps, unfamiliarity with the boardgame market. What there is though is a series of sub-systems that hold together well, and which seem to have been designed with the benefit of both time and care.
I'll tackle production at this point because it leads us on to the main visual and mechanical feature of the game, the city map. CoC comes in a large squarish box, oddly almost exactly the same size as the new AH Air Baron size, and is packed to the brim with stuff. It weighs a ton, and the graphical standards are high. Not top notch, but very good. There is no amateur dtp here, it is all professionally colour printed on shiny stock. There are square cardboard tiles which are laid out one by one to form the city, 6 excellent pewter playing pieces (giving a new, surreal quality to dobbers), some dice and several piles of cards - action, clues, locations, items, magic and combat, among others. The rulebook is clear and logical, giving me no problems whatsoever. The paragraph book, as far as we have been able to tell, is also well done - accurate, no flapping text or numbered routes without buffers. I can only guess at the huge volume of work that went into getting this right. And finally, the price. £35 is a lot, but given that I know the printrun (not small, but not exactly Games Workshop) and have seen the components, I am not surprised at the price. Is it worth it? Compared to most German and hobby games, yes it is. Just.
So, returning to the map tiles, these are discovered one by one using a simple movement system. If they are streets then you can just move through them, suffering only the occasional random encounter, but if they are rooms (not buildings, oddly) then you will find a location where the important stuff happens. You can also bump into one of the many quirky denizens or find one of the special locations - a wizard's tower, The Necropolis, a magic fountain and so on. Locations and characters trigger use of the paragraph book, on which more below. Each turn, usually, you each add a tile to the map but unlike many games where they are placed on a grid, in CoC they can be placed in any legal position, in any direction - as befits a city in chaos. Accordingly, the map spreads far and wide, and combined with the cards, play aids, books and various character bits, you will need a large table. Or possibly the floor. Our first game started out on a 3'x3' card table, quickly spread to (and filled) a 5'x3' desk and still needed a chair top for the remainder. This was fun, but a little painful after the first time - at least you know what to expect.
The paragraph book has been constructed in a similar way to Tales of the Arabian Nights and it would be interesting to know how much 'inspiration' was taken from this classic. Those of a more cynical disposition will huff and puff, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that, exactly like Wrott & Swindlers, this particular wheel had been re-invented. The key is that rather than just one set of responses in a given situation, there are three - decided by the superbly named Chaos Cube. This is, of course, just a special dice that generates one of three runes. You read off the appropriately runed result in the book, make your decision based on what you can glean from the situation, and take your life in your hands. Literally, on occasions. There are some very mean encounters out there, and I do not recommend The Necropolis for your Sunday picnic. Adding balance, there are also some rather easy ones and there seems to be an emphasis on thinking through problems rather than bashing people on the head, and asking questions later. Character encounters are treated in a similar way, in that you can Greet, Help or Threaten them. Again, you roll the Cube and interesting things happen as a result.
All this is as good or bad as any other paragraph system. They score because there is a real story telling element, not least because you read aloud most of the flavoursome text which helps creates the atmosphere, because you make a steady stream of decisions - clearly guiding your own fate, and because each game is very different. On the downside, there is often no way of knowing what to decide in any given predicament - occasionally, you feel like flipping a coin. The same is true of some of the inferior Firetop Mountain clones, but is less pronounced in Arabian Nights and West End's Star Trek:The Adventure Game where you know, for instance, that Tribbles are always bad news. If combat is required, it is resolved by a novel card system that is different, but a little time consuming. Whatever, be warned that there are some killer opponents around every corner, and remember not to threaten any demons, and you will have a good time.
The upshot of all this is the usual gain a coin, lose a coin, gain an item, block the road, go on a quest, and so on. However, unlike Talisman, where the gradual build up leads only to the painfully inevitable conclusion, in CoC there is a deal of interest in what you, and the other players, are doing. This is because as well as surviving, you are also looking for clues so that you can divine a source of chaos and win the game. Can you sense I'm getting all excited? Well, yes I was. I sat there with my little notebook, noting down everything that went on, each likely snippet of information, piecing it all together. When we started to find clue cards (these can be obtained in the toughest or the easiest encounters), it really started to hot up. They tell you stuff like 'find the stableboy', or that the factory could be useful. After two hours, I'd found six of the twenty cards, and started to look around with an eye to solving it all, and winning. I'd analysed the facts, devised my theories (I'll not spoil it for you) and I went to the place I thought I needed to visit.
And then came the disappointment. This is not an original whodunit mechanism where everything in the game points to the mystery, nor a logic puzzle as in Orient Express, nor even a Cluedo, "Wizard Grimble in the Temple with the Staff". No, none of them. It is more like a bleedin' computer adventure game where you have to have the right things in the right places, with precious little underlying logic as to why. Without giving anything away, you have arrived at the presumed source of chaos. You are challenged by a hunky Dark Destroyer type, and are asked if you have the Fork of Thrusting. If you do, fine. If not, bad juju for the whole city. Or you. The next para says, "If you have the Nutcrackers of Annihilation, use them now". Still alive (or very dead in my case). Finally, if you have the Hair Grip of Salvation, you have won. I paraphrase, but you get the message. So as far as I could tell from the two games, much of the note taking and preparation was in vain - you just have to work out (somehow) which bits you need to tackle any one of the four possible Answers. And if you haven't got them, you have to go and get them, but to add to your woes these items are unique - so your rival might have the Ebony Nailfile, but he is sitting across the table grinning, and is some miles away in game terms, so you can forget that. And as far as I can see, all you can do if you fail is to go back and get some more bits and see if they work, or try another solution. Forgive me if I have missed something, but that seems to be it.
