Thursday, February 25, 2010

Board Game Review - Nostra City

When I started thinking about the direction I wanted to take with my review of Nostra City, my first impulse was to write it as if I were a mobster in New Jersey. Or maybe Brando in Godfather. Or, to really throw it back, Cagney in Public Enemy.

Lucky for you, I came to my senses and remembered that while that may be dorky fun to write, it's an embarrassing beatdown to read. The entire time I'm going, 'I know it was you... you broke my heart', you'll be thinking, 'one more dorky gangster line, and I'm breaking my monitor.' And you would probably be wise to just close your browser and come back in a couple days when I quit thinking I can talk like Tony Soprano.

The reason I'm inspired to sound all mobster when I'm discussing Nostra City is that it's practically a board game version of every Martin Scorsese gangster film ever made, with a good dollop of The Sopranos. It's so steeped in its theme that you'll have to tell your friends to quit saying, 'Am I funny? Do you find me funny? Am I clown?' And if they don't stop, you'll shoot them in the feet.

See, dammit, now I'm doing it.

The background behind the game is that the head of your criminal organization has been arrested and is on trial. He announces that, should he be found innocent, he will nominate one of the players to take his place, and retire peacefully. So suddenly, on top of running hookers and coke, you have to rig the jury and corrupt the evidence, all while trying to get more respect than anyone else at the table.

The game takes place over six turns, each representing a month of the ongoing trial. Every month, you'll work your businesses for cash, then spend that cash to get more businesses, and finally, work on influencing the verdict. Each phase of the game has some tricky, deep strategy that requires you to plan ahead and still think on your feet.

For instance, when you're drumming up money, you can choose rackets based on similar neighborhoods, or you can choose to work your illegal trafficking. Then you commit one of your lieutenants to go take some bets, or work some whores, or sell some drugs. The more of your guys you put to work, the more you can make - but there are several catches. For one thing, everyone else in the same business gets a cut of the dough, so you may have to split it with the other players (unless you decide to cheat them, in which case you would be awesome). For another thing, if you send one your guys to run hookers during this phase, you can't use him next phase to fight over new business. You have to balance your need to earn against your desire to expand your turf.

Then, once everyone collects from their businesses, you all get to have a sit-down (that's more mobster speak, I apologize) and figure out how to divvy up the new business, turf and respect that came available that month. Basically, you use one of your wise guys to bid on an available card, and everyone else can do the same thing. But the bidding is blind, so not only do the other players not know what you're trying to snag, they don't know how much you're willing to spend. And to really make this part awesome, you can, once again, be cheated. Committing more of your guys to the auction means you're more likely to win something you want, but it also means you're hurting your chances to try and clear the boss, and you probably don't have much cash because you couldn't use those guys to hit the streets and make money.

Finally, if you have any mobsters leftover, you can try to corrupt the trial. The boss starts off officially guilty as sin, but you can buy jury members, buy cops, even buy the judge. All of this is abstracted by you putting down money, one bill for each mobster you saved for this stage.

There are so many cool elements to Nostra City beyond the rules I've abridged so far. I'm just going to hit two of the coolest highlights, and then tell you to buy the game and see for yourself. The first cool highlight is that you can totally cheat your fellow gangsters. If you owe them money, you don't have to pay. Awesome, right? But if you don't pay, they get real mad. And you wouldn't like them when they're mad (I may be thinking of a non-mobster movie on that one). Because they'll have a chance to start vendettas, and those can really change the way the game works.

In fact, the biggest change - and possibly the coolest - is that a couple of the vendetta cards, instead of saying something like, 'steal turf from an opponent' or 'put two bullets in a wise guy's head', they, 'FBI Snitch.' And if you get that card, your goal completely changes. Now you want the boss to be guilty, and you still need respect, because the Feds don't care about some low-level punk. Since about half the money cards you could use to corrupt the jury make the boss more likely to be convicted, if the snitch turns up, he could totally tank the game for everyone who cheated him and stole his turf. Which, as I may have mentioned, is awesome.

What happens is a sort of Battlestar Galactica-style witch hunt, with people accusing each other of being the rat, and constant bluffing, and irrationally expensive attempts to clear the boss's name. Because if he goes down for this one, none of you gets to be head mob guy. Then there's probably one of those mob wars where people get shot down in the street and bodies wind up in the East River, and some really mean Colombian guys come into town and start stealing all the hookers and making them work in Spanish-speaking strip clubs.

Nostra City is one of the coolest games I've played in a while. Granted, I love mob movies, but the theme alone isn't enough to make me play anything. The reason Nostra City is so cool is that it winds up being cooperative, with a turncoat, and everyone out for themselves. A competitive cooperative game would sum it up best, which is an oxymoron that should make your head hurt.

With all the difficult decisions, tricky plays, and a good helping of luck, Nostra City has a near-perfect amount of depth. It's not a bruiser of a game like Through the Ages, and it's not a light-weight like Dominion. You have to think about what you're doing, but it's still less work than getting your MBA. There's body count, because you can kill the other players' soldiers, and there is not much margin for error.

If you're slow to catch on to complicated games, you're not going to like Nostra City. It's not that hard, but it does have several places where it's not particularly intuitive. But if you're OK with spending a little time learning how to play, and you're able to think a couple turns ahead, and if you like a game with some meat on it that does a great job of feeling like a season of The Sopranos, Nostra City is a sure thing. It's an offer you can't refuse, unless you want to sleep with the fishes and wake up with a horse's head in your bed.

Sorry. That's been building for a long time now.


Great theme
Cool art
Heavy enough to be satisfying, but light enough to be enjoyable
Lots of depth for a game you can finish in under two hours

Could be a little tough to learn

Dogstar Games doesn't have Nostra City yet, but I'm willing to bet they will. I'll update this link when they get it.


Dave said...

Sounds like a fantastic game. Thanks for the great review Matt!

LilNewbie said...

I'm glad you liked it...because if you didn't, it would have been curtains for ya!

Great now you got me talkin all mob-like.