There are a lot of zombie themed board games. Let's be honest – everything has a zombie theme these days. Films, TV shows, lipstick – zombies are everywhere. But the greatest zombie board game of all time was Mall of Horror. I've told you about it before. I made a little video about it. I love it. But it's long out of print, and very difficult to find.
Now, City of Horror comes along. Where Mall of Horror was the low budget, cool, indie zombie masterpiece, City of Horror is the big budget remake. Everything is bigger, everything is slicker, and remarkably EVERYTHING IS BETTER. This game is my darling Mall of Horror with the niggles fixed and the action ramped up to the maximum. If you buy any board game this year, it must be this. Let's chat a little bit about it.
CITY OF HORROR
In City of Horror, up to 6 players try to lead survivors through a zombie-ridden city in the four hour wait for the rescue helicopters to arrive. Each survivor is unique, with its own power and points value, and each player will look after a few of them.
The game plays incredibly simply. In the city there are six locations. There's a Water Tower, a Hospital, an Armory, a Church, a Bank, and the Crossroads in the middle of the board where there is no shelter from zombie attack. Each turn plays like this:
1. If any characters are on the Water Tower the controlling players can check the next zombie invasion card, to see where the zombies will appear on the board. A massive advantage.
2. Each player will select one movement card from their hand, and all will reveal simultaneously. These movement cards display locations on them. If you want to move a character into the bank, choose the Bank card.
3. Zombies invade. There are four cards, each representing an hour that has passed in this terrible night. Each of these cards will instruct on where to place zombies, and where to place dropped supplies like antidotes and action cards.
4. Movement. Players now carry out their movement, in player order. If you chose Bank, move one of your characters to the Bank. If the Bank is full (each location can only hold so many characters) your character gets bumped to the Crossroads. The character is out in the streets!
5. Resolve locations – here's where the game explodes into life. For each location, there is an ability. Every player who has a character in the location can use that ability. For example, in the Hospital a player can discard an action card to take an antidote. Antidotes are VITAL. Any character without one ain't getting on no chopper. Then, the location is checked to see if zombies manage to break in. The Hospital doors will be breached if ever there are more zombies at the location than players. If the zombies come through, someone is getting eaten. But who?
City of Horror is all about the Vote. Oh man, this Vote.
Every character in the building is one vote for that character's controlling player. If Purple has two characters in there, and Yellow has one, and Green another, that's two votes for Purple and one each for the other two. Everyone votes to decide which character gets flung to the zombies. The negotiations begin. The bargaining and pleading. The begging. The fighting. Further intensifying the vote is the fact that in the case of a tie, the First Player decides who dies, even if they're not in the building. This spreads the negotiations out across the table. Like a virus, soon everyone is shouting and growing red as they argue and make deals.
“Okay, listen – if you two agree to vote against her, then I'll break the tie and fling her out. But I want an antidote from one of you, and you have to promise that when it comes to the Bank, you won't fling me out.”
“Yeah, but listen – if you don't vote against him, if you DON'T, then when we get to the Church I will hammer you out of that door so fast-”
“SHHH! Stop trying to manipulate the – You aren't even involved in this!”
“Why am I not involved?! He has four antidotes and four characters alive! He needs pinned back. He needs-”
“I'm on the Water Tower. If you vote against her, I'll tell you where the zombies are coming to in the next turn.”
“If you are all voting against me, I'll just kill the zombies.”
“Enjoying yourself on that water tower?”
Let's talk about the ACTION CARDS now.
Every player starts with a hand of action cards, and can get more throughout the game. These cards let you do lots of cool stuff. You might have a shotgun that can kill two zombies. This means you can negotiate some serious deals for yourself, and protect yourself from attack. You might have the card that lets you put a gun to the head of one of your opponent's characters and steal their vote. (That card is brutal. It raises HELL at the table.) You might have the card that sends a little white cat out onto the streets, leading the zombies away from one building to gather at another at random. Risky, and exciting. All the cards are beautifully thematic, and heighten the drama of the game.
The character powers, too, are great. Take the Pregnant Woman, for example. If you use her power she gives birth, and is worth two votes. The Priest has the power to cancel a character's movement with his religious wrath. The Businesswoman is super-organised and can check the Action Card discard pile for something to use. Whenever you use a character power, the character is worth less points – so it's always a big decision. The ideal scenario is keeping all your characters alive, finding an antidote for each, and never using a power.
What else? At the Crossroads you can search an overturned food truck for cans of food that are worth points at the end of the game. You take one at random though, so it could be an empty or spoiled tin. Agonising. (In the last game I played, a player made a deal with me and gave me an empty food can. I was LIVID, but kept quiet because I wanted to trade it on to some other idiot.) Also, at the Crossroads the zombies will always attack if any are present. And there is no vote to decide who dies. At the Crossroads, the zombies decide. There is a Zombie Leader there who shows interest in eating different players at different points of the game. You can manipulate him too, though. In this game, you can manipulate EVERYTHING.
And then there's that Water Tower. Every time you use anything explosive to destroy some zombies, you need to place a fire token on either the Armory or the Water Tower. If enough fire tokens build up on these places, they go KABOOM. Spectacularly, if the Water Tower goes, every character and zombie near it dies too. It exists on the board as a physical raised platform. Knocking it over is a blockbuster movie moment, a game-changer.
At the end of the fourth hour, the chopper arrives. All characters with an antidote get in. The points are tallied - character values, extra antidotes, points from cards and food cans. The player with the most points wins, and is hated.
In closing, this will most likely be my game of the year. It is one of my favourite games of all time, refined and cleaned up, and laid out on a giant board. While a part of me misses the cool, indie look of the original game, the sheer spectacle of this thing wins you over in no time.
The game amazes me. Seriously. Only Cosmic Encounter comes close in terms of player interaction, but even the mighty Cosmic isn't so brutal and tense and dramatic. You are involved in every action of the game. If a player moves to the Bank, that might lock you out. If they kill those zombies, that might bring down your Water Tower. If they vote to fling your character out to its death, you might lose a vital power you needed. Alliances are made and broken in the blink of an eye. No deal needs to be adhered to. You can take an antidote from someone, promising that you will back their cause in a vote, and then hurl them into the arms of the zombies. The game is heated from start to finish.
Understand this – each turn of this game is like an act in a four act play. The best bit of zombie theatre ever written. To put it simply, with the right group – a group of players who are happy to hate each other for a couple of violent hours - this might just be the best board game ever made.
It certainly has my vote.