But I suppose, when all is said and done, I was hoping for too much. The chance to play a game that had this sort of clever ending, with the scope for it to be different each time, was just way too much to expect. I see that now. But because the blurb was positive, and because there were so many different cards, and a cleverly done paragraph book, I really had hopes that this was something special. Hopes that were squashed in rapid style, but I suppose we could have all missed the point, and there is the odd vague clue that may indicate that an item is important. However, in my first game I managed to get to the solution stage without any indication that I would require specific items. I acknowledge that as you play on, this will probably improve. As it is, this is still a good game, if not one that will appeal to me for long simply because that adventure game stuff gets right up my nose with its illogical procedures. Lumme, I sound like Spock. It may not affect you so negatively. That though is just the end of the journey and in fairness the getting there is most of the fun. Except that without that underpinning goal, it may be difficult to keep the enthusiasm. Just like Talisman.
The other drawback, for me but not many of you, is that City of Chaos can be a long, long game. Just like Talisman, again. We took almost three hours on our first game, two player, and stopped only because we had filled all the available table space and exhausted our characters, rather than having solved the mystery of the chaos. The second game, with three, took almost four hours - this time with a winner and the dining table in use. Obviously with more players the game will take even longer, in my estimation as long as five or six hours, although it could be shorter if you are lucky enough to get all the right bits. I wrote to the designers and they feel that 3-4 hours is reasonable to play to completion. I don't consider this a problem for the fantasy market, to whom CoC will undoubtedly appeal, but for the mass market this is pushing the limits way past stretching point. Nevertheless, what we must ask is whether the time spent is worthwhile and whether you'd want to do it again. The answers are 'yes, initially', and a guarded 'yes' on replays.
In play, I found the game varied, interesting and, often, a lot of fun. Devoid of the ordered drill that Talisman requires, it is a game in which you are free to do what you will. You have a quest in mind, you have survival and income to satisfy and you can do it however you like. Indeed, it is very much my sort of game - exploring, wandering off in any direction, gleaning information here and there, generally going with the flow or just following your nose. My greatest triumph in the game has, so far, been to come close to solving the mystery only to be thrown out of a tower window, but I did solve the problem of the bubbling sewers. Not many games where you can gain prestige by a nifty bit of plumbing. I have also been up in balloon, completed a pointless quest, joined two guilds and all sorts of other good stuff. Like Tales of the Arabian Nights, you are effectively doing all this alone, and so the interaction is restricted to a minimum - the usual unsatisfying chestnut of bumping into opponents and biffing them.
Arabian Nights works because the background, flavour and story telling are of the first order. CoC, understandably, isn't quite that good, but it is by no means poor. Given they had no established framework to draw on, the challenge for the designers has been to make the city believable, accessible and interesting. To their credit, this was achieved in some style. There is a definite character to the place; definitely weird, sometimes childishly silly, often with sinister overtones. But always well written and with plenty of opportunity for daft voices and heckling from rivals; a state improved, no doubt, by quantities of falling down water. There is also a lot of acceptable humour in the paragraph descriptions and there is a real sense of discovery and interest as you plod around the city. While the designers may not have created much originality in the game, unwittingly I'm sure, they have made up for it in the paragraphs which come satisfyingly close to the Arabian Nights benchmark.
Where it all starts to slip, for me, is in the replayability. Bearing in mind I am blessed (cursed?) with a very good memory, the locations in the city, even though they will move each time, the key characters, and more importantly the twenty clues, will soon start to stick in the old grey stuff. Even after two games, I can already recall around a dozen of the clues. There is no real problem with the paragraph book, or the many characters, as there are enough variations here to keep you interested. It is just the fixed victory conditions really, and whether the town will become samey, even though its denizens are ever changing. I can predict that I would get fed up around three or four games in. I may be mistaken, but as this is probably down to personal taste, to coin a phrase, I wouldn't let it worry you. And as you know, I do have a short boredom fuse with many games. However, had the game design gone that extra mile and devised a truly unique 'mystery' system, as I thought it had, this would not have been a problem. As it is, I will soon be in a position to know what bits and bobs will help at certain times, and know where to find at least some of them. The game will inevitably be spoilt by this and one wonders, at not too much cost and dependent on success, whether the designers could come up with further scenario books using the same components?
City of Chaos is very nearly there. It is highly accessible, easily picked up, fun to play, and quickly becomes second nature. And any game in which you find yourself waiting for your next turn, and by extension the next game, is a good one. The designers seemed to have covered everything, with commendable attention to detail, and it has clearly been properly tested. It scores well on the blending of three disparate gaming systems (however derivative), the discovery aspect, the huge variety of encounters, and the fact that you have a set goal in mind. This is important, and the eagerness with which we picked up clue cards is testament to the strength of the idea - although, for me, it fell at the last fence. Where it also loses points is on those concerns over replayability, play length, the lack of interaction and the disappointing 'adventure game' ending, but as long as you are aware of all that when you buy it, I foresee no problems for those of you who enjoy this style of experience game.
And that's it. A solid, promising first effort that I hope is a big success. It is good to see some British gamers putting themselves, and their money, behind a decent game and I think, and hope, we will see more from Monocle as time goes on. There is already talk of a CCG and other titles in the works. I think CoC will appeal internationally to fantasy gamers, broad minded boardgamers and even roleplayers, as an unusual change of pace. I don't think it will appeal to many who enjoy the punchy, competitive, interactive German style games, and neither is it really mass market material but we shall see what Monocle's marketing (SFX magazine among others) achieves. As ever, I am left with a very slight sense of disappointment over what might have been, but this takes absolutely nothing away from the game in the box which is a good one. Recommended.
City of Chaos is available from most game shops and also direct from the publisher:
Tel: 01535 210114
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell