I got a chance to play a review copy of Fantasy Flight’s newest board game set in the Android Universe, New Angeles, the other day. My friends a Never Bored Gaming brought it over to my place for a review play-through.
The excitement level was high since most of us are big Android:Netrunner fans. I’m not, but only because I don’t have the time nor inclination to play it at a level which is satisfying, i.e. at the highest level possible.
But, I respect Netrunner tremendously and feel Fantasy Flight has done a great job with the IP. So, I went into New Angeles wanting to like it. And I did, for the first 90 minutes or so.
In New Angeles you take on the role of one of the major Corporations – NBN, Weyland, GlobalSec, etc. – and vie for dominance while trying to keep the city from exploding from underneath your control.
So, this is a semi-cooperative game. But, there is also a hidden traitor mechanic where one player, like in Shadows Over Camelot, may be working for the ‘other side,’ in this case the Government.
Your first task as players it to beat the board. After that you have to beat your Rival, which is determined randomly and kept secret. If you do, then you are a winner. Not the winner. Just one of many potential winners.
But, if the traitor can sow enough discord then he wins as the government steps in to take control of New Angeles.
The Art of the Deal
I’m not going to belabor how the rules of the game operate. That’s not the purpose of this review. But, I will talk about them so you can understand where my criticisms lie.
The heart of the game lies in negotiating who gets what assets in return for performing a vital task to keep the city from getting over-run.
Assets come up for bid at the start of each player’s turn. That player gets to make an offer that, most likely, will improve the board state for the group. These are things like removing rioters, getting the power back on in a district that is vital to the current goals, lowering unrest or curing illnesses.
Each house specializes in a different aspect of board control and gets capital (Victory Points) for doing these things.
The other players are then able to make counter-offers of a different task to be completed and then deals are cut to support one player’s offer versus that of the other. At this point previously acquired assets or capital may be traded. Deals that are not immediately resolvable can be reneged on.
This aspect of New Angeles is really good. I’m an old Avalon Hill gamer. I nearly failed out of college playing Dune and Republic of Rome. The latter of which New Angeles reminds me of greatly, though sincerely stripped down to its bare essentials.
The sophistication and variety of deal-making that was done by my play-group in Dune (with Duel and Spice Harvest expansions) stands as some of my best gaming experiences ever. So watching this younger generation of gamers cutting each other’s throats over a point of capital was really cool to watch.
It was something I thought lacking in Fantasy Flight’s Game of Thrones board game, for example. And that’s where my trouble with New Angeles begins.
Set Up Doldrums
Nothing about the gameplay in New Angeles is bad. All the mechanics work. While it looks and feels daunting on initial setup, once a couple of turns are gone everyone is in the groove. We spent a surprisingly small amount of time going to the rule book.
Where I have a sincere problem, however, is in the different strategies implied by each of the six corps and the randomness of the setup. In the game we played I was NBN, tasked with clearing unrest; something that gets worse at the end of every round. I was trapped between the Federalist on my right, who was my Rival, and the Weyland player on my left who had me as their Rival.
The Weyland player wound up in the position that in order for him to win he had to hand the game to the Federalist. Not being sure who the Federalist was he made ridiculously bad plays to beat me, thereby playing Kingmaker.
And he would make that choice every time because of the Rival mechanic.
Given that setup, and the general early game weakness of NBN, there was absolutely no way for me to win this particular game. I’m not complaining about that. The Jinteki player was in a similar position.
What I am complaining about is that someone, likely two people, will be in that position every time you play. And that’s unacceptable.
So to create tension the Rival mechanic was inserted and encourages people to play badly to win. That to me is a fatal error in game design.
As I said, the Rivals are secret. With good players, adept at hiding their intentions, it will take most of the game for you to figure out who is trying to beat you.
By then, well, it is likely too late for you to countermand anything.
And that’s the other fundamental problem I have with this game. Not only does it encourage bad play, there is a high likelihood that once the rival cards are dealt one or two players will have a nearly impossible hill to climb to win the game. This is a function of the setup alone.
By contrast, in a game like Dune, where each of the Houses have different abilities, access to resources and different starting positions, the setup is always the same. Therefore, the variables are minimized. And player skill, after normalizing for experience, determines how the game plays out.
And that game does not suffer from replay fatigue.
This problem would not be an issue if this was a 60-90 minute game. It’s not. It’s a three to four hour game. Meaning, one, it’s not hitting the table all that often. And two, it’s the only game getting played that day.
It’s asking an awful lot for people to sit down and potentially be everyone else’s patsy.
I want to be wrong about this because I think New Angeles has a lot going for it. The bidding for assets is great. The basic framework of the game is also fantastic. But, there are too many layers of random for a game this tight.
Not only is the set up random.
The projects you are trying to complete are random.
The cards you draw, i.e. the actions you can offer for bid, are random.
So are the events that happen at the end of each game round.
Oh, and did I mention that the assets we are bidding on are a randomized deck.
And, if that’s not enough, there are investments which account for up to 50% of your points are randomly drawn.
It’s like Fantasy Flight was so worried about re-playability that it randomized everything versus doing real play-testing and putting controls on the game that are meaningful relative to the six corporations’ abilities.
Lastly, the investment cards are way too swingy, awarding between two and eight capital for drawing the right card against the right investment. The most any one corporation can earn during that same time frame is six .
That happens only if everyone else lets you win for two complete turns, which is a pipe dream if your players have greater than room temperature IQs.
There are so many good ideas wrapped up in a game that is less complicated than it looks and too long for what it accomplishes. New Angeles, to me, feels like a missed opportunity to create an Android-IP game of Diplomacy.
Instead we got 4 hours of people fighting over scraps where the winner was determined before the game even started. I’ll play it again a few times to see if I’m wrong, but it will be asking a lot given all of the other great games out there.
5 out of 